Don Was On Blue Note's 'Radical' Spotify App, OpenEMI, Revitalizing Label at FutureSound Keynote
Don Was On Blue Note's 'Radical' Spotify App, OpenEMI, Revitalizing Label at FutureSound Keynote

Was, Not Was: Don Was (left) being interviewed by Steve Jang: Co-Founder/CEO, Soundtracking at Billboard's FutureSound Conference. (Photo: Arnold Turner)

Blue Note Records president Don Was told San Francisco technologists that the label's new Spotify app was crushing the competition, and its new iPad app cleared 30,000 downloads in its first five days of release.

Was gave a 30-minute keynote discussion at Billboard's FutureSound Conference on music and technology Thursday (Nov. 15) afternoon focusing on how the storied label was confronting changing times.

Read All Our Billboard FutureSound Conference Coverage here.

The super-producer, jazz bassist and chief creative officer of Blue Note Records has been on the forefront of several of the labels' digital initiatives, most recently Blue Note's Spotify and iPad apps, which help users dive into the rich catalog of the legendary 73-year-old label.

Blue Note put the label's entire catalog in its Spotify app, with an emphasis on discovery. The September app release is quite sticky among Spotify's 15 million users. It's got multiple entry points for jazz novices and jazz experts can dive deep into Blue Note's vast catalog, build playlists and share tracks with friends.

While Spotify apps generally average just five minutes of listening before the user clicks off, Blue Note's Spotify app generates an average of two-and-half-hours of listening, Was said. EMI's Hank Forsyth played a central role in its success, according to Was.

From left: Vince Bannon, VP, Entertainment Partnerships & Development, Getty Images; Don Was; Ted Cohen, managing partner, TAG Strategic (Photo: Arnold Turner)

"It's mysterious to me how they did this. The way it flows you really get the feel of going through a bin of vinyl -- the way information is released to you, the sense of discovery as you cross reference all these musicians who played on all these records. I think it's a radical Spotify app and the results we are getting bear that out."

Separately, the Blue Note iPad app launched Oct. 4 and was developed by Groovebug as a digital box set for jazz aficionados. It has a 4.5/5 rating in iTunes and is free to install, but costs $2 per month for catalog access.

Blue Note Records App for iPad Breaks New Ground With OpenEMI Initiative

The Blue Note iPad app is the first commercial product to use OpenEMI, a toolkit that gives developers open access to EMI music and other media in return for a portion of app revenue. OpenEMI now has more than 50 proposals in varying stages from 500 developers who have been granted 1,200 keys to use EMI's content. Developers are reportedly working on apps for artists such as Gorillaz, Pet Shop Boys, Professor Green, AIR and Evanescence.

In his keynote interview by SoundTracking co-founder/CEO Steve Jang, Was shared that Blue Note is planning a 24-hour Blue Note video channel online featuring anchors and music videos.

He also said his is open to the idea of releasing apps instead of albums, if the idea works. "Our overall attitude is we are open to everything. We understand that we are no longer in the business of selling compact discs to people. That's a part of it," Was said. "If anybody has some ideas for it, we're wide open. That's part of the fun."

But Was caution against gimmickry. "It's really about music and it's about emotion," he said.


From left: Don Was; Antony Bruno, consultant/advisor and community manager and advisor for NARM's digitalmusic.org; Steve Jang

And the Blue Note cheif had choice words for tech companies that want to build their business on the backs of artists. "You got to pay them," Was said. "That's something that's coming to a head."

As a musician and songwriter, Don formed the group Was (Not Was), a satiric R&B duo, in the '80s and went on to become among the most prolific, sought-after producers in modern music. A Grammy-Award winning producer, Was has worked with such artists Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Iggy Pop, Ziggy Marley, Lucinda Williams, John Mayer, Willie Nelson and Brian Wilson.

The veteran producer said music production in 2012 requires finding authenticity in a computerized, digitized world. "The challenge in 2013 is making people have same emotional connection to new music. How do you create a non-digital emotional response in a digital age?" Was said. "How do you translate the feel of holding a 12-inch vinyl sleeve?"

Was became president of Blue Note in January, and he has his work cut out for him. Blue Note languished while its parent company EMI was sold to a private equity firm, seized by CitiGroup, and then sold for $1.9 billion to Universal Music Group last year. In the past it has suffered from a low number of releases and few reissues, critics say. The label released Ravi Coltrane in June, and a new Van Morrison album in October.

Was said the record label was in the middle of remastering its catalog and is planning releases every six months.

"The challenge has been not to destroy the feeling but to take advantage of new depth and definition," he said. "Hopefully, we'll never have to touch it again."

Was joined an A-list of panelists and presenters such as Google's Tim Quirk, Topspin's Ian Rogers, Epitaph's Jason Fienberg and many more speakers at the Billboard FutureSound conference, held in association with Loeb & Loeb LLP Nov. 15-16 in San Francisco.

FutureSound launched last year to bring investors, music industry execs and technologists together to increase understanding and innovation among the three groups. Last year's conference brought together investors and executives from companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Pandora and Foursquare, along with content and rights companies such as Island Def Jam, EMI, Glassnote, and the NMPA.

(Arnold Turner)