Lessons Learned @SXSW: Great Product Takes Time, Even Beyond the Curfew
“SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO LOOK AT OLD THINGS IN A NEW LIGHT."
A quote by John Coltrane that we discovered on the wall of a New York restaurant one night, it immediately made it's way onto my white board back at our Dallas offices. It was at a moment when we were discussing the future direction of a brand, and following Mr. Coltrane’s advice, we challenged the team to start looking at our past in a new light. We viewed our heritage of innovation and accomplishments not as an anchor to the past, but instead a canvas on which we could paint our future. To showcase this new direction, we made the decision to host a showcase at SXSW, a bit of a departure for a heritage brand, but a journey we were excited to take.
We worked with an agency to curate eighteen current or emerging artists, all influenced by past genres while creating new musical paths. When I was originally approached about the idea of having Kelis close out our event at SXSW, I bristled at the thought of serving up a “Milkshake” as the final course. This event at the Clive Bar was not only important to the brand, I personally had a lot at stake and wanted to ensure that every element would be executed to perfection. However, after previewing her soon to be launched album, I realized that her sound had evolved from the “silly but fun radio hit of 2003” into a rich, funky, passionate soul vibe that I believed would wow her current fans and bring new ones to the Kelis bandwagon. Fans like me. And with it, perhaps introduce our brand to customers in "a new light".
GREAT PRODUCT SOMETIMES TAKES MORE TIME THAN YOU HAD PLANNED Kelis was scheduled to go on stage at midnight, giving her crew exactly 15 minutes to set up after Cody ChestnuTT took the Clive Bar on a lively journey that had the capacity crowd moving and grooving. Each of the seventeen artists prior to Kelis had made their transition within the allotted time; one more artist to go and we would be home free. However, her sound crew came out and made the decision that the current set up simply would not do, given that she had a twelve-piece band in tow, and Kelis wanted the sound to be perfect. So the wait began. The woman from agency who had recommended Kelis noticed that I was a bit on edge (an understatement) and she said “when she starts singing, everyone will forget the wait…as long as she is good.”
An hour and a half later with a 2:00am curfew looming, Kelis took the stage and the crowd that had started to grow impatient, in a nanosecond was now eating out of the palm of her hands as she delivered the first few versus of “Feeling Good.” Her delay in taking the stage wasn’t the “diva” like behavior that is often attached to other singers known only by a single name. It was because, as she put it, “I’m not going to sing until I’m all ready”, meaning that until the “product” that she had for us that night was as close to perfect as possible, she wasn’t going to simply dish it out. A certified chef with a food truck touring Austin during SXSW, her dedication to perfection was refreshing.
(photo credit: Clay Hayner. . .and a shout out to Rafael Soto, Cara Hilt, Tim Lyons, and I think you can see John Apostolidis and Adam Hallmark in this photo)
DON’T BE DEFINED BY YOUR PAST, BUT DON’T ABANDON IT EITHER While Kelis served up her new work like her first single “Jerk Ribs” with an artful passion, she didn’t avoid past hits like “Millionaire” and her biggest hit “Milkshake”. Instead she reinvented them in a way that brought her past audience forward and opened up her work to those who would have otherwise brushed passed her older songs. She explained, through her music, that this wasn’t a reinvention or even a comeback, she was merely evolving her sound and keeping it relevant. And she did so in a manner that made the entire set list work together in a way that seemed effortless.
(photo credit: Clay Hayner)
SOMETIMES, YOU JUST HAVE TO GO “A CAPELLA” Then there was that moment. I was with my boss, who had stayed for the entire show, impressed with what the team had pulled together, but both of us ready for it to be over. Neither of us realized what was happening at first; the sound cutting out in the middle of a song, seemingly from a faulty microphone. That would be tough to tolerate given the 90 minutes that the crowd had waited for her crew to get it right. But it turns out that the sound had been purposely cut off by a member of the venue staff, given that we had hit the dreaded 2:00am curfew, and the penalty for ignoring this was very steep. Kelis, realizing what had happened, paused briefly, looked to her left and to her right, and then motioned for the crowd to hush and she continued her performance. The song she was in the middle of, ironically, a rich and soulful version of her 2010 hit titled “A Capella”. Her back up singers quickly joined her in true a cappella style and encouraged the audience to join her in the “symphony” and quickly, the sound began to carry throughout the venue. As the rest of the band joined in, someone unknown to us flipped on the power and for the last couple of minutes of the song, the venue exploded into this magical journey that ended with the sound being cut off for a second and final time by a panicked staff member just as she finished her song.
(photo credit: Clay Hayner)
OFTEN TIMES, YOU DON'T REALIZE THE IMPORTANCE OF THE JOURNEY UNTIL IT ENDS.
Kelis, after working all day at her food truck serving up real jerk ribs and bringing her best to the stage that night could have easily said good night when the sound was cut off. The set she performed would have still been great and few could have blamed her. But she knew better. She knew that the audience deserved more, so she picked up the performance and carried it forward on her own, vowing to complete the journey. Her team supported her, not complaining about the situation, but doing everything to deliver as best they could. The audience, when they sensed what was going on, became part of the performance and helped carry it to the finish line. Even other artists, like Allen Stone who had performed earlier that day joined in, encouraging the audience to carry the rhythm by dancing and clapping away, earning a smile and an acknowledging wave from Kelis herself. The epic finish served as a reminder that sometimes you don't fully appreciate or understand the importance of the journey until after you cross the finish line. That you should value your history and let it influence you, but not define you. And sometimes, you need to push forward "in the moment" even if it is easier or more convenient to walk away.
(A huge thank you to Troy Steakley, who had the foresight to grab his phone and capture four minutes of this video from the second row! Enjoy!)
(original version posted March 14, 2014)