Jac Holzman: From vinyl to apps to what comes next (Q&A)

He signed the Doors and counts "chief technologist" among his many titles over a 60-plus year career. Jac Holzman talks to CNET about using tech to revive rock's past and what is in music's future.

Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra and Nonesuch Records. Getty Images

Jac Holzman is legit.

His track record in the music industry stretches back nearly 65 years -- that's the lifespan of about 12 iTunes -- to when he founded Elektra Records out of his college dorm room in 1950. He went on to sign acts like the Doors, Carly Simon, and the Stooges, but don't mistake him as a label exec lost in a bygone era.

As waves of technological change have washed over the music industry, Holzman worked to stay ahead of the break, testing how the conjoined worlds of music and technology could enhance each other. He was served as the chief technologist at Warner Communications (later Time-Warner) and developed Warner Music Group's e-label, Cordless.

His latest project is an encyclopedic app delving into the history of the Doors, something he built with a small team from scratch over the last 16 months. Having harnessed the popular consumer technology of today to rekindle the fanbase of a band formed half a decade ago, Holzman looks back at the music industry's response to other technological changes and discusses the changes he'd like to see in the future.

The following is an edited Q&A.

Q: What is in the Doors app?
Holzman: This is the new box set. The idea was to tell the story of a group, whose audience has been growing rapidly -- 6 months ago, the Doors' Facebook friends were 10 million; it's now up over 15 (million). A lot of this is younger generation. We have assembled the entire Doors story, which you can approach from many different angles. There are over 1,550 pieces, and this is really about an experience. But there are other reasons to do this. Music has become terribly commoditized. We've essentially lost the album. In most cases, that's not a real loss. But there are artists who have been incredible album artists. The album is a matching of context and content, and you've got to get them both right for those albums to be magic.

In general, apps are tough, and they're tough because to do them well costs real money. Sometimes what it would cost to do a standard album, but there's no way in today's "music should be free" climate that you can ever recover that. One of the things that encouraged me to do the app, and encouraged Rhino and Warner Music Group to support my little team, was to see what it would lead to. If you don't start somewhere, you don't get anywhere.

You mentioned before that the Doors app -- now that you're at the other side of it, 16 months later -- has been successful. How have you seen that success?
Holzman: There was a kind of a dynamic flow to these things. While all of the so-called marketing is going on, you're selling a lot of apps. Two weeks after the marketing is up, you've dropped considerably, but you stay steady. It's not like it ever goes dead, because what you have then is the effect of people turning on other people. When we did the first update, we sold almost as many apps as we did originally. That was really interesting.

But the Doors adding 5 million fans from the end of 2012 until today, is unheard of. And I think that we're showing that enthusiasm in the streaming services.

Jac Holzman at his 2011 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Getty Images

The anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show is Sunday. I was curious about your perspective on these iconic groups like the Beatles -- the Beatles catalog known for being more inaccessible than other classic groups -- on the streaming services. What do they have to gain and have to lose by not being on a streaming service, by having an app or by not having an app?
Holzman: Streaming services are part of the process of ephemeralization that Buckminster Fuller spoke about years ago. If you take a look at what technology has brought us, we used to have to listen to music at home or have it programmed for us on radio, then the iPod came and we could carry it around. Then iTunes made it possible to buy just individual tracks, further ephemeralization. Now you're in a situation where you can hear whatever, wherever you are at a fixed price per month. That is probably the ultimate aspect of the ephemeralization. Do I think we're going to stop selling physical product? Not for quite a while. Take a look, physical product is still greater than digital in many countries in the world. No, we're going to have all of these mixed up.

I think where streaming services have been weak is in introductions to new music. We need more trusted first filters. Interestingly enough, we used to have them, we had them on radio in the form of disc jockeys, in the early days of FM when the disc jockeys were more eclectic. We lack first filters, we lack first filters who we really trust. I think Beats has a real opportunity there to pick up on. Because Beats has structured itself and is proud of itself as a curated type of service. They launched it probably at the right time. It's a work in progress but Ian and his people are really first rate so I have high hopes for them. Pandora was designed to sort of average out the things that you listen to and come up with things you might like, I must say that has that has never worked for me. They come up with some of the oddest stuff that has no relationship to anything I like. I gave up on Pandora, but I still use Spotify. I will audition a record, or two or three tracks from a record before I purchase it -- but I still purchase a number of records.

But the best first filters are friends, people who know your musical taste and talk to you about music. We need more of that circulating.

You've talked about how as people pay less but have more access to more music, that's a win for music.
Holzman: It's a win for everybody. It depends upon how you look at it. If you look at it from the vantage point of 1999-2000 when Napster was launched, it's a disaster. If you look at it and say I am a record label, it's not so hot either. Look at it and say: My role has changed, the role of this company has changed, and we are now a music rights management entity. We will manage our assets, and we will restructure our company so as to do that as efficiently as we can. Take honey. Pour some honey out on a flat surface and it's a definable glob, but add heat to it, see how it spreads. That's what's happening. I don't know what the numbers are going to be, but need to you spread it wider, you spread it thinner. The scalability and width is the important thing here, how big can you spread it, that's what counts because the catalog becomes more valuable. How you call people's attention to the catalog is another matter.

You've also talked about opportunities missed during the Napster era, when it was such a fractious time. What other opportunities are the music industry taking of advantage of or missing?
Holzman: It's not an industry. It's really not an industry and they've been fooling themselves for years. Napster was a wonderful opportunity to build a viable singles market over time because the loading speeds at that time were embryonic. Put aside the business proposition Napster offered the labels, instead of saying no to that, somebody should have said -- and I would have I think if I had been working with Warner at that time -- there is something in here. Look at what we've got, people can trade singles back and forth, we can monetize that modestly, it all goes through a central server so we can account for it. Had a couple of record companies made overtures to it and seen how the service could be worked, that was an opportunity.

The Doors app Screenshot by Joan E. Solsman/CNET

I don't know how much further you can ephemeralize beyond streaming except maybe a yearly implant some place in your body that has all the collected music and is the size of a pinkie nail. I think streaming, you may find different uses for large companies or new companies. I don't understand, for instance, why a label like Alligator hasn't picked up on streaming just blues music for the blues fans. The people of Alligator are very smart, I just don't know, but that would make sense to me, that's where labels and label name has value today: if they're particularly good on genre music. I think that that's probably an opportunity in streaming, but again if the streaming services are going to do this they're going to have to get the right people there to help them do it. And I think being able to do genre music intelligently probably will bring more people, more quickly to new music than in a general service.

So you would advocate that streaming music services...
Holzman: Tailor themselves for what the audiences are out there. If you're not a 42 Long, don't send a jacket that's 42 Long. You can tailor it, and that doesn't mean people can't jump across these things. If I were doing a streaming service, I would tailor the material. I'd have a general thing and then I would have maybe different programs done by very good people on a monthly basis. Now there is some of that beginning to happen, but I would like to see more of it, especially since, for people to come, they find an entry point, I found an entry in folk music, it led to electric blues, it led to world music, it led to rock 'n' roll. All of these paths end up leading you to a larger musical feast.

This touches on the ongoing discussion about man versus machine. How valuable is data, raw data, on a large scale about how people are listening to music and where does that value just falls short.
Holzman: They tried to formulize it. There was a company in Scandinavia that tried to formulize it, and they had these charts and graphs and emotional peaks and stuff. "If you build a song this way, it'll be a hit." Music that works touches people generally in ways that are unexpected, they hear something and they go wow. The wow factor is wonderful, the sheer joy that you can take a limited number of notes, and you hear songs that you never would have dreamed could have been written before. A piece of music may affect you more rapidly than any other entertainment, or informational form. Music is like a carom shot in pool, you know, where you go banking off the side of the table to hit another ball, that's how music works. That's how it works with me anyway. There are those that you hear where you don't want them to stop, you're in an emotional bubble with the song, or with that piece of music, and those are incredibly moving experiences. And I think have a great deal to do with what makes us human.

What is music if you look at it in the context of this day and age, of being such a technologically embarked upon process -- I mean it's always been that way, you've always needed technology to hear music and to make music, but today it's more wires and batteries than it has been in the past.
Holzman: That's just a means to an end. All of the technology is a means to an end. We are the end. And we just have to pay attention. And surrender to it, let it take over, you don't have to be on top of everything all the time. Music is best when you surrender to it, especially when you find something great. If you find crap, turn it off, but if there is something that intrigues you, give it another listen. Some people come to music from the lyrics, some people come from the melody or the arrangement or how it was recorded, but the more you listen, the more you appreciate, so listen to lots and lots of music, even if you're only paying half attention. Something will seep into your system that you can use. And sometimes music can get you out of a really bad spot.

But that's another conversation.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Show Comments Hide Comments