At 39 years old, I'm still a pop culture kid. I love media, entertainment and technology. I can't sit still when I discuss them. It's not only a hobby; it's been my job for 15 years. That love is rooted in my admiration for the creativity and art that propels all forms of the industry. Music, television, movies, video, games and apps: all of it and more. I tend to explain things or compare them in those terms.
My favorite movie is Goodfellas and one of my favorite lines is when Ray Liotta, as Henry Hill, says, "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."
Well, "I always wanted to be a rock star!" I suspect that singing your song in front of thousands of fans that sing it back to you is the ultimate rush.
As fate would have it, I didn't follow through on that one (and a lot of other things, see: astronaut). But since an early age I've been a rabid music fan. As someone once said, "Without music, life is a journey through a desert".
On a daily basis I think I've heard the greatest song ever and yet without fail some other artist comes along with a tune to knock it off the pedestal. When I hear it for the first time I get those chills induced by its simplicity, complexity or perfection. A feeling you've heard it before (because it's so great) even though you hadn't.
This is the story of how I got the chills about 10 months ago and wanted everybody else to get them too.
I was president at MySpace at the time and we were planning the launch of our music product in the UK. The marketing team was working with a few bands on the branding campaign. They filmed some video segments about what songs moved them when they were coming up. One handpicked by the music team stood out: Florence + The Machine, an English artist that was new to me but established in the U.K.
The lead singer, Florence Welch, has a voice that few possess. A very human gift that seems supernatural. One of the songs that moved her was from her youth: En Vogue's "Don't Let Go". The minute I heard her voice, I got those chills. I played it about 50 times that day. Over and over like a mental patient. So many times in fact, I thought my co-president, Mike Jones (we shared an office), was going to strangle me. I was drowning out the sounds of his favorite artist at the time, Girl Talk.
A few weeks later I was sitting at home watching Sundance Channel and I dozed off. I was awoken by a voice that just so happened to be Florence + The Machine.
I was up until about 3 AM that night, replaying each song on my DVR, continually amazed by how eclectic the music was (there is actually a harp on almost every song) and how exciting she was to watch.
And Florence herself? By now, I've watched many interviews with her and she's so sweet and polite. But then when sings... WOW! Look out! Her voice seems to lift her off the floor. It's a powerful weapon, one that overtakes her during her performances. What many artists call "the zone". It's awesome to witness.
After watching her on the rough cuts from the MySpace campaign and then on television, I went to YouTube for every live performance and music video I could find and ultimately fired up iTunes to download her album. I tweeted links and shared videos on Facebook. Just another typical daisy-chained media experience of today's fan.
From that moment on, every conversation I had, business or otherwise, included "You have to hear this new (at least to me) artist I love."
The first person I mentioned this to was president of MySpace Music, Courtney Holt. Of course, he knew them (He should, he runs a friggin' music company). His team was an early supporter of the band. And as luck would have it he was on his way to see them perform at Coachella over the weekend. On Monday, he walked into my office and said something to the effect: "J, from the second stage tent, they stole the festival. Best performance of the weekend."
At this point, I'm rooting for them. They are my home team now. The mission is to help them break in America.
I've been known to obsess about ideas and the only cure is to fulfill a vision. It's like the character Kyle Reese says of The Terminator: "Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead." Of course, "dead" in this case meant something more mischievous and positive.
Fast forward a few weeks later when Courtney and I were having dinner at BOA Steakhouse in Los Angeles with an old friend, Van Toffler. Van is President of MTV Networks Music Group. I've known him for about 10 years, from when I was Chief Digital Officer of MTV Networks and we've remained pals ever since. He is a smart, fun, loyal and down-to-earth guy. More importantly, he has a child like passion for music (and movies). Bring up Gov't Mule or Warren Haynes and kiss at least an hour goodbye while he froths at the mouth.
The two of them talked me into a shot of Patron, which I almost never do. Not that I have a problem expressing myself without a shot, but with one, it was on. I was going in for the kill and wasn't subtle about it. The conversation went something like this:
Me: "You know what I would do if I was president of MTV?" (Courtney starts to crack up knowing my "smooth tendencies".)
Van: "What that's Beavis?" (His nickname for me as he rolled his eyes having heard this from me at least twice a month for years.)
Me: "I would book a relatively unknown (in the U.S.) band to perform on the VMAs. One without a hit yet."
Van: "I assume you have a band in mind, genius?" (Sarcastically, of course)
Me: "Florence + The Machine"
He knew whom the band was and MTV was playing their video a bit. I spent the next few minutes like a preacher spewing the gospel. I swear I heard Courtney continually saying "go tell it" before he detailed his Coachella experience. Van then calmly sent himself an email about it via his Blackberry. That was it for the night.
But this was a mission and I wasn't about to leave it there. I'm not going to lie, for the next few months I tortured Van Toffler. I mean that in the best sense of the word "torture". I called. I emailed. I sent notes. I told other people to call, email and send notes. All in all, well over 50 times. I would end conversations that had nothing to do with it: "What's up with Florence, are we good?" Florence, Florence. Florence.
It reminded me of another of my favorite movies, Wall Street. I was Bud Fox trying to bag the elephant in Van's Gordon Gekko. I can't find the clip from the movie. Some damn DMCA notice probably forced it down... But Gekko says of Fox: "This is the kid, calls me 59 days in a row, wants to be a player. There ought to be a picture of you in the dictionary under persistence kid". For the record, Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas unfortunately do not resemble either of us.
In May, Van called with some promising news. "I'm going to London in July to see Florence play live. If we dig it, she's on the show." The ball was rolling. He invited me to join him along with MTV's head of music and talent, Amy Doyle, and producer Jesse Ignjatovic but I had plans I couldn't get out of easily. This moron (me) now clearly regrets that decision.
The show was set for July 15th in London, her hometown. The band had a sell-out headlining gig at the Somerset House Summer Series. A venue that is not only breathtaking but as the show's promoter, Raye Cosbert (who also happens to be Amy Winehouse's manager), told Van: "...is older than your country."
Van promised that he would email me throughout the show with updates:
- Update 1: "At her show now, miss ya, u should be here"
- Update 2: "A few new songs early. Noel Gallagher next to us."
- Update 3: "Done. When she dances and sings her ass off, it's magical."
The next day I emailed him to say that the song "Dog Days are Over" would be a great one for her to perform on the VMAs. It just so happened it was now being featured in promos for the new USA Network show, Covert Affairs, as well as the movie Eat Pray Love.
He was already ahead of me: "Yes it is, we're booking her today to do that song thanks to you."
About a month ago, Van was in Los Angeles at Soho House meeting with the band's manager, Maired Nash, to discuss the show. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Courtney walking over. He introduces them. Courtney then stands there and stares at Van with a big grin. They both explain how their friend was a huge fan and obsessed with getting the band on the show and how it had all led up to this. He called me later that week and jokingly said: "Beavis, truth be told, had our buddy not been there, they wouldn't know who the hell you are or what you did." Of course, I know that's not true. One of Van's many great traits is that he's always been one to give credit where credit is due.
Does it matter that the manager or band knew what I did? I'll admit it, yes it does. I'm a fan no different than any other. It made me feel pretty great.
I want to be very clear that at the end of the day, Florence + The Machine were booked on the VMAs for no other reason beyond their talent and MTV's belief in them. The VMAs have a history of featuring bands that have not broken yet. For example, they did just that last year with the first U.S. television performance by Muse. Today, there are more ways to expose fans to new music than ever before, and even so, MTV is still a kingmaker.
I'm proud (and really excited) to have played a small part in helping to get an artist I was passionate about on a show that a lot of people watch.
Up until now, their debut album, Lungs, has sold about 115,000 copies in the U.S. Her video "Dog Days Are Over" was nominated for four awards, including video of the year.
She recently said: "For this song to be recognized at such an iconic event is a total dream... Dog Days symbolizes apocalyptic euphoria, chaotic freedom and running really, really fast with your eyes closed. I hope to somehow encapsulate those things in my performance."
The 27th annual MTV Video Music Awards will be broadcast live from the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday, September 12, at 9 p.m. That night, Florence + The Machine will crush it. They will undoubtedly leave the artists and fans attending, as well as those watching, with those chills. It's an important night for the band and they will break in America. When that is done: mission accomplished.
And that is what Goodfellas, music, chills, social media, DVR, tequila, torture, Wall Street, persistence, The Terminator, and the MTV Video Music Awards have to do with me and Florence + The Machine.