The Email That Made My Day

The Email That Made My Day

Last week, I received an email from one of the Bullfighters (fan club members). Her name is Heather, and she lives in Houston, TX.

“Good morning!

“Haven’t seen a blog email in a bit, so I hope it’s because you’ve got just s***loads of irons in all kinds’a fires, and that 2017 has, so far, been kind to you. Had your music in the rotation more lately, if that means anything to you.  🙂

“Hope you and your queen are doing well, and still enjoying homeownership! 🙂 It’s not without its faults, when you realize that, when something breaks, no onsite maintenance crew is coming right away, but I think it still means more to have your very own place. 🙂

“Take care of yourself, mister, and have a great f***ing weekend! :D”

That email made my day!

First, she’s right, I hadn’t blogged in a bit. Since Inauguration Day, I haven’t been compelled to write until the shenanigans regarding the layoffs at 89X.

I’ve been doing a lot of behind the scenes grinding, but not every single thing I have been excited about came to pass. I’m tired of blogging and telling people what’s going to happen, and then having it not come to fruition, which erodes trust and credibility. I don’t want to be the king of empty promises — the world is already filled with talkers; we need more doers.

Instead of blogging about every small advancement, development, wrinkle or hurdle along my path, I’d rather wait and talk about what is actually happening.

Second, Heather in Houston must be clairvoyant, because I indeed have many irons in many fires . . .

When it comes to new music, I’ve got three songs, each in different stages of production, to share with the Bullfighters for feedback before deciding whether to release and perform them. Those will be sent out as they are finished.

Also, I’m excited to announce that band rehearsals will begin on April 13!

I spent much of the past year meeting with and interviewing potential members, and we had our first official band meeting last week, during which we clarified our long-term vision as a group. There are seven of us getting ready to rehearse, and we are all multi-instrumentalists. (It’s funny sometimes how things work out — I’ve known all but one member since they were teenagers.)

Here’s another special announcement: my podcast Get After It with John Kay is now on iTunes!

Three new episodes will be uploaded in April, including my conversations with:

– Danny Muggs — Guitarist and vocalist from acclaimed Detroit blues-rock band The Muggs
– Don Slater — Bassist of Battlecross, a fast-rising Detroit metal band on Metal Blade Records
– Rocco Ambrose — Founder of the Ambrose Academy of Wing Chun Do and Grandmaster of the Wing Chun Do system of martial arts, a system whose lineage descends straight from Bruce Lee

Available as of now are my conversations with entrepreneur and InkAddict founder Jim Doyon, and drummer Matt Puhy from Detroit hard rock band Wilson. I’ve received great responses from people about the wisdom shared on the podcast by these two gents. Please subscribe to Get After It, download the episodes, and let me know if you learned anything by listening to them talk about their journeys.

[iPhone users: open your podcasts app, select “My Podcasts”, and click the “+” at the top of the screen. Select “Add Podcast”, and enter the following URL:]

Speaking of journeys . . .

On January 21 my queen, mother, and sister-in-law traveled to Washington D.C. for the International Women’s March.

When my queen returned home, she expressed how much she wished I could have been there. I told her that if they have another march, I’ll go with her next time, to which she said that they will be having several different marches, including a march on April 29 for climate change.

SOLD. The queen and I will be traveling to D.C. at the end of April!

The thing is . . . I don’t wanna take a trip only to the nation’s capital.

There are Bullfighters in Pittsburgh, Boston, and Portland (ME), and I want to book an intimate house show in each area on the way to D.C.!***

And that’s not all! In addition to potential house shows, I have scheduled podcast interviews along the way with two people I have huge respect for — Adam Ayan, mastering engineer at Gateway Mastering Studios in Portland, and Patrick “Seton” O’Connor, Director of Operations for The Dan Patrick Show in Milford, CTI’m very excited to connect with these two, hear their stories, and share practical wisdom.

Like Heather said, irons in all kinds’a fires!

Finally, it means everything to me that my music is in rotation in people’s lives. Now that a group is ready to rehearse, we’re that much closer to getting out on the road. Consider this update to mean the wheels are in motion!

2017 has been kind to me so far, and I hope the same for you. As I look outside right now, gray skies are clearing, and the sun is peeking through the clouds.

The best is yet to come! 😀


John Kay

Twitter: @TheRealJohnKay
Instagram: @TheRealJohnKay
Facebook: /TheRealJohnKay


***If you’re in any of these areas, and are interested in what hosting an “intimate house show” involves (it’s easy!), email me at so we can discuss the simple details. The plan is to be in the area of Pittsburgh on April 25, Boston on April 26, and Portland on April 27. I’ve reached out to all of the Bullfighters in these cities already, and they are stoked!***

P.S. As far as home ownership is concerned . . . we have water coming in the basement. We thought we fixed it by sloping the grading underneath our deck, but nope. We may put in a French drain(?) this year if it’s not too expensive a task. If so, yikes. Other than that, we love our home, and may be adding a dog to the family soon. We shall see. 🙂

P.P.S. Speaking of journeys again . . . I like the shoe store Journeys, because they stock Onitsuka Tiger, my favorite brand of sneakers. But I hate the band Journey because of what Steve Perry did to my mom back in the day. He’s a jerk. And there is no “South Detroit” — that’s Canada.

10 Things I Didn’t Know About Kurt Cobain

10 Things I Didn’t Know About Kurt Cobain

We weren’t allowed to have MTV on in the house when I was a kid — MTV didn’t play country music or classical or oldies; it was forbidden.

Nirvana changed that. They were our Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

I brought home Nirvana’s Nevermind and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger on the same day. My dad allowed me to play them each in full, back-to-back, on the home stereo while I did homework. Afterward, I asked him which he preferred, and he said “I like the Nirvana album better.”

That became my permission to watch MTV when Mom protested: Nirvana was undeniable.

But they weren’t that way before Dave Grohl joined the band.

Beyond being a powerhouse drummer, his backup vocal harmonies added more colors to the band’s sonic palette. Plus, Krist Novaselic finally had a drummer who understood groove, the rhythm section was locked in. Kurt, from what I could tell at the time, only enjoyed being a brat and was a drug addict.

My love affair with Nirvana began and ended with Dave Grohl, and continues with Foo Fighters.

With that, I have to admit, as much as I keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in our current cultural zeitgeist, I’m late to the party on some things. One of these things was Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.

I watched it a couple of weeks ago, and while my first impressions of Cobain were validated, I made a list of ten things I learned from the documentary. They each resonated with me.

1. Divorce irrevocably changed his life.

Touré, in his book I Would Die 4 U: How Prince Became an Icon, explains that divorce was the cultural zeitgeist of Gen X, and even people whose parents remain married feel fallout from the divorce of relatives, friends, et al. Cobain would not have become an icon if he, much like Prince, didn’t experience being a child of divorced parents.

2. His girlfriend before Courtney Love supported him 100% while he lived an artist’s life.

How does anyone make it in our current culture without a support system? Anyone who says they became successful through their own hard work alone is deluded.

It’s true, hard work is the first requirement when it comes to achieving goals, and using time and resources wisely is important, too. But without a support system of people who believe in you, who see how hard you’re working, who help pick you up when you’re down, who have your best interests at heart, who know you appreciate them…you are doomed.

3. There is still bad blood when it comes to Dave Grohl.

Although I gained respect for Cobain while watching MOH, there is obviously still a grudge with Dave Grohl.

He wasn’t featured as Novaselic and Love were, and it was not acknowledged that the band got better when he joined, or how Kurt felt about him joining. Seems weird to me, considering his post-Nirvana success and celebrity.

4. He was constantly studying and learning and experimenting.

Cobain would sit alone in his room, playing his guitar, reading, writing lyrics and poetry, performing audio engineering experiments with his tape recorder, and more, all day long. He became what James Altucher refers to as an “idea machine”, filling notebook after notebook with his thoughts.

5. Marijuana expanded his mind and artistic capabilities.


6. He kept his super-ambitiousness hidden.

I heard Dave Grohl say in an interview once that when the Nirvana was in their first meeting at Geffen Records, a label rep asked “What do you guys want?”

Cobain replied, “We want to be the biggest band in the world.”

That’s the only occasion I can think of when Kurt said anything about wanting fame. I assumed he was trying to be flippant.

Nope. He wanted to be the biggest band in the world. He just didn’t know what fame (and heroin) was going to do him.

7. He sacrificed everything for his band.

His band and his music were his top priorities. Everything else was dismissible — relationships, material things (except music equipment), etc. If it didn’t help his band get to the next level, it didn’t matter.

8. He was incredibly self-conscious, and thin-skinned when it came to critics.

As most true artists feel about their creative output, Kurt’s songs were like his babies. When critics were negative about his music, Kurt took it personally. His songs were him, he poured his soul out. His soul was under attack.

9. He was much better-looking than I gave him credit for.

Handsome dude, when not on drugs.

10. He thought a band needed to practice five times a week.

I found this fascinating because it revealed the true intensity of his drive and discipline.

Also, it showed that he was willing to grind, to hone, to perfect the performance, getting it down to a science, where the rules are known, and can therefore be broken at will. All musicians and entrepreneurs can learn from his example.


John Kay

Twitter: @therealjohnkay
Instagram: @therealjohnkay
Facebook: /therealjohnkay



I woke up today to the news that 89X, Detroit’s alternative rock radio station, owned by a Canadian company, has axed its American operations.

That means that a dear friend of mine is now out of a job.

I remember when he was still in school learning about audio engineering and the inner workings of radio. My band was one of his guinea pigs as he honed his recording chops. He was concerned with taking care of us, and making sure to do things right. As always happens when doing anything creative, there were some technical issues which slowed the session, so we weren’t able to finish the recording. But what did get recorded, he mixed and sent to me a few weeks later.

He sees his job through to the end, no matter what.

While at college he hosted his own radio show, and interned at 89X, reporting to program director Jay Hudson. Together they ran a weekly program which showcased independent artists and put a spotlight on the local music community. They held events and shows around the metro Detroit/Windsor area, and chose artists to perform with large touring acts.  (Hudson resigned in July 2016 after 10 years of working at the station.)

A year or so later, my friend and I were hanging out in my studio. He had nearly completed his internship, and was concerned that the station wouldn’t be able to hire him. He felt the pressure, worked even harder, and turned out to be hired and become a regular on-air for years to come.

And yesterday, he was laid off, along with around a dozen others affiliated with the American side of 89X.

The layoffs were part of a larger restructuring at Bell Media, the corporation who owns 89X and three other stations. According to Bell Media news director Matthew Garrow, “The restructuring is a response to the challenges we and other Canadian media companies are facing on multiple fronts: changing broadcast technologies and growing international competition, a tough advertising market, and ongoing regulatory pressure.”

That is all business-speak for “radio isn’t as profitable as it used to be.”

But that’s because nothing is what it used to be. Everything is changing. Before we know it we’ll be able to use our devices to request the car of our choice on demand, and it will show up with no driver inside. Commuting to work? Get a small hatchback. Going out for a fancy date? Get a Mercedes.

Abundance rules.

It’s already happened in music. It used to be that radio was the only way to hear music, unless you bought the record. Now, with cloud-based streaming services and customized playlists, not only do you not need to own any music, you can create your own personalized radio station! Why would you listen to terrestrial radio, waiting for them to play the song you want to hear, when you can reach into your pocket, pull out your device, and hear it right now??

And most people tell me that terrestrial radio sucks, that they play the same songs over and over and over, that the music is homogenized and pasteurized for the masses, that there’s no there there.

But that’s because terrestrial radio is run by large corporations.

The DJs used to rule when they had autonomy over their shows, were able to spin the tunes they wanted, not just the company-approved playlist. They would scrounge record stores and listen at home for songs that resonated with them, with the current culture, not just what was blowing up the charts. The great DJs took risks, they helped push music forward, they captivated their audience.

That’s what made Howard Stern so popular, he takes risks, says what others are too scared to say. And he knows the world is much cruder than it used to be, which is why he knew that satellite radio was the future, a place where he could be his authentic self without fear of the controlling corporation bringing down the hammer. (When Jay Hudson resigned from 89X, he took a job at Sirius XM.)

Corporations don’t like free-thinkers or risk-takers.

And Bell Media, rather than taking a risk and truly shaking up the format and pivoting into the Now, decided on the impossible task of figuring out how to continue doing what they’ve been doing, because it’s what they know. They looked at their profit margins, and they cut the first thing companies always cut when their profit margins are low — payroll.

Payroll is generally the biggest expense of any company, and the first line item to receive cuts when the company wants to tighten its belt. That’s the reason the car you’re going to call won’t have a driver: it will cost less. (The trucking industry is going to experience a revolution soon, as will many other industries due to automation and robotics. If a human can be replaced, they will be replaced. Humans cost too much.)

My heart breaks for my friend. He sacrificed to get where he is, he said no to a lot of things that other people would not in order to become successful in his industry. From day one, he put in the hours and the sweat equity to do his best for the station. He learned from his mistakes and his mentors, and applied his knowledge on a daily basis. And now the station says they’re moving in a different direction, without him.

But I’m not really surprised — I’ve seen this before.

My dad worked for a radio station in Detroit — W4 Country — for 13 years, ultimately becoming the station’s creative director. He was laid off in July 1995 by the parent corporation which owned the station. W4 Country was part of a 19 radio stations group owned by Shamrock Broadcasting, a division of Shamrock Holdings, which was founded in 1978 as an investment company by Roy E. Disney (yes, that Disney).

Shamrock Holdings bought a bunch of television and radio stations in the 1980s and early 1990s, and sold Shamrock Broadcasting to Chancellor Broadcasting in August 1995, right after the layoffs at W4. Chancellor Broadcasting restructured and became known as AMFM Inc. in 1999. In 2000, AMFM Inc. merged with Clear Channel Communications. After the merger, Clear Channel owned 830 radio stations, 19 television stations, and over 425,000 outdoor displays in 32 countries. In 2005, Clear Channel Communications split into three separate companies; Clear Channel Communications for radio, Clear Channel Outdoor for out-of-home advertising, and Live Nation for live events. Clear Channel has since become iHeart Media, and redirects to

So when I saw the news this morning that Bell Media decided to lay off my friend and his co-workers as part of “restructuring”, I shook my head in disgust, but I wasn’t shocked. When it comes to corporations, it’s only a matter of time before the rug gets pulled out from under you. They are always buying and selling and merging and splitting, and they only care about profit, not people.

I believe my friend isn’t going to have a problem finding work. He’s talented, and emotionally intelligent. If anything, I’m happy for him. At least for now, he’s no longer under the yoke of a corporation.

He’s free.


John Kay

Twitter – @therealjohnkay
Instagram – @therealjohnkay

New Year, New Song, New Podcast

New Year, New Song, New Podcast

2016 is finally over.

For many, it was a particularly brutal year.  For me, it was one of the best years of my life.

Mind you, it still had its challenges, from being laid up with injuries to having my car in the shop nine times, and my laptop — the heart of my business! — dying in the summer.

But mostly, it was a great year.

I bought a nice house less than three miles from my mom and dad, got my hands dirty and did some pre-move construction and finishing with my best friend, and moved myself and my queen in in February.  We took out the above-ground pool, and installed a fire pit, around which we hosted two fun parties with many of the awesome people in our life.

I bought a great car and use it to drive for Uber and Lyft, which has proven to be both a viable source of income to cover my household overhead and a way to retain my agency as an entrepreneur.  I get to listen to podcasts — I like to learn while I earn — and meet cool people, some of whom have become fans of my music.  (Remember: Tip your Uber or Lyft driver!)

I’ve been reading anywhere from 20-80 pages of a book every day, and will include my recommended reading list below.

I got hired as a freelance writer and editor by my local newspaper, and conducted a 3-hour strategy session with them to help determine their core values as a business.

Because of the experience with my local paper, along with my blog, I ended up being hired by a candidate for Wayne County Circuit Court Judge to write a 14,000-word story of her life and career, which became the centerpiece for the grassroots social media movement I coordinated to maximize its impact.  She ultimately won the election, and the votes needed in order to secure her seat on the bench were a direct result of my efforts, according to her social media manager.

I also began training in Wing Chun Do, a self-defense-focused martial art developed by Grandmaster (“Sijo”, see-jo) James DeMile based on his years of practicing and learning with Bruce Lee in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  I had the opportunity to meet and learn directly from Sijo this past August, when he travelled from his home in Hawaii to bequeath the Wing Chun Do system and Grandmaster title to my personal instructor, Rocco Ambrose.  I’m excited and fortunate to be learning from the Grandmaster of a martial art!

There wasn’t really a single thing that I would consider to be the best thing that happened to or for me in 2016, but I think overall, I’d have to say that I learned a lot about myself and my capacity to get things done, to become my best self.  And I learned a lot about others, too.

Every day, I effort to learn something new.  Whether it’s through reading a book, or listening to a podcast, or talking with a rider when I’m out driving, I’m constantly learning and applying the knowledge gained.

I think that having a student-like mindset is a great way to approach life, and I encourage others to ask tough questions, to seek deeper knowledge in all things.

But I always keep in mind something Sijo said during his visit: “If it doesn’t work for you, it’s pure entertainment.”

So this year, I encourage you to find what works for you, and use it to help you become better at whatever you’re doing and get closer to whatever it is you’re working toward.  (I’d love to hear your story!)

What works for me is operating from a place of authenticity, and creating the best content I can.

I’m happy to announce that starting in 2017, I am now delivering content in three forms:

My blog, which, now that I have a new laptop (yay!), I will endeavor to publish on a weekly basis…

My music, of which a new song was released yesterday (the general consensus among the feedback I’m getting is that it may be my best song to date)…

Finally, my new podcastGet After It! w/ John Kay, the first installment of which was published today at 5:00 AM!  I’ve already interviewed five guests for Get After It!, respectable mavericks each of them, and plan to release a new installment on Monday of each week.

The first installment features my interview with Emily Schaller, the CEO of a Detroit-based non-profit organization called RockCF, which raises funds and awareness for the fight against cystic fibrosis.  Emily’s story and life are inspiring, and every time I talk to her I feel the need to kick my butt a little more in my own efforts.  She truly is a ray of brilliant light, and everyone can learn something from listening to her.

I’m grateful to anyone reading this right now, and to anyone who listens to my music and my podcast.  If you like my music, please buy it.  If you like what you hear on my podcast, please subscribe to it.

2016 is over.  The best is yet to come!  🙂

New song, “We Know We’re Gonna Die”:

New podcast, interview with Emily Schaller:

John Kay

My 2016 recommended reading list:

Paul McCartney: The Life by Philip Norman
I was raised on the Beatles, classical music, and country music.  Anyone who is a Beatles fan generally has a favorite Beatle, and mine was always Paul, although the songs that I loved the most and wanted to learn were usually George songs.  This 800+ page book, a birthday gift from my parents, grabbed me from page one and I read it voraciously, at one point over 125 pages in a day.  Paul was the meticulous one, the one who focused on the details, staying late into the night at the studio to get his bass parts just the way he wanted them, which is to say, perfect.  This book reached into my soul, and I found myself empathizing with Paul in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible if someone told me so.  The author had McCartney’s ‘tacit approval’ to interview anyone and everyone who knew Paul about anything and everything, so this truly is the definitive Paul McCartney biography.  A must-read for anyone interested in one of the biggest superstars in the world.

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook
I hear all the time about how new music is no good, the radio sucks these days, all the songs sound the same.  Well, this book explains why.  From ABBA to Ace of Base to Kelly Clarkson and Rhianna and more, the evolution of pop music’s dominance is thoroughly broken down.  You get the inside scoop on who really writes the music we hear everywhere — mostly white, middle-aged, Scandinavian men.  This book was fascinating from start to finish, and I recommend everyone reads it.  It’s full of delicious and salacious stories, from Ke$ha’s turbulent lawsuit against producer Dr. Luke, to the time Kelly Clarkson bawled her eyes out in Clive Davis’s office because he insisted on including “Since U Been Gone” on her sophomore record (it would go on to win the Grammy for Song Of The Year).  Treat yourself to this book.  You won’t regret it, even if it does disgust you.

Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday
I need to read this book again, this time with a highlighter.  That’s something I have been doing more of, highlighting books as I read them.  This year I’m going to transcribe the highlighted passages from my books onto index cards and create what’s known as a ‘commonplace book’ for myself.  A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations, and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits.  The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking, or whatever it is that you do.  Some of the greatest men and women in history have kept these books.  Marcus Aurelius kept one, which more or less became the Meditations.  Petrarch kept one.  Montaigne, who invented the essay kept a handwritten compilation of sayings, maxims and quotations from literature and history that he felt were important.  Thomas Jefferson kept one.  Napoleon kept one.  Bill Gates keeps one.  I first heard of the idea of a commonplace book from Holiday’s blog, and liked the idea so much I decided to apply it.  This book will be one of the first to get transcribed.  It’s relatively short, and one can likely read it in a day or over a weekend.  Beneficial to anyone.

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle
This one hits you where it hurts: your smartphone.  Everywhere we turn, most people seem to be looking down at a device.  It’s the reality of the culture in which we live.  But there are devastating side effects to our new habits that are only now being discovered.  This book sheds light on those side effects.  There’s a group of friends going out to dinner and mandating the creation of a ‘cell phone tower’ in the middle of the table, where everyone stacks their device on top of the others, and the first person to grab for theirs when it rings has to pay for the entire meal.  Or consider that many young professionals fresh out of college and beginning their careers would rather talk to their colleagues, bosses, and employees through text, email, or Gchat, than have an actual one-on-one, face-to-face conversation.  We are connecting with our devices more than we are with each other.  According to Turkle, based on her research, this is a growing epidemic, the results of which are a general lack of empathy toward others and an inability to tolerate natural lulls and awkwardness in conversation.  Sound like the world we live in?  Ever since reading this book, I have effort to ‘elevate the conversation’ whenever possible.  Instead of emailing, I’ll text.  Instead of texting, I’ll call.  Instead of calling, I’ll drop by.  By elevating our conversations, we can reclaim our empathy and our connection to one another.

The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time by Arianna Huffington
Believe me, no one was as shocked as I that I purchased something from Arianna Huffington.  Regardless of any opinion one may have about her, the information in the book is immediately applicable.  Since reading it, I do my best to get at least 7 hours of sleep every single night.  You should, too.

Baby, This Is NOT What I Came For

Baby, This Is NOT What I Came For

I feel duped.

I went on Spotify to check out the US Top 50.  I knew the song we heard in our Uber the other night would be in the playlist, but I couldn’t find it.

I had a feeling the song’s title would be obvious, and that it wouldn’t be by an artist I’ve heard of before.  Turns out I would be spot-on with my first feeling, dead wrong with the second, but I wouldn’t find that out just yet…

I glazed over all of the names in the list: Drake, Rihanna, Adele, et al.  None of those could possibly be the artist whose song I’m thinking of.

You’ve probably heard it.  Because it’s everywhere.  Pop dominates right now, and nothing will change that overnight.

“Baby, this is what you came for

Lightning strikes every time she moves

And everybody’s watching her

But she’s looking at


It’s catchy as hell!  But I didn’t see it in the list, or at least, I didn’t think I saw it.

So I clicked instead over to the Discover Weekly playlist, and after 30 seconds or so of the first track, I skipped to the next…

“She’s Looking at You” by Everything But You.

There it was!  The song I was looking for!

But…not exactly.  The words were the same, as was the tempo.  But it was in a different key, and the “you-ou—you-ou—ou-ou” wasn’t as chopped up as what I had heard over and over again.

So I Googled the song and what came up??

“This Is What You Came For” by Calvin Harris, featuring Rihanna.

And that’s when my adrenaline spiked.

I first heard this song in May, once I had finished reading The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook, and the day after I saw Drake host and perform on Saturday Night Live.  I spent that Sunday listening to all 50 songs in the US Top 50 in order to immerse myself in what the current mainstream culture is listening to these days on the most widely-used streaming site.

I navigated back to the list and sure enough, there it was, sitting at #4 with 852,388 daily plays.

Understand: there are no bands in the US Top 50 on Spotify.

Playing the song got me even more upset.  Because even though the original song by Everything But You employs the use of AutoTune (most professional productions these days do) at least the singer is close.  And the Rihanna version is positively dripping with AT.

Because she can’t sing.  At least not like Whitney Houston, or Mariah Carey, or Adele, or even Maya Rudolph.  Rihanna’s talent is looking good, playing the part of pop queen, being an identity for a global brand, and recording songs crafted for her by others.  And she knows it.

According to Seabrook, at an impromptu audition in front of a major label songwriter vacationing in Barbados, a young girl named Robyn Fenty arrived wicked late, and her singing was very pitchy.  She was part of a three-girl group of wannabe pop stars, of which one had a mom who was friends with the songwriter’s wife.

But she was late because she was taking time to perfect her outfit and her makeup.  And it paid off, when the songwriter offered her an opportunity to come live with him in New York and make a demo record.  He didn’t care for the group, but thought, with the right polishing, he could make Robyn a star.

Fenty was desperate to escape an abusive father in her home in Barbados, and essentially said “I’ll do anything you want, I’ll sign anything, just get me out of here.”

Fast-forward to today, and she’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world, going by her middle name: Rihanna.

So when I found out that the song which is permeating the airwaves of radio, streaming, and TV (I distinctly remember hearing the song at a commercial cutaway during the NBA Finals) is, in fact, a complete sampling and remix of another song, performed by a fabricated pop star, I got pissed off.

You see, unless you are already commanding a great deal of attention, it’s incredibly difficult to break into today’s mainstream consciousness.

Music is not the only industry for which this is true: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have both been in the public eye for around thirty years, and Bernie Sanders was a relatively unknown senator less than a year ago.  Now, at the last minute, we’re being introduced to Gary Johnson and Jill Stein as viable options.

Too little, too late — the public is going to vote for who they know, and they don’t know these third-party candidates the way (they think) they know Trump and Clinton.

And the public is going to listen to Rihanna, not Everything But You.

Because it’s much easier for a record label to take a good song from a new or up-and-coming artist and repurpose it for one of their already-successful stars, than it is to spend time and money nurturing and growing that up-and-comer’s budding career.  Labels want sure things, not what-ifs.

The 1970s are gone.  And so is the record labels’ way of doing business back then, when artists would be signed to development deals, with the understanding that the first album may not reach the public consciousness, but over time, as their talent was honed and their fan base grew, their catalogue of work would create an impact, and therefore, sales.

Today, if an artist doesn’t sell right out of the gate, if they don’t make an immediate and measurable impact, they are cut.  Done-zo.  The bottom line is the most important priority in deciding what music to release, and labels can’t afford, in this freemium culture, to take a chance on an unknown.  There’s too much to lose.

More and more, even as the world becomes super-connected through the internet, we are identifying with individuals.  People to whom we can relate, who share the same struggles as we do.

And sadly, too many females can relate to getting the crap beat out of them by their boyfriend.  But most of them don’t end up getting their own line of perfume.

I’ll still listen to the song, but I hate that it’s Rihanna and not the original artist.

And I’ll still vote for the Democratic Party presidential nominee, but I hate that it’s Hillary and not Bernie.

Baby, this is NOT what I came for.

“She’s Looking at You”:

“This Is What You Came For”:

P.S. My debut album has been streaming on Spotify for the last month, and can be purchased on my BandCamp page, which includes my cover of Rufus Wainwright’s “Jericho”.  Pick it up today for only $7.99 (you can pay more if you’re feeling generous), and add my songs to your Spotify playlists.  Independent artists need all the support we can get, and yours is immensely appreciated.  Thanks in advance!  🙂

John Kay

Twitter: @therealjohnkay
InstaGram: @therealjohnkay
Facebook: /therealjohnkay

The DSO Does Bowie

The DSO Does Bowie

We were late…

Not that we didn’t plan to arrive on time, in fact, we left early in order to scope out the situation.  I hadn’t been to Meadowbrook since I was a little kid, when my family saw the Detroit Symphony Orchestra perform Wagner’s infamous Die Walküre, replete with a laser light show (it was the mid-1980s, when such exhibitions were in vogue).

The concert was billed with a 7:30 start time, which, to me, meant the performance would start at around 8:00.  At least, that’s how it works at seemingly every other gig I’ve attended in the last decade or more.

So we arrived at around 6:45, saw that there was plenty of parking available, and decided to go grab a quick dinner before the show.  We dined at a restaurant right around the corner, and left to head back at around 7:20.

Big mistake!

Vehicles were lined up for over a mile in each direction to get to the venue, because the road leading to Meadowbrook is only one lane wide.  It took us until after 8:00 to park, and once we did, it cost $15, even on the outskirts of the lot.

Upon exiting the car, it was immediately apparent that my queen and I were overdressed for the occasion, in our respective dress and suit.  But we got a lot of compliments, especially her, since she styled her makeup in true Ziggy Stardust fashion.  Most people looked as though they came directly from their family’s backyard BBQ.

After hoofing it a half mile up a dirt road, we got to the will call window, whereupon I showed my ID and promptly received the press passes I was promised by Ben Breuninger, Public Relations Coordinator for the DSO.

[I had contacted the DSO back in March when the concert was first announced to inquire about press passes, since the release included the information to do so.  My blog reaches hundreds of people, and I don’t see many under the age of 50 reviewing classical concerts.  So I figured, what the heck, why not??  The worst thing that could happen is they say no.  Not only were they happy to accommodate my request, Ben got on the phone with me the day after the show to answer some of my questions about the event.  You don’t ask, you don’t get!]

Tickets in hand, we waited in line for drinks — $13.50 each for tiny vodka sodas?? — and faintly heard what I could only assume at the time was a cover band warming the crowd up for the big show with “China Girl”, “Starman”, and “Heroes”.

We wouldn’t learn, until a woman sitting near us, whom the conductor randomly picked to come on stage and lead the band through “Golden Years”, showed me the set list she was given, that we had actually arrived at the end of the first half of the show.  Turns out, we got to our seats during intermission.

I was giddy when I saw where we would be sitting: in the pavilion, row X, seats 101 and 102, on the aisle, the third point of an equilateral triangle with the speakers on each side of the stage.  Perfect listening seats, and a great view!

The band and orchestra took their places, tuned, and the vocalist came out to a warm applause from the audience.  After riling up the crowd, the ensemble launched into “Modern Love”, and I instantly knew we were in for an interesting night…

Because I could hardly hear the strings!  I had to use earplugs in order to reduce the reverberations so I could make out what the strings were actually doing.

Mind you, I’m not a lifelong Bowie fan, still I hold a huge respect for him as an artist and musician.  He always pushed the limits of popular music throughout his career, challenged convention, championed originality.

It wasn’t until just before his death that I began to dive into his work, catalyzed by the production of his last album, Blackstar.

Blackstar is David Bowie’s final truth, told to the world.  The album is deep, with lyrics addressing topics ranging from his own death (“Lazarus”) to the current culture of mindless popular music (“Girl Loves Me”) to even ISIS and religious fundamentalism (“Blackstar”).  His confidants have gone on record to say that Bowie essentially willed himself to live long enough to complete the album, to see it through to the very end.  He died two days after Blackstar‘s release.

But even though Blackstar became Bowie’s first album in his 50-year recording career to reach #1 on the Billboard 200 in the US, it would not be represented in the program.  Neither would anything he created in the last three decades.

I spoke with the show’s arranger and conductor, Brent Havens, a few days after the gig.  He said he loved the title cut from Blackstar, but being over ten minutes in length, it would have comprised nearly a third of the entire program.

Fair point, to be sure…but why not “Lazarus”, the lead single from Blackstar?  The first lyric in the song — “Look up here, I’m in heaven…” — transports you right next to Bowie in Valhalla.

And “Lazarus” leaves an arranger ample room for orchestral accompaniment.  When the vocalist stated to the audience (paraphrased) “I listened to a lot of David Bowie’s music right after he died, and when I got to this song I started crying,” my queen was getting her tissues out because she thought it was going to be “Lazarus”.  It gets her every time.

But it turned out to be “Space Oddity”.

In fact, the most recent work in the 18-song program was “Blue Jean” from the 1984 album Tonight, which, according to numerous critics, is one of the three worst albums in Bowie’s oeuvre.  And he had released nine studio albums since, two to critical acclaim.

Granted, Havens was already in the process of arranging and putting together The Music of David Bowie prior to the icon’s death in early January.  When I asked why he chose not to include anything Bowie released in the past 30 years, Havens stated he was aiming for “songs most people would know”, songs from albums that “sold the most”, and frankly, songs from the era of Bowie that Havens personally “grew up with.”

Which sparks another observation: most of the folks seated in the pavilion had full heads of gray hair.  My queen and I were members of the minority, that is, people under the age of 50. Understandable, considering David Bowie released his first album in 1967.

That’s not to say we stuck out like sore thumbs (beyond our outfits, of course), there were many people our age and younger in attendance, and several thirty-something parents with their kids.  But they were mostly on the lawn, the “cheap” seats, which went for $20 apiece or $60 for a four-pack.

Our tickets had a face value of $55 each, tickets for seats up front went for $75.

My first introduction to Bowie was “The Man Who Sold the World”, and that’s only because Nirvana covered it when they performed on MTV’s Unplugged back in the day.  I wonder how many others in attendance had the same experience.

That thought led me to ask Breuninger what the DSO is doing to increase visibility among Millennials.  He told me that the DSO aims to be “the most accessible orchestra on the planet”: they stream concerts online, offer student packages with ticket discounts, have an education wing dedicated to connecting with young people, hold family concerts, and champion diversity in the programming.

Maybe I don’t attend many concerts (I don’t).  Maybe I don’t have a great deal of disposable income (I certainly don’t).  And maybe being a performing musician for nearly three decades impairs my judgment of what is truly entertaining (up for debate, I suppose).

But the night was billed as “a one-night-only symphonic odyssey that explores the incredible range of David Bowie’s musical genius,” according to the press release, and it came off as a brilliant cover band playing a spot-on Bowie-classics revue, who just happened to have an orchestra on stage with them for effect.  I just didn’t feel the impact I expected.

“My concept for The Music of David Bowie was to take the music as close to the originals as we could and then add some colors to enhance what Bowie had done…The band is reproducing what Bowie did on the albums, verbatim,” said Havens in the aforementioned press release.

And Havens lived up to that concept — the band nailed it, the vocalist did a fantastic job.

“The wonderful thing with an orchestra is that you have an entire palette to call upon…having an orchestra behind the band gives the music a richness, a whole different feel, a whole different sense of power.”

That’s exactly what was missing from the show…POWER!  It felt more like a concert in the park, especially since the sun didn’t set until just before the show had ended, rendering the would-be light show lackluster.

People surely knew the songs, though “Ashes to Ashes” received a tepid response.  They sang along heartily with “Space Oddity”, and got funky during “Young Americans”, which featured a trumpet solo instead of saxophone (I could hear the horns all night!), everyone moved their bodies to “Let’s Dance”, of course.

During the show’s closer, “Life on Mars?”, it seemed as though the orchestra finally came to life — or maybe the sound guy just cranked them up for a big finale.  But as my queen flicked her Bic and swayed it in the air, we couldn’t help but notice we were in the minority again: everyone else was holding up their cell phones.  Traditions change with the times, too.

Havens and I agree that “Life on Mars?” was the perfect final number for the show.  Though the song was originally released over four decades ago, the poignant lyrics are still relevant to our current culture — “take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy…”.  Hopefully people left thinking.

Full disclosure, my queen is a diehard Bowie fan, with a tattoo of Blackstar‘s album cover on the back of her neck, and I love to make her happy.  If Ben wasn’t so kind and benevolent, I probably would have bought tickets anyway.

But we wouldn’t have sat in the pavilion, not at $55 a ticket, no sir.  In a strained economy the entertainment budget is generally the first to get slashed.  Between dinner, parking, drinks, and tickets and service fees, it would have been more than my monthly car payment. And that’s a shame, because if we weren’t sitting where we did, the show would have been even less powerful.

Havens told me on the phone that two speaker cabinets, one on each side of the stage, had blown earlier in the day, and they weren’t able to be fixed in time for the show.  Perhaps that’s why I was having a hard time feeling the impact I had expected.

I was really hoping for more arrangement liberties to be taken with the music, to push it further.  Moreover, Bowie was not just a recording artist, he knew the power of visuals and imagery.  A dazzling light show is an integral part of any Bowie production, I believe.  Still have those lasers in a closet somewhere?  Dust them off!

Because just playing the songs faithfully isn’t enough anymore.  There has to be an experience!

P.S.  My queen enjoyed herself, we were very happy we went, grateful to Ben and the DSO for the tickets.  And ultimately, we found an upside to being one of the last to arrive…we were one of the first cars to get out of the parking lot!

DSO Does Bowie Set List

Rebel Rebel
Ziggy Stardust
Blue Jean
Suffragette City
Under Pressure
China Girl
Modern Love
Space Oddity
Young Americans
Ashes to Ashes
Golden Years
Let’s Dance
Life on Mars?

John Kay

Twitter: @therealjohnkay
InstaGram: @therealjohnkay
Facebook: /therealjohnkay

Drake on SNL and Spotify

Drake on SNL and Spotify

Drake hosted and was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live last night.

I keep hearing about this guy.  Drake is everywhere.  He’s courtside at NBA games, dropping singles regularly which get tons of streams online, doing bit parts in movies; even Taylor Swift is falling for him.

He used to be on Degrassi Junior High.  I was of the Saved By The Bell generation, already living in the adult world, salary and benefits.  Plus, sitcoms were usually too watered-down and fake to appeal to me.

You never saw an episode where the kid’s still grounded from last week: “Nope, Jimmy’s still banished to his room, doing homework.  No high jinks this week.  Say, come help me stain my deck…”  They always get out of trouble, and never stay grounded.

Life’s real problems aren’t resolved in 30 minutes or less.  That’s the pizza guy’s territory.

So, I don’t know no whatnot about any Drake, just his brief performance in Anchorman 2 (which I’ve only seen a couple of times, because anytime I try to watch it, if anyone else is in the room, I’m told to turn it off because it’s so bad).

I was impressed with Drake’s acting.  The guy is good.  He was funny throughout the night, demonstrated a broad range, and there were scenes where he held it together for the rest of the cast.  He was the anchor last night, as opposed to other times when the host just can’t seem to find their rhythm.

Some of the sketches fell flat, the way SNL has always been.  But the show has created and housed so many icons that I feel compelled to tune in from time to time, when there’s a host or musical guest who piques my interest.  Because I want to see what the culture’s up to.

It’s had its ups and downs, but Saturday Night Live has undeniably remained a cultural beacon for over four decades.  The show pays attention to modern American culture, then butchers it, skewers it, throws it on the grill, and feeds it back to us.  It mirrors what the majority is talking about.

Plus, the cast and crew work hard on that show.  Really REALLY hard.  Because Lorne Michaels runs an incredibly tight ship.

Lorne Michaels has had the same job for over 40 years, and he does it at the highest level, week in and week out.  And he demands the highest level of everyone who works for him, every single week, because it’s live TV.  It goes out there in an instant, and it has to work.  It has to play to the audience, gain wide appeal.

And last night, he casually drops a “Drizzy, how’s it goin’?” like he and Drake are old friends.


Regarding Drake’s musical performances…

The first thing I notice is that his voice is unabashedly dripping with AutoTune.  Beyond that, he simply goes out there and essentially does a one-man karaoke thing; not a ton of flash, no controversy, just his songs, his way.  And people love it.

But why??  Intrigued, I went on the Spotify US Top 50 playlist today and listened to all 50 songs — of which Drake has 17 — and was blown away.

Not necessarily by the quality of the music, but just how all incredibly similar it sounds.

A lot of people complain “the stuff on the radio all sounds the same,” or “they always play the same songs,” or whatever.

But this isn’t the radio, it’s Spotify.  It’s also how the majority of people I ask prefer to listen to music.

Drake is dominating one third of Spotify’s US Top 50 songs.  One person, and his people, creating their sound, their songs, their way, and it’s resonating with the majority of the country.  The number one song in the country — Drake’s “One Dance” — gets over 2 million plays a day in the United States.

2 million plays a day.  That’s insane.  Is that not impressive?

Some may be defiant, claiming that the majority of music listeners are ignorant.  But are the listeners, in fact, stupid?  Or is this just what the majority actually prefers to listen to now?

Have YOU listened to “One Dance”?

I’ve been mostly tuned out on what’s going on in the current musical culture, and what drives it, for so long.

It seems the path to success in today’s musical culture is to just continually create and create until something breaks through into one of these “discovery” playlists on Spotify.  Then, take that viral attention, partner up with another artist of some repute, collaborate on a song in order to cross-promote, and continue creating songs, ultimately routing a tour around where the fans are.

Because on Spotify, you can see exactly where people are playing your music.  It shows you in the artist’s “About” section.

This is a completely new world for me.  I’ve avoided Spotify for too long, and I’ve closed myself off to new music which doesn’t involve having a band.

Great artists, many of whom have left us in just this short year, listen to everything for inspiration.  And the best artists stay current.

“The old musicians stay where they are and become like museum pieces under glass, safe, easy to understand, still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change.” – Miles Davis

Am I going to change who I am because this is what people are listening to?  Hell no.  But I’m not going to remain ignorant of it.  I’m going to dive in and see what it’s about.  Like a trip to a modern art museum.

And I’m not saying I like this US Top 50 stuff more, I’m not even saying I like it at all.

I’m simply drifting outside of my comfort zone, and it intrigues me.

I like a lot of different things.  Doesn’t everyone??

John Kay

Twitter: @therealjohnkay
InstaGram: @therealjohnkay