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Posts from the Funny Peculiar Category

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We’re stuck at home, making our own entertainment, so now seems like as good a time as any to tell you the story of the closest I ever came to winning a Grammy.

In 2007, I had a ridiculous job at iTunes, as part of the team putting together promotions for the store. Most of my job was meeting with labels and listening to new releases, but I also worked on our annual Grammy promotion.

There were something like 117 Grammy award categories, and for each of these there were normally five nominees. Somebody had to look up >500 songs and albums, and check we were linking to the right ones.

You start off at the beginning with the big ones – Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and then things get steadily more obscure. This was how I discovered there was an award for Best Polka Album.

This award has been given 24 times, 18 of them to the same person. That person is Jimmy Sturr. Here he is. It may provide valuable context to tell you this video is not from the late 70s or early 80s, but from 2010.

Now, Best Polka is not Album of the Year, but a Grammy is a Grammy, and it started to dawn on me that if I wanted one, the lowest hanging fruit, as it were, might be in the field of Polka music.

Jimmy Sturr is an experienced and successful recording artist with at least 40 albums to his name, but the Grammys are voted on by a committee of other recording artists. Polka is a relatively small field. Classical music is huge. What was needed, I reasoned, was a crossover album.

I joked about doing this with friends for a year or so, and people mostly smiled and nodded politely and said, “yes, Andy, *you* should do that”, but it takes a village to make a Polka album, and I can’t play the accordion, so nothing much happened.

Until I mentioned it to Lara St John. Now, Lara is a successful violin soloist, she lives in New York, and she has her own label. She knows lots of people who play different types of music and, most importantly, she’s the kind of person who doesn’t just talk about things, she actually does them.

These are my favourite kinds of people. When I mentioned it to Lara, she said “let’s do it”. And so our classical/polka crossover project was born.

An ensemble was formed, incorporating a Klezmer band with which Lara played some gigs, and the contra-bassoonist from the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. Lara’s friend and fellow fiddler Daniel Lapp rounded up some suitable folk melodies for us to arrange.

Polka-related puns loom large in the American polka canon, so we aimed high, hoping for something that said “this is classical”, “this is polka” and “this is not entirely serious”.

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You don’t get a Grammy statue unless you do something, so my French horn got dusted off and I became the most out-of-practice member of what was otherwise shaping up to be a band of very fine musicians. We had fun.

We rehearsed and recorded, we mixed and mastered, and a release date was set. A marketing plan was made. We googled “Polka DJs” and somehow found a list of radio stations who were, amazingly, pleased to hear from us.

We even booked a NY launch gig at a Le Poisson Rouge. There wasn’t much on that week – the NY Phil was opening its season with a new music director, and nobody was going up against that. We got listed in the NY Times.

They even sent Allan Kozinn to to review it. He seemed to have a good time. To give you some idea of what you missed, here’s Clarinet Polka, played on a bassoon.

And when it came to releasing the record, we had some good luck and some bad luck. You may recall I was working on the iTunes store. At the time, our biggest promotions involved free downloads. We’d give away a track each week, and people would buy the album.

Each week, we’d have to get a label to sign a contract to let us give away their track. If they didn’t send in the contract as the deadline approached, the promotion would go to somebody who could get the contract signed quickly. You can guess what’s coming.

So a contract was late, and as the clock ticked down, I was the only person in the room able to sign the contract myself, our track went out to hundreds of thousands of people.

This prompted some interesting reviews.

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But at least one person was touched by our record.

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And in the end, two things happened.

The first is that we had the #1 World Music album.

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The second is they dropped the Best Polka category from the Grammys.

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You can hear our album on Spotify and Apple Music.

The band went on to do a tour and a second album. I left the US for a label job in England. I never did win a Grammy, but I haven’t completely given up hope. When I quit my job at Apple, I had to exercise my stock options, and, with only one child and a fancy job ahead, we spent a chunk of the money on a holiday in Hawaii. It was a nice resort, by the beach, with a bar by the pool. Next to the cash register in the bar was a small statue of a golden gramophone, awarded to one of the bartenders in the category of “Best Hawaiian Album”.

The Dutch National Ballet has taken the bold step of featuring an unusually disfigured dancer on their new season’s poster.

Before anybody says anything in the comments about this, I’ll just add that the fact that they did it on purpose does not necessarily make it good.

Thanks to the magnificent PhotoshopDisasters.

The first single from Renée Fleming’s rock covers album Dark Hope is out today, but according to Decca I’m not allowed to make fun of it yet. It’s like it’s Christmas morning and I’m not allowed to open any presents.

Luckily for them, I just stumbled upon this. 86 orchestral versions of rock songs and weird classical remixes for the low, low price of $11.99. Don’t say “cheap”. It’s “great value”.

The Times* asked a bunch of musicians and administrators in Britain how to go about making live music more appealing to the next generation of concert-goers. The responses range from visionary to downright retarded. John Gilhooly from the Wigmore Hall says there’s no need to tinker with a system that works, violinist Nicola Benedetti blames the lighting, and Gillian Moore from the South Bank Centre wonders when it stopped being ok to dance to ballet. Check it out.

* The English one. I can’t bring myself to call it “The Times Of London” because that isn’t what it has been called since 1788, when, need I remind you, Mozart was alive and the Americans were still working on a constitution that would make George Washington president and machine guns legal. Nobody need confuse it with the New York Times (est. 63 years later in 1851) because it is called something different.

Here’s an awesome but fairly creepy idea from Japan:

AKB48 is a girl group with 48 members. They’re terrible performers, but very successful. Why? Size confers a few advantages:

1) A band this big clearly doesn’t need everybody to show up for every gig. They can tour three places at once and still have somebody perform at their resident gig every day. (more…)

Don't buy Chris Anderson's new book

This weekend, I read Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future Of A Radical Price – a book about how there’s a whole economy based on free stuff on the Internet. It might be summarized thus:

“People don’t like paying for things”

(more…)

Please don’t call to pitch one of these. Somebody already thought of it, and we said no.

  1. We’ve noticed that a competitor’s compilation is selling well, so we spent five minutes creating an almost identical one, and although we are offering no promotional plan or marketing support, we’d like you devise and fund a major retail marketing campaign for it.
  2. Wagner for Relaxation
  3. You already have this product in stock, but we’ll be sending you a new copy with slightly different artwork. Can you promote it?
  4. The best-selling singles of Gustav Mahler
  5. You’ve had this record in stock since it was released three years ago, but our company took over distribution of the label last week. Customers will want to know that, right?
  6. Demand is inversely proportional to price, so if we make it free, everybody will want it. Then we’ll really be in business.
  7. The current financial climate has caused us to rethink the amount of music that constitutes “Every Piece Of Classical Music You’ll Ever Need”. To this end, we have created this 100-track addendum entitled “All The Other Pieces Of Classical Music You’ll Ever Need”.
  8. People really like Pachelbel’s Canon, but they don’t like his other music. Clearly, the problem here has to do with cover art.
  9. Classical Music for Fishing*
  10. The cover of this bad compilation album looks a bit like the poster for that movie that isn’t the sequel to the Da Vinci Code.

*Or any other pastime which, whilst not directly precluding the use of art music as an accompaniment, is certainly not an activity for which a specific program of music would be particularly suitable.

I work in a record shop, so sometimes labels let me know when one of their artists is going to have a major media mention. It’s so we can put their record somewhere prominent. It’s usually “We have a big NPR feature this weekend” or “Lang Lang is going to be on Oprah” or, once, “Bocelli is appearing on American Idol – is this a good enough reason for a sale?”.

Yesterday, somebody emailed to say that Stephen Fry had just twittered their artist’s name, and were we seeing an increase in sales?

I can’t help feeling as if the universe has changed in some fundamental way.

The most long-winded dramatic form meets a worthy nemesis with #operaplot – the twitter contest to write an operatic synopsis in fewer than 140 characters.

It isn’t the first time this has happened, but Twitter is just getting popular enough to be lame* and so naturally opera houses the world over are clamouring to be involved and are offering free tickets to the winner.

The judge is the fabulous Danielle De Niese**. The rules are here.

My favorite from the last competition? This contraction of the rambling storyline to Wagner’s epic Ring:

“Rhinemaidens lose the ring. It passes thru a few hands. Rhinemaidens reclaim it in a ring of fire. Lots of singing in between.”

* Not lame enough for me to be on it yet.
** Sorry boys, she’s taken***.
*** Because Lebrecht is a completely reliable source, obviously.