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December 23, 2016
My year in words.
The sand in the hourglass of 2016 is running out, and the end can’t come soon enough, for many reasons. If you’re on this list, you already know how I feel about the election (I urge you to contribute to organizations likethese protecting the most vulnerable). But even if we set geopolitical events aside for the moment, the past year has been one of the most tragic in recent memory for the media and entertainment business, particularly when it comes to the music world.
Forget “Oldchella”–the lineup of musicians we lost this year would have comprised the best music festival since Woodstock, and maybe ever: David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, Sharon Jones, Juan Gabriel, Christina Grimmie, Phife Dawg and many more. Country, hip-hip, glam rock–2016 plucked beloved musicians from every genre. Hopefully we’ll make it through the next week without any additional casualties.
In the meantime, it being the end of the year, I’ve put together a quick rundown of the words I’ve written over the past 12 months that felt most meaningful to me. If you’re still looking for a last-minute gift idea, please allow me to shamelessly recommend my books Michael Jackson, Inc. and Empire State of Mind–available in your favorite real or virtual bookstore. In a divisive political season, my Jay Z biography may be the only thing Steve Forbes and Bloomberg agree upon (they called it “fascinating” and “one of the year’s best rock books,” respectively)! And get ready: I’m putting the finishing touches on my latest book Three Kings, which should be out by this time next year.
I began 2016 in the usual fashion, chronicling the latest class of the Forbes 30 Under 30 music category. That included quick hits on acts from Halsey (did you know she signed her record deal on top of the Empire State Building?) to Fetty Wap (did you know that, if he could only listen to one album for the rest of his life, it’d be his eponymous debut?) and a deeper dive into the life of Kendrick Lamar’s manager Dave Free.
February brought musings on Hip-Hop’s Cash Princes and Super Bowl pay–or lack thereof–for Coldplay and friends, followed by features on Jay Leno’s turbocharged retirement (where I learned, among other things, of Colin Powell’s passion for restoring Volvos) and the next steps in A$AP Rocky’s fashion career (also: he likes Margiela sneakers but can’t always recognize them). And then came the Grammys, uneventful save for an Adele microphone malfunction.
In March, Michael Jackson scored $750 million on the sale of his half of the Sony/ATV catalogue, which, as I pointed out, gave him the largest annual earnings total of any front-of-camera entertainer dead or alive, ever. But my biggest piece of the year was my cover story on Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary–and how they turned $30 million into a quarter of a billion by investing in startups like Uber and Airbnb, changing the formula for monetizing fame in the process (fun fact: I wrote a large chunk of it in a van on top a volcano…long story).
My spring took an international turn, starting with the first-ever 30 Under 30 Summit in Israel, where I helped plan a concert in a 3,000-year-old tower in Jerusalem and moderated panels including one that sounded like the beginning of a joke–a British rapper, a Hamilton star, an American journalist and a Palestinian rapper walk into a museum–and ended up being one of the more meaningful conversations I’ve had. I took a domestic interlude to write a magazine piece on Shaq’s favorite podcasting mogul and publish the annual Forbes list of wealthiest rappers before casting my gaze abroad once again with an exploration of Akon’s solar energy empire.
In June, I dug into the business of Hamilton–and the mechanics of investing in Broadway productions–before putting together our flagship entertainment package: the Celeb 100. In addition to editing duties for the list, I penned a feature on K-Pop sensation Bigbang, the Seoul-based boyband that earned $44 million over the past year, more than Maroon 5 or Dr. Dre.
Summer brought the usual series of genre-based Cash Kings lists: country, electronic
The fall found me in concert organizer mode again, this time for the domestic 30 Under 30 Summit, which opened with an all-for-charity Boston show in partnership with Global Citizen. And then the world, as they say in Hamilton, got turned upside down. Donald Trump’s election unleashed a wave of media self-examination and a furor over fake news, and I jumped into the fray.
Trump’s unexpected victory had entertainment industry consequences whose tendrils touched everything from Wu-Tang and Martin Shkreli to Kanye and the inauguration concert. The major takeaway in my mind: serious coverage of celebrities is more important than ever, and the idea that famous people should be held to a different, lighter set of standards is more dangerous than ever.
What’s next for me? First, some vacation–by which I mean more work on Three Kings–and then the latest 30 under 30 list, coming up on January 3rd. Thanks for reading, and good riddance, 2016!
July 31, 2016
Bigbang And Beyond
Psy, the purveyor of “Gangnam Style,” may be the best-known practitioner of the South Korean genre called K-Pop–but he’s far from its top earner. That honor goes to Seoul-based boy band Bigbang, which pulled in $44 million last year, more than American arena acts like Maroon 5. If that comes as a shock to you, don’t worry: it was also news to the band’s frontman, Kwon “G-Dragon” Jiyong.
“We made more than Maroon 5?” he asked through an interpreter while I was reporting my recentForbes magazine story on the band and its former pop idol manager. “Did not know that. My mom is in charge of my earnings.”
The Bigbang piece was just one part of the latest Celebrity 100 issue, our annual ranking of the world’s top-earning entertainers. Taylor Swift topped the list with a career best single-year payday of $170 million–she and the other 99 names on the list combined to earn $5.1 billion. Regrettably, that’s more than the collective GDP of Belize, Gambia and Bhutan; at the same time, the list is growing more international in scope, with one-third of its members hailing from outside the U.S.
Investigating the economics of fame around the globe has been a theme for me in recent years, and particularly over the last couple of months. In addition to the Bigbang piece, I wrote a story on Senegalese hip-hop star Akon and how he’s hoping to bring electricity to rural Africa through social entrepreneurship. “It’s definitely not a charity,” he told me of his venture. “It is a for-profit company … not just to help people, but to empower them to make their money in the process.” Capitalist Robin Hood or neo-colonialist? You be the judge.
Another non-U.S. act over whom I spilled some ink recently is Paul McCartney, the oldest name on the Celeb 100 list. I saw him in action during his Philadelphia show at Citizens Bank Park, and though he may not have had the high notes he once did, the onetime Beatle moved the crowd better than most acts a third his age. If Mick Jagger takes you to his bedroom, McCartney takes you to his living room–mixing juicy anecdotes and leading singalongs in between playing all the hits you want to hear. You get the feeling he’d be gathering friends around his piano and holding court even if he didn’t get paid. No wonder he’s still selling out stadiums, earning a total of $56.5 million over the past year.
Perhaps my fondest memory of the past few months was traveling to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first international iteration of the Forbes Under 30 Summit. The goal: to bring people together, foster conversation, and hopefully leave the place a little better than we found it. The result is for someone else to judge, but after helping to organize a concert for coexistence that featured Palestinian rapper Saz performing with a Jewish band and moderating a panel on the power of hip-hop to enact social change–alongside British emcee Little Simz, Hamilton star Okieriete Onaodowan and Saz–I am at least a bit hopeful that people can find common ground, both overseas and right here at home. And wow, do we ever need that.
Speaking of hip-hop, I’m nearly halfway done writing my next book, THREE KINGS, which will explore the growth of the business behind the genre through the lens of the careers of Diddy, Dr. Dre and Jay Z. I’ve been interviewing and writing chronologically for the most part, trying to get the best sense of the early days of hip-hop by spending time with pioneers like Fab 5 Freddy, Russell Simmons and Lovebug Starski. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this book. You know that feeling you get when you’re really engrossed in reading a novel, and whatever you’re doing, you want to stop doing it and get back to that book? That’s how I’m feeling about writing THREE KINGS. And that’s what I’m going to do for my August week at the beach.
April 1, 2016
New Book Alert: THREE KINGS
Usually, Friday afternoon is a time when people bury news they don’t want anyone to hear. In this case, it just so happens to be the earliest point at which I can officially tell you all the big news I teased last time: I’m writing a new book!
THREE KINGS, a history of the business of hip-hop told through the lens of its three most successful mogul-artists–Dr. Dre, Jay Z and Diddy–will be published next near by Little, Brown. Entertainment Weekly blurbed the news earlier today, but I’ll give you a more extensive rundown of how it happened right here.
I’ve been thinking of the aforementioned trio as hip-hop royalty for ages, largely due to the Forbes Hip-Hop Cash Kings packages I’ve been working on for nearly a decade; indeed, Dre, Diddy and Jay Z often rank 1-2-3 on that list. Then there’s the Kings of Hip-Hop series pictured above by my good friend, Michael Jackson, Inc. cover artist Borbay. The idea stuck with me so strongly that I even gave a TEDx talk called “Three Kings” a year ago — but it wasn’t until I picked up a copy of Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators late last summer that I realized I had a book on my hands.
Technology has Steve Job, Bill Gates and Larry Page. Hip-hop has Diddy, Dr. Dre and Jay Z. And just as Isaacson went from writing a biography of Jobs to doing a great minds narrative, it occurred to me that I could bounce from my Jay Z book to a tome on this triumvirate of rap. Fortunately, the folks at Little, Brown agreed. My editor, John Parsley, has experience with legendary entrepreneurs: he worked on Brad Stone’s excellent Jeff Bezos biography, The Everything Store.
Of course, just like tech, hip-hop has more than three giants: for every Ada Lovelace or Alan Turing, there is a DJ Hollywood or Kurtis Blow. My narrative will incorporate that reality. So far, I’ve already written a couple of full chapters and fragments of several more. I’ve interviewed dozens of hip-hop power players, starting with some of the genre’s earliest founding fathers, like Lovebug Starski and Fab Five Freddy. DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa will make appearances, too. And we haven’t even gotten to the 1990s.
March 23rd, 2016
Dude, Where’s My Startup?
This morning, Forbes released its annual Midas List–which ranks the world’s top venture capitalists–and my story about Ashton Kutcher and his business partner, Madonna manager Guy Oseary, is on the cover. I spent much of this month back and forth between NY and CA, learning how these guys turned $30 million (from their own pockets and billionaire investors) into $250 million. Hint: It had a lot to do with early investments in Uber, Airbnb and Spotify.
Now conglomerate Liberty Media is betting $100 million they can do it again. Kutcher is the first celebrity to move beyond taking free equity stakes and into actually managing other people’s money–and, because he’s quite the opposite of the dopey characters he plays, he doesn’t seem to think it’s all that difficult. ”Once you learn how to identify a snow leopard,” Kutcher told me, “it’s pretty easy to see a snow leopard coming along.”
That cover story is the lead item on my latest Zoglet newsletter, but the largest deal that’s gone down in the media & entertainment world over the past few months–and years–is the sale of Michael Jackson’s half of Sony/ATV to Sony for $750 million. The agreement is the biggest by any entertainer ever, topping Dr. Dre’s Beats haul by well over $100 million. Of course, both had to occur while I was on vacation; obviously, I still chimed in, most recently on how the mainstream media still somehow attributes all of Jackson’s business success to other people.
Other things I’ve weighed in on in the new year: #OscarsSoWhite, winners and losers at the Grammys, Jay Leno’s collection of more than 150 cars, the future of hip-hop, A$AP Rocky’s fashion sense in comparison to my own, why Coldplay didn’t get paid for the Super Bowl halftime show, the untimely passing of David Bowie and the most fascinating names in music under the age of 30.
On to the lightning round…
WHAT I’M READING
“I Ran The Official Record Store In Soviet Azerbaijan” by Andrew Friedman via Alex Alekperov
“How Thomas Tull Used China & Comics To Remake Hollywood” by Natalie Robehmed
“What Kanye Has In Common With Trump. And Martin Luther King.” by Rembert Browne
Baseball Forecaster 2016 by Ray Murphy & Brent Hersey
Babe: The Legend Comes To Life by Robert W. Creamer
Despite its recent struggles, Jay Z will find a way to sell Tidal for more than he paid for it by the end of the year.
TEASER FOR NEXT TIME
Got some big news to announce. Just may have to wait a bit.
Do you have any? What would you like to see more of in this newsletter? Less of? It’s for you! Let me know, if you feel so inclined. And if you’d like daily-ish updates, follow me on Twitter.
December 27th, 2015
From Katy Perry to Jay Z: Looking Back On 2015
If you’re receiving this email, it’s because at some point you signed up to get updates on my writing–and now you’re helping me make good on my New Year’s resolutions early. More specifically, I’m attempting to follow the plan I hatched in 2014 at the behest of my readers: to send out a quarterly newsletter that offers a CliffsNotes-style guide to my work, as well as some tidbits that you won’t find in the stories I write at my day job as media & entertainment editor at Forbes. So knock back some of that leftover eggnog and get ready to open some tabs!
For the first installment of ZOG Quarterly, I’m going to take you through a year whose highlights ranged from a Forbes cover story on Katy Perry to the launch of the latest edition of my Jay Z biography, Empire State of Mind. I started out by traveling to Nashville to walk along some railroad tracks with Florida Georgia Line as part of a profile for our 30 Under 30 Music list. In February, I reported on an unlikely collaboration between Diddy, Mark Wahlberg and Ron Burkle and interviewed Chris Martin about his plan to save the world. Next came a trip to South By Southwest, which is becoming a lot more like CES, but still yielded highlights including Migos’ thoughts on Emirati gold bar vending machines during an interview for the Forbes Hip-Hop Cash Princes special.
For much of the winter, I dug into a piece that became one of my proudest achievements as a journalist: Revenge of the Record Labels, co-written with my pal Nick Messitte. The magazine story, published in April, outlined how the majors have quietly hijacked the streaming revolution by accumulating stakes in the likes of Spotify–and how their stakes will turn into a ten-figure windfall in the event of an IPO, with none of that cash going to the artists on whose backs the services were built.
“That’s the story of the music business,” Rock & Roll Hall Of Famer John Oates told me. “It goes back to the earliest days–take it back to, ‘Give him a bottle of wine and take all his publishing for the rest of his life.’”
I started the spring with a trip to Anaheim for the world’s largest Star Wars convention, where I learned I wasn’t nearly as big a Star Wars nerd as I thought I was, encountering people dressed up as characters whose names I’d never heard. Then came a long-awaited (and somewhat incomprehensible) interview with Quincy Jones and the latest accounting of Hip-Hop’s Wealthiest Artists (Diddy is somehow still number one).
In May and June, I offered up the better part of my existence to putting out the Forbes Celebrity 100 issue, taking over as editor of the package for the first time. In between that and moving into a new apartment, I managed to pen a feature on how Jackie Chan became the second highest-paid actor in the world (hint: it sort of involves China’s Communist party)–and a piece on his environmental lessons for Jay Z and Will Smith–while also traveling to Los Angeles and Rome to write the cover story on Katy Perry.
The latter explored the Super Bowl star’s journey from a sheltered, religious childhood to her irreverent, globetrotting career and a position as the world’s highest-paid musician of 2015. Over the course of several hours I spent with Perry, I was pleased to discover a pop star who didn’t feel the need to hide her success, but rather wanted to own it–and serve as an example for entrepreneurs around the world, particularly other young women.
“I don’t want to shy away from it,” she told me. “I actually want to kind of grab it by its balls.”
July brought stadium shows by Taylor Swift and the Rolling Stones (separated by 24 hours and 350 miles), along with a think piece comparing some of the unexpected similarities between the two. After that came the launch of the Country Cash Kings package, punctuated by profiles of Jason Aldean (and his role as his genre’s only flag-bearer at Tidal) and Trisha Yearwood (and her quest to become the Martha Stewart of country).
The next month meant another Electronic Cash Kings package, thoughts on Dr. Dre’s first album in a decade and the realization that the Clintons earned more than all but three rappers in 2013-2014–a perfect lead-in to the annual FORBES Hip-Hop Cash Kings special in September. That featured an exploration of the unique challenges of hip-hop in the Holy Land and my latest thoughts on perennial money muse Jay Z (as well as the release of my latest updated edition of Empire State of Mind, complete with two brand-new chapters and an afterword describing Jay Z’s own thoughts on my unauthorized book).
October brought another foray into Michael Jackson’s postmortem earnings and some musings on the future of the Sony/ATV catalogue. I spent much of the fall obsessing over the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia, where I led the planning efforts for our all-for-charity music festival. Despite the fact that our first headliner canceled a month before the show and our second got hit by a car a week before (he’s o.k. now), we managed to pull together a show fronted by A$AP Rocky, Shawn Mendes, Lindsey Stirling and Hanson. Rocky called it “f—ing inspirational,” and I had to agree.
Throughout 2015, the saga continued for the Wu-Tang Clan’s secret album, whose existence I broke nearly two years ago. The latest intrigue began last winter with the selection of Paddle8 to auction the record and continued with the revelation that the eventual buyer wouldn’t be allowed to release the album publicly for 88 years. In November, FORBES was again first with critical news: that the album had been sold, and that the purchaser was a private American collector. Weeks later, the buyer was revealed to be Martin Shkreli, “the most hated man in America.” Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any stranger, Shkreli was arrested on Madoff-esque charges and the FBI had to officially notify the world via Twitter that it hadn’t seized Once Upon A Time In Shaolin.
I closed out the year with a couple of magazine pieces–one exploring the unlikely recovery of small-town papers like the Hendersonville Lightning, a 2,000-circulation newsweekly based out of a trailer behind a used car lot, another digging into the earnings prospects of Star Wars heroes. That last one sort of inspired me to write up something that happened to me a long time ago in a galaxy not so far away: auditioning, poorly, for the role of Anakin Skywalker.
And so, as the calendar turns to 2016, don’t expect to find me in trailers for any of the myriad upcoming Star Wars films–but I do have some pretty big news: I just signed a deal to write my third book, a pop-business history of hip-hop with a focus on the three moguls who helped turn it into a multibillion-dollar industry. For more on that one, stay tuned for the next edition of ZOG Quarterly.
Happy Holidays to you and yours!