Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Unsung

Bring Back the Grand Finale

When I was 16, I went on trip to London with my family: my mom, my dad, and my sister. The only real goal in my teenage brain at the time was to find the songwriter Billy Bragg once I got there. I had, by then, ingested quite a bit of "Talking with the Taxman about Poetry," and "Workers' Playtime" had just been released. I couldn't quite believe that someone had found a proven process to compress Woody Guthrie-style, social commentary into obvious Motown chord changes but, there it was, and I was on my way to meet him.

I somehow convinced my parents that I should be allowed wander off across London using the Tube on this journey and I eventually (the luck!) found that Billy was playing a *quadruple bill* featuring his band — with, at the time, with Cary Tivey on piano — Michelle Shocked, comedian Barry Crimmins, and Michael Franti fronting one of his earlier bands. I bought a ticket and was floored. It was perfect in its wobbly imperfection, the kind of rock n' roll I had come to expect from rock heroes like the Del Fuegos, but presented here, before me, in a theater setting with red velvet-y seats and a crowd of people singing along. For the grand finale, the entire set of performers from the evening participated and a light clicked on for me. I saw the light, so to speak. I bought a t-shirt at the merch table on the way out and wondered: "What does an avowed socialist do with all the swag sales money?"

Later that night, within just yards of arriving back at the hotel, I encountered my dad. He been out looking for me at the direction of my mom, clearly having re-assessed the wisdom of having let a naive, suburban kid wander this big city beyond midnight. He was glad to have found me almost home. As a dad myself now, I can intuit the amalgam of relief, surrealism, and adrenaline he experienced at that moment. Standing there in the Underground, he and I paused a bit in the vacuum of the moment to take in a drunken reveler in a Burger King crown singing his heart out. He was relieved to have found me. I was elated at the experience of the previous four hours. In that regard, it was a win for both of us.

In any case, Bill's music became a guide-wire for me in so many regards from that point forward. While I occasionally returned to those early records, I followed his career forward, too. At each turn, there was a song there for the taking that somehow matched my world.

On "William Bloke," indeed, he captured, in a single song, the circumstances and moment I met my wife,
He was trapped in a haircut he no longer believed in,
she said 'I'm a teacher, I teach the children.'
the joy and complex circumstances of bringing our kiddo home 14 years later,
Their baby came home to them an unmarried mother,
they wished she would turn into a pillar of salt
and, today, the absolute most important rule in our home:
Compassion has to be the greatest family value.
Just last week, I was Googlin' to confirm Bill's favorite song — it might just be Lowell George's "Willin'" and that's a story for another blog post entirely — and I was reminded in the search results of his pre-pandemic project singing train songs and traveling by train with the songwriter Joe Henry. It took me right back to that moment in London so many years ago, this image of two musicians in their misbegotten hats — this time standing right in the middle of in my hometown of Chicago at Union Station — embarking on a literal shared journey.

I'm thinking about this, of course, because we're all still stuck in our homes, watching so much of this horribleness occupy our TV screens, awaiting and praying for the end of this craziness, but also acutely aware of the things we're grateful for, and missing that shared journey and experience of live music. That is, of course, the main thing we're all looking for as musicians alongside our cords and cables, the hum from the amps, a shock to the lips, and most importantly to me, the grand finale and the arc of community and solidarity it represents, which I first learned about from Bill's show way back in 1988.

So, right now... bring me back to the Billy Bragg grand finale at Dominion Theatre in 1988. Let me stand on the side of summertime ski hill, overlooking Lake Superior, thirty years later, while Michael Franti hauls all the kids in the audience on stage to sing along. Don't play me a slow, mournful version of anything right now; instead, give me the ten minute grand finale jam of "I Saw the Light" with Billy Strings and his crew. Give me a nine minute version of Don Dixon and Autumn Defense doing "Praying Mantis" to close out a house party. Give me Maria McKee, Van Dyke Parks, Hiram Bullock, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and David Sanborn closing out a Night Music episode doing "Sailing Shoes." Bring out Ringo and Ronnie Wood (in his tuxedo t-shirt) and give us all The Band, with the rest of the ensemble, singing "I Shall Be Released."

When this is all good and over, give me the grand finale in full, glorious harmony, over and over again, from the West down to the East. You and me, together, we can take the long way home.

– Jon Roketenetz

Jon writes on music, business, and creativity at Unclumsy.com

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Sunken Ledger

On His First Solo Outing, Mike Tittel Owns His Own Demons

According to Mike Tittel, half of Ohio is sitting at the bottom of Lake Erie and we're probably better off for it. Tittel, a Southern Ohio native and Cincinnati-scene fixture for over 20 years puts it bluntly: "If every drum kit I own was stolen tomorrow," he says, "I'd make more progress just writing songs at my kitchen table than trying to talk my way into another gig in Columbus. Who needs it?" He should know. In the mid 90s, Tittel traveled the country while vacuum-packed in a Ford Econoline as the touring drummer for the iconic power-pop band, Loud Family. Along the way, he absorbed almost everything you need to know about the craft of hook-laden artful deception. He learned a fair bit about songwriting, too. The rest he picked up from a well-worn record collection of XTC, Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann, and every possible incarnation of Westerberg, all clearly just below the surface in his writing.

Back in Cincinnati, Tittel made one more record — 1999s astounding "Let There Be Work" with his band Pidgin — then hit the pause button, set aside the drums, sold the old-school 16-track AMPEX 2" deck, and opted for career of photography and advertising. He waited a full 15 years, then returned in 2014 with the harrowing "44," a stop-motion chronicle of his admittedly complex life at the time. "Friends were concerned," he laughs, but it turned out to mark an awakening. His second act in music, dubbed New Sincerity Works, released the acclaimed "Nowadays" (2015) and "Wonder Lust" (2017) in quick succession, both featuring an all-star cast of the best of the best in Midwest power-pop: Bob Nyswonger of the Psychodots & Bears and Roger Klug among 'em.

With 2020's "Sleeping In," his first true solo endeavor — he plays almost all of the instruments with support from his key comadre, Lauren Bray, of Pretty Birds — Tittel turns down the volume and breaks out the vintage acoustic guitars, but can't get away from the pop sensibilities, no matter which way he swims. From "3AM" to the closing track ("Birds of Murren"), "Sleeping In" lets you in on a little secret: you're gonna hear the paged turns of spiral notebooks, the inked padding of lined legal rule, and the ledgers of lyrics right up close as he skims across the personal and the profane. From the Neil Finn-tinged "Own Your Own Dealings" to "On a Good Day," the songs end up reading like a practical guide to realignment in a world so obviously overturned:
The seekers of the dreams, those busting at the seams
with losses from the past, it's time to do the math
For Tittel, it's clear that it's no longer enough to be the photographer, the drummer, or the songwriter alone. He's determined to be the observer-in-full and go, as the songwriter Greg Brown would say, "further in," the cinematic and the ineffable in single sentiment, every single time.

"Both the shipwreck and the treasure are resting on the bottom," Tittel notes about the creative process, "waiting for anyone who can hold their breathe."

Watch the album trailer for "Sleeping In" here.

– Jon Roketenetz

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Wilson

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Black & White

On Location for Aldila Golf in California

Glad to spend a few days shooting for Aldila Golf outside of San Diego with the super-talented adventure photographer, Mike Calabro, this January. A great way to start the year: enthusiastic client, lucky weather, and a stack of quality photos to support social media outreach for a legendary brand. Shown here decked out in his black and white polka-dot DannyShane polo, Mike takes aim.



These days, I pack three cameras for these types of trips: my old Canon with Sigma lens, the new Sony a7 mirrorless with 50mm prime, and the little, simple, perfect Fujifilm X70 which nabbed this photo of Mike.

Check out Mike's work on his Instagram account.

– Jon

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Thankful

Sometimes the Flowers Arrange Themselves

On site with David Edwards Clothier — importer of fine Italian cashmere and couture menswear — here in Chicago. It's 8:30 on a cold, November Saturday morning. Two floors of windows, at left, are allowing the natural light to outdo even the giant softboxes at our studio on North Ave. A group of good people, good food, coffee, sodas, a bag of Costco almonds, and laughter. You can just tell this crew is ready for the holidays.

Below, the model's aunt reprises an earlier pose by her talented nephew; I get to capture the moment.



Brands are, of course, so much more than a collection of moments, although those certainly help. At their best, they're full of the personality and vigor of those involved. This Fall, I'm thankful for the opportunity to work with so many unique brands and for the occasions where the pieces just fall into place.

– Jon

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Long Game

Meeting Consumer Expectations Means Getting on the Same Timeline

For manufacturers going consumer-direct, the benefits are obvious: better margins, the opportunity to interact with enthusiastic consumers and important trends at ground level, and the chance to unplug from an entire layer of distributor logistic hassle and slow payments. But, the journey can also be a harrowing experience with a steep learning curve, too. It's often replete with much of the good ol' awfulness that can accompany fickle consumers: outsized expectations of the product itself, insistence on fast and free(!) shipping, painfully liberal return policies, and the expense of a skillful customer service team.

And that's the good news. This underlying shift in sales channels is also happening contemporaneously with a shift in consumer loyalty habits. Consumers are, in short — without the hard work and diligence by a brand to build a meaningful relationship with a new customer — less loyal to specific brands as a matter of cultural dynamics, as referenced in this Forbes article. Direct-to-consumer manufacturers — these "new-to-the-game" retailers with their perfect websites and fancy dynamic pricing — are still left with the distinct possibility of a substantial investment to attract a one-time customer. Here’s why:

Many new retailers assume the start of the relationship with a consumer is the first paid click and the end of the relationship is the sale itself. That's not how consumers perceive it. Consumers, instead, see the start of the relationship as the moment the product arrives at their home. That's why 'unboxing' videos are so ubiquitous on YouTube. Everything before that delivery moment is research and anticipation.

To cultivate the kind of long-term relationships that matter to legitimate, calculable, bottom-line, put-it-in-the-valuation, lifetime-consumer-value, brands in the direct-to-consumer space need to rethink assumptions about that timeline — so often perpetuated by monthly agency reporting and superficial KPI metrics that stop at the sale itself — and build processes that extend into the consumer relationship after the product delivery. To earn the next sale, direct-to-consumer manufacturers need to deliver on price and product, of course, but also in their post-sale presence to best align with the consumer expectation of the sales cycle timeline.

What that post-sale presence should look like will vary, but consider, for example, email outreach designed specifically for consumers who have purchased a product in the last 12 months — emails that bring the product features, benefits, and brand identity to life while acting to guide the new-user experience over a 6 month window — rather than simply treating this new buyer group to the same email campaigns designed to elicit sales out of prospects.

To be sure, the story is not entirely written on how eCommerce will affect retail at large, but this much is clear: even an exceptional experience at checkout on the first sale may no longer be enough to bring the consumer back the next time without an earnest effort at a deeper bond. Smart retailers will jump at the chance to build sturdy, worthwhile relationships even and especially after the box leaves the warehouse.

– Jon

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Engaged

Are Your Consumers Offered the Excuse to 'Learn More?'

A large part of our work involves finding the perfect moment in a photograph; sometimes that's the obvious and authentic laugh of a subject, other times it's a still life that finds a perfect reflection. But that's often just the beginning. Given the flood of content flowing across social channels these days, the big trick usually involves finding the right opportunity to engage a consumer, a way to get your foot in the door.



Consumers are now highly skilled curators, scanning and quickly rejecting content that is of the least interest and, many times, only offering a basic bookmark action for the most interesting. So, how do we successfully break through for our clients? We use the standard toolbox, of course: contests and invitations, sale pricing and limited time offers, too, but our most effective one-two punch has always been, first, a beautiful photograph and, second, a clearly visible button with a plain call to action. It's amazing to me how often that's missing in expensive placements. Leaving out the simple, courteous "ask" to engage in the equation drops the click rate significantly and, without a doubt, loses an opportunity for a prospect to envision participation for the brand.

These things are simple: put out your hand to welcome a prospect, invite engagement, ask the question: "Want to Learn More?"

– Jon

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

People. Product. Profit. People.

Screen Share Can't Capture the Essence of a Business

With many new clients, I take the time to visit the business from the outset. In fact, I generally bake the idea directly into the initial proposal. I'm eager to meet the crew and start to understand not only the business workflow we aim to support with marketing and technology projects, but also the people and passion they bring to their work. To be really present and fully engaged in so many of our projects at 3VERB, it takes an understanding of the tools of the trade and the people behind them. Almost without exception these visits renew my belief in some of our best shared ideals: the entrepreneurial spirit, a commitment to creating useful, quality products, and a ground-level confirmation that people still work best in a collegial and cooperative environment.

Seen here, a few snapshots from my visit with the incredibly hard-working and ingenious crew at Escape Climbing outside St. Paul, Minnesota. They're a case in point: Great products, an enterprise geared to profit in an emerging category, but quite clearly book-ended by people-power.




Nowadays, in so many regards, I'm convinced it serves us well to not allow rapid-exchange email and social media chatter and screen-share-conference-calling to act as our proxy or define key relationships. We can do better than that. We can dare to show up in person.

– Jon

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

As Seen on TV

The ATMOS Performance Golf Shaft Takes Off

In early 2017 our friends at Fujikura Golf found themselves in a pickle. They needed to bring a new shaft to market in a hurry. They had the technology and research to support the release and real confidence in its performance but they lacked a name and graphic treatment that would mark the latest release as distinct and important. At 3VERB, we put the creative machine into high gear and returned a variety of graphic ideas and naming directions, but Fujikura gravitated towards a name we had unpacked from a hybrid idea: ATMOS, an earnest reference to the determination of space-race era and performance at a core, ‘atomic’ level as shown in the interlocking ‘atoms’ featured in the design.

The shaft was eventually featured in the Golf Channel reality series, ‘Driver vs. Driver,’ as shown below.



After the initial launch of the product, we supported continued visibility for ATMOS with design for advertising, social media campaigns, and marketing promotions.

– Jon

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Book

Neil Shapiro Rolls Out the Long-Awaited "Jazz Alphabet"

In the past 18 years, we've had the chance to work across a whole array of industries. We've built websites, of course, but also the technology base for a sports drink company, branding for (it seems) every kind of sporting good you can imagine, and managed lots and lots of online marketing. Nothing, though, is quite like the chance to work with the occasional super-talented artist, those with legitimate, old-school skills to put paint and paper to work. Featured here, Neil Shapiro, a Chicago illustrator with an obsession, of sorts, with jazz.



Neil rolled around this idea for a book of jazz greats organized by alphabet for 20 years and mentioned it to me a few years ago. It seemed like such a fun, funny, and cool pursuit. I'd seen other artists take on the alphabet as a structural form onto which they could improvise in the past – think John Lennon's perfectly oddball alphabet poem – but Neil's final product takes it to the next level: indulging, as Neil says, his love of both the music and letterform.

For more information on Neil's incredible book, click here. For a PBS video interview with Neil, click here.

– Jon

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Fifteen

A Reflection on 15 Years of Sobriety

This month will mark 15 years since my last drink. It's hard to believe and even harder to talk about out loud. After all this time, I now have distinct groups of friends who have never known me as anything but sober and whole batch of friends who, for some reason, have stuck around despite the sobriety. Newer friends occasionally ask why I don't drink out of curiosity. Older friends lovingly recall the times I boiled vodka at a Christmas party, got tossed in a bush, or sang "Happy Birthday" one-by-one to the first 100 attendees at a party. Most times I defer on the details as the story isn't nearly as interesting as it should be. I never missed work – I was born with that curse – but I certainly operated at 80% of my capacity many days and regret the times alcohol facilitated acerbic or mean-spirited conversation, especially among people I love or respect.

Here's the story: Just about 16 years ago now, Peggy's mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer; it still feels like yesterday in many regards. As a family, we decided to collectively dull the impending loss with a river of booze. Each weekend during the last three months of what turned into a life-altering experience for me, Peggy and I drove to and from Cleveland, back to our home in Chicago. I could still drive that route with my eyes closed all the way to the Tim Horton's just outside Toledo. As long as we were stationary, though, I found a reason to drink and tucked the justification behind the fog and sorrow with the rest of the crew.

After Peggy's mom passed away in mid-December of 2003, and after a decidedly dim and hazy set of holidays that followed, Peggy initiated a training routine to run a marathon in memory of her mom. She was quickly in great physical shape, I felt like a slug and a drag. Each morning as she trained along the cold lakefront path here in Chicago, I walked the empty, wide open park with our dog who scattered groups of seagulls back up into the overcast sky. It was, quite literally, cold reality.

I was haunted on those days by my rock-n-roll mentor's, Dan Zanes', song, "Cruel Cold Feeling," about his own struggles with alcohol:
I knew what I told her, "Those days are gone. I'll stop for one then be right home."
How do I stop these shaking hands, calm the nerves, mend the man?
To Dan's credit, and something I so admire about his writing, he managed to distill a whole 24-hour narrative into two lines, replete with the awful missing parts that fall on the cutting room floor in any good edit. Dan's a Grammy Award winner and, as I understand it, they don't hand those out unless you know what you're doin'.

Beyond that, though, I was also pursued at a deep, personal level – as I am to this day – by the essayist Wendell Berry's profound direction*:
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?
More to the point, I wondered then: Was this how I was supposed to live in a manner meant to honor the people around me? And now, do I hold myself to this standard as a father as I try to help raise a young boy?

In those moments, facing an icy Lake Michigan, I found a whole new perspective. And, importantly, I found a way to push that perspective directly into motivation. I managed a day, then a week, then a month without alcohol, then quit smoking. Mend the man, just like the song says.

Like many creative types, I had long before convinced myself that alcohol was part of a successful operating system that produced good work – writing, music, coding, the same as now – and, to the extent that a hangover can produce an uneasy space for reflection and regret, I suppose that's somewhat true in the granular. But, overall, it's a falsehood. The truth is, on the other side, there's clarity and courtesy, and the chance to better support the journey of those around us.

– Jon

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

Postscript. A number of books, records, and movies have been important to me along the way as context for the the drinking life and day-to-day sobriety. Here are my top three:

(1) Now out of print, Dan's CD "Cool Down Time" (referenced above) from the early 1990s is a masterpiece: the first half will knock the wind out of you; the second will remind you of the power of redemption.

(2) Mary Karr's excellent book "Lit" follows in the fine tradtion of memoirs from writers like Caroline Knapp ("Drinking: a Love Story", "Pack of Two") about navigating recovery.

(3) 1988's "Clean & Sober" features a Michael Keaton performance so real, so raw, so honest that you almost forget Morgan Freeman co-stars in the movie. It's written and shot perfectly; gritty and desperate from scene to scene as it showcases the logic that empowers addiction. Keaton's final speech in the movie comes on the heals of a plot turn that tries its best to break him fully. The speech, delivered at an AA meeting, feels like a friend talking directly to you.

* from Wendell Berry's "The Mad Farmer Liberation Front," 1973.