Andrew Mason’s Next Act: Groupon’s ex-CEO Releases a Music Album

Andrew Mason - Hardly Workin' music album
Groupon’s ex-CEO Andrew Mason is releasing a music album titled — appropriately enough — “Hardly Workin’.”

I’ve blogged before about the tribulations of Groupon and its “daily deal” couponing business.

The company has found it incredibly difficult to develop a sustaining business model, what with increased competition and the propensity for vendors to cease their participation after one or two deals due to disappointing program results.

With Groupon taking 50% of every deal plus a credit-card handling fee, far too many vendors found that they couldn’t make money on “daily deal” promotions, and often, “repeat business” from the ultra-price-savvy consumers who tend to participate in such schemes never materialized

Groupon founder and former CEO Andrew Mason was hardly the typical head of a dotcom business.  His business background was rather thin, despite having started a Saturday morning bagel delivery service in suburban Pittsburgh when he was just 15 years old.

Instead, Mason graduated from Northwestern University in 2003 with a degree in music, signaling where his interests truly lie.  After having worked at several Chicago-area tech companies, Mason managed to snag some seed money from Chicago entrepreneur Eric Lefkofsky, and Groupon was born in 2008.

By 2010, Groupon was the latest star in the constellation of online businesses, with annual revenues of ~$800 million.  In December of that year, Groupon was offered $6 billion to sell to Google, but Mason and his company board foolishly declined the offer.

But within two years, Groupon’s fortunes had turned dramatically for the worse.  Herb Greenberg of CNBC named Mason the “Worst CEO of the Year” in 2012, writing:

“Mason’s goofball antics, which can come off more like a big kid than company leader, almost make a mockery of corporate leadership – especially for a company with a market value of more than $3 billion.  It would be excusable, even endearing, if the company were doing well … but it’s not.”

After one too many missed quarterly goals, Groupon’s board of directors ousted Mason on February 28, 2013.  On the day of his dismissal, Mason wrote to his employees:

“After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family.  Just kidding – I was fired today.  If you’re wondering why … you haven’t been paying attention.”

But now Mason is back – just not in the same way.  This time, it’s as a musician.  The former punk band keyboardist (and also husband of pop singer Jenny Gillespie) is releasing an album titled “Hardly Workin’” that contains seven songs.  It was produced by Don Gehman, who has also worked with R.E.M. and John Mellencamp, among others.

Here’s what Mason has to say about his latest project:

“I managed over 12,000 people at Groupon, most under the age of 25.  One thing that surprised me was that many would arrive at orientation with minimal understanding of basic business wisdom.”

This album pulls some of the most important learnings from my years at the helm of one of the fastest-growing businesses in history, and packages them as music.  Executives, mid-level management and front-line employees are all sure to find valuable takeaways.”

*  *  *  *  *

“If you’re seeking business wisdom, you don’t need no MBA — look no further than the beauty that surrounds us every day …”

*  *  *  *  *

With lyrics like these, one wonders if Andrew Mason isn’t talking so much about 12,000 employees, but instead about himself!

H. Owen Reed at 103: The Dean of American Composers Celebrates a Birthday

H. Owen Reed, Dean of American composers.
H. Owen Reed, the “Dean of American composers,” turned 103 years old on June 17, 2013.  “In 100 years you can pack in a lot,” he says.

The American composer H. Owen Reed celebrates a birthday this week. At 103 years old, he is surely America’s oldest composer “of note” today. And if you ever played a musical instrument and were involved in a concert band ensemble, chances are you’ve performed his highly accessible and engaging music.

Herbert Owen Reed is a product of the American Midwest – born in 1910 and raised in Missouri not far from Kansas City. His family had musical interests; his father was a country fiddler and his mother played the piano.

Young Owen dutifully took lessons in classical piano as was the custom in many a middle-class household in those days. But he was more interested in popular piano ditties than he was in Beethoven or Bach.

H. Owen Reed, band director, in 1936.
H. Owen Reed directing the band “The Missourians” in 1936.

Reed was also attracted to swing band music, eventually leading several bands of his own. This early interest would inform aspects of his later career as a classical composer, as some of Reed’s most famous and oft-performed pieces are scored for concert bands.

In 1937, Reed received his Ph.D. in music composition from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. Among his teachers was the esteemed Howard Hanson, head of the school and a popular composer in his own right.

Other leading musicians with whom Reed was fortunate to study included the composers Aaron Copland and Bohuslav Martinú, and the conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Reed achieved his big break as a composer at a relative early age. In the late 1940s, following an extended study of Mexican folk music in several provinces south of the border, Reed composed a “Mexican Folk Song Symphony for Band” he subtitled La Fiesta Mexicana.

Just a few years later, this piece would receive its first recording by Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble – and a blockbuster recording it was.

Stunningly recorded by Mercury Living Presence engineers led by C. Robert Fine employing his famed “single microphone” technique, La Fiesta Mexicana burst on the classical record scene and became an overnight sensation.

La Fiesta Mexicana, Frederick Fennell, Eastman Wind EnsembleMusic lovers were dazzled by the color and inventiveness of the score – as well as the sonic power of the recording — an absolutely incredible audio accomplishment in 1954.

Drawing from a variety of authentic Mexican folk melodies, Reed created a highly substantive three-movement symphony, brimming with freshness and imagination throughout its nearly 30-minute duration.

The work was a major trend-setting accomplishment that sparked interest on the part of other American composers who were inspired to pen their own works for concert band.

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that La Fiesta Mexicana sparked a whole new genre of “long-form” compositions for wind ensemble.

The 1954 premiere recording of La Fiesta Mexicana would be the first of many made of Reed’s score in the ensuing decades – nearly 30 at last count. Nearly all major American wind ensembles – many of them associated with America’s best university music programs – have seen fit to record the work. Concert bands as far away as Japan have issued recordings.

Several recordings of the symphony have been made by the U.S. armed forces bands as well. This YouTube clip of the third movement of La Fiesta Mexicana, recorded recently by the U.S. Marine Band, delivers all of the energy and freshness inherent in Reed’s score.

[I’ve heard perhaps a half-dozen different recordings of La Fiesta Mexicana. I keep coming back to the original 1954 Fennell version as the one that delivers the best combination of artistic interpretation and audiophile sound. Underscoring that recording’s reputation is the fact that it remains commercially available even today, fully 60 years after it was recorded!]

While Reed’s symphonic band scores are the most famous and popular of his musical output, they are by no means the full extent of Reed’s creative energies. He has also composed operas, chamber and instrumental music, and works scored for symphony orchestra (including a youthful symphony).

Reed’s long musical career is also distinguished by the fact that he was on the faculty of Michigan State University for nearly 40 years – from 1939 until his retirement in 1976 (and since then as a distinguished professor emeritus). Many of Reed’s own students have gone on to become well-known composers in their own right. And he is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Work in Musical Composition.

Reed’s appreciation of the musical legacy of the cultures of the Americas has been an abiding interest over the decades. In addition to his music research in Mexico in the late 1940s and again the early 1960s, he has studied the folk music traditions of the Caribbean Basin, as well as the Native American music of Arizona and New Mexico.

At age 103, H. Owen Reed is surely a link to America’s musical past. Yet he is also a man of today who retains a keen interest in “all things musical.” I found this YouTube clip of Reed at age 102, performing the popular American standard Misty, particularly endearing.

So here’s a hearty toast to H. Owen Reed, the Dean of American composers, on the occasion of his 103rd birthday.  Well done, master!

America’s Symphony Orchestras Taking it on the Chin?

JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Getting it right: Music Director JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
The news this past weekend that the Philadelphia Orchestra’s board of directors has voted to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy is just the latest in a string of ugly news items about the precarious financial state of professional symphony orchestras in America.

That the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, 111 years old and one of the best-known, best-loved ensembles in the classical music field, should be facing bankruptcy proceedings comes as a surprise to most people. This orchestra, with its stellar roster of past music directors including Eugene Ormandy, Ricardo Muti, and Leopold Stokowski of Disney’s Fantasia fame, would seem to be nearly immune to financial stresses.

But the fallout from the economic recession has affected private and public funding alike, with corporate donors snapping their wallets shut … and many well-heeled retirees and other donors looking at their financial and real estate portfolios and feeling much poorer.

In the new economic reality, the prognosis for the Philadelphia Orchestra and other professional classical music ensembles is grim unless severe cuts are made to operating expenses. But those steps can also be risky. Just a week before the Philadelphia announcement, the Detroit Symphony, another well-established body whose list of past music directors including Antal Dorati, Paul Paray and Neeme Järvi is almost as impressive as Philadelphia’s, nearly went under after proposing more than a 15% reduction in player salaries, plus other concessions.

Rather than agree to their base pay dropping from ~$104,000 to ~$88,000, the musicians went on strike in the Fall of 2010. It was only when the board of the DSO was ready to pull the plug on the orchestra’s existence that the players agreed to come back to work.

On Saturday, April 9, the DSO performed for the first time in over five months, and the musicians are now committed to completing the current orchestral season. After nearly two years of wrangling, it’s the best outcome anyone could have hoped for.

Looking out across the country, it’s difficult to find much good news in the orchestral field; the Honolulu Symphony was recently liquidated and the Louisville Orchestra has also filed for bankruptcy.

But one bright spot is in Buffalo, where the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, under the inspired 11-year leadership of music director JoAnn Falletta and a pragmatic, forward-looking Board led by Cindy Abbott Letro, is weathering the economic stresses with better success. Another venerable orchestral institution, the BPO is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and its roster of past music directories includes such luminaries as William Steinberg, Michael Tilson Thomas and the composer-conductor Lukas Foss.

Considering that the Buffalo urban community is much smaller than many other metropolitan markets like Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco that support professional symphony orchestras, what the BPO has been able to accomplish is nothing short of amazing.

In 2008, the BPO concluded a capital campaign that added more than $32 million to the orchestra’s endowment, and posted a balanced budget in the 2009-10 season. In 2010, it went on tour for the first time in ~20 years. The BPO’s symphony programs are some of the most interesting and inventive being performed by any orchestra in America (I know: I’ve attended several of them). And the orchestra is continuing to release new CDs of fascinating orchestral repertoire on Naxos, the world’s largest classical music label.

Key to the BPO’s success goes beyond public monies, or support from foundations plus a few wealthy individuals. It’s about creating a strong link between the orchestra and the wider community – something easy to talk about, but challenging to accomplish without building strong chemistry and a sense of shared destiny. And in that regard, the attitude, approachability and personality of the music director cannot be overstated.

Richard Morrison, esteemed music critic of The Times of London, writes in the pages of BBC Music Magazine of “the existential crisis that could soon devour orchestras across the world with exemplary management, hard-working musicians, high standards and realistic attitudes.” He can “easily envisage a future in which dozens of ailing cities across Europe and America lose their orchestras forever.”

Not that Morrison is happy about his prognosis: “Some might argue that, in this age of universally-available Internet concerts, the physical presence of an orchestra in any particular region no longer matters. I can’t agree. It would be a tragedy if the opportunity to hear live classical concerts was bestowed only on people living in the wealthiest cities,” he opines.

If the example set by the Buffalo Philharmonic is one that could be replicated in other urban areas, Morrison’s grim prediction could turn out to be wrong. Let’s hope so.

Remembering Mitch Miller (1911-2010)

Mitch Miller: oboist extraordinaire.A "Sing Along with Mitch" best-seller.This past week the music industry lost an interesting personality when Mitch Miller died at age 99. While not well-known to today’s audiences, to people “of a certain age” (myself included), Mitch Miller was a pretty major figure in the world of music. He led a very interesting life that reflected the very best tradition of “making it” in the industry from the ground up.

Mitch Miller’s musical journey, like so many others of his generation, started with the obligatory piano lessons – that familiar trapping of middle-class upbringing for youngsters in the early years of the 20th century. In Miller’s case, a few lessons taught by a piano instructor with a horrific case of chronic bad breath was all it took to inspire the young man to look for another alternative – any alternative.

Upon learning that George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak Company and a major figure in arts philanthropy (he provided the seed money to found the famed Eastman School of Music, now part of the University of Rochester) was donating a vast collection of musical instruments to be used by schoolchildren, Miller took quick advantage of the opportunity. But instead of being able to select a shiny trumpet or trombone as he had hoped, he discovered that the only instruments left to choose from were the lowly woodwinds.

Deciding on the oboe was a critical event in Miller’s musical development. It turned out that he excelled in playing the instrument, subsequently earning enrollment in the Eastman School in his hometown of Rochester, NY. A singular talent, he graduated from Eastman to perform in symphony orchestras under legendary conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Sir Thomas Beecham and Artur Rodzinski.

Miller also moonlighted by playing in the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in New York City – a studio ensemble – where he caught the eye of several CBS producers who commissioned Miller to compose arrangements of popular songs. Thus began Miller’s transition from classical to pop music.

Miller’s fame grew exponentially when he began a series of albums featuring an all-male chorus titled Sing Along with Mitch. The first album was released in 1958 and went on to sell more than 8 million copies. The series would eventually total some 19 LP recordings.

A companion television program broadcast between 1961 and 1966 became popular with millions of viewers across the country – that’s where the famous “follow the bouncing ball” originated. Critics may have sniffed at Miller’s saccharine or schlocky arrangements of the Great American Songbook, but the record-buying public loved them.

In addition to his highly successful career as a performing artist, Mitch Miller also worked behind the scenes, helping to produce the record albums of famous pop artists. One such artist was Rosemary Clooney … another was Jimmy Boyd (whose song I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus sold over 2 million copies) … and Miller also produced the first record album for Aretha Franklin, effectively launching her star career.

Another famous singer Miller worked with was Johnny Mathis, whose albums he produced for many years. One time, Miller and Mathis discovered they needed to fulfill a recording contract by producing “one more” album – only to realize that they had precious little new material to record.

In yet another move that turned out to be fortuitous, Miller came up with the idea of releasing a Mathis “greatest hits” album consisting of nothing but already-released material. This album sold millions of copies, and sparked a whole new genre of “greatest hits” releases that would become a common practice for all the other popular artists of the day.

It’s no wonder the singer Tony Bennett has called Mitch Miller “perhaps the single most influential producer in the history of recording.” The music industry agreed, honoring him with a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2000.

With Mitch Miller’s passing, there are few performers left from the golden age of American popular music in the “easy listening” genre. A few artists such as K.D. Lang and Harry Connick, Jr. are carrying on the tradition, but it’s a pretty safe bet we’ll never again see the likes of a Mitch Miller.

Radio Revolution: Pandora’s Box of Musical Delights

Pandora Internet RadioPandora® Internet radio is one of the more interesting concepts to hit the web. Built on a powerful music recommendation engine known as the Music Genome Project®, it enables a listener to hear streaming music selections chosen on the basis of the musical styles of their favorite bands, performers or songwriters.

If you enjoy the jazz piano style of Marian McPartland, for example, Pandora will stream performances in a similar vein – such as the songs of Beegie Adair and Joe Bushkin. And you can create numerous personalized channels (also called “custom radio stations”) focusing on different styles of music to suit whatever mood or occasion you wish.

It’s an approach to listening remindful of Tom Hanks’ famous quote about that box of chocolates in the movie Forrest Gump: “You never know what you’re going to get.”

… Except with Pandora, you do “kinda-sorta” know what you’re going to get. I’ve been a Pandora listener for over a year now, and I’ve been introduced to musical artists I didn’t know before and probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise … and I’m the richer for it.

Pandora may be an Internet star today, but it sure didn’t start out that way. The brainchild of Tim Westergren, Pandora labored under difficult circumstances for the better part of a decade. The Music Genome Project took years to build and calibrate, during which time Pandora’s yeomen developers were obliged to work for large stretches at a time without pay.

Also, as with many Internet sites, figuring out an effective business model was challenging — and a barrier to obtaining funding.

Then in 2007, just as Pandora seemed on the verge of breaking out, an action by the Copyright Royalty Board raised Internet radio royalty fees to prohibitive heights, resulting in a court action that was finally settled in July 2009 in a compromise ruling.

Through it all, Pandora managed to survive, and now is close to having 60 million registered users. The Internet site is attracting sufficient advertising dollars to bring in profitable quarters. Revenues topped $50 million in 2009 (~60% goes to paying music royalties), and revenues are on track to double this year.

Always innovating, Pandora is now expanding into TV sets and automobiles as well, although the majority of activity currently comes from computers and a significant minority from mobile phones.

Long-term, Pandora believes the biggest potential rests in automotive. Consider this: Once listeners realize they can simply skip over a song on Pandora they don’t like, it should change forever the way people interact with radio.

Farewell to an Audio Hi-Fi Pioneer

1812 Overture

Wilma Cozart Fine, audio Hi-Fi pioneer, operating the controls at Mercury's classical record division in the 1950s.
Wilma Cozart Fine, audio Hi-Fi pioneer, operating the controls at Mercury's classical record division in the 1950s.
This past week, the world lost a legend in the audio recording field with the death of Wilma Cozart Fine, age 82. The name may not be familiar to many. But if you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, chances are your family owned at least one of the recordings Ms. Fine produced for the Mercury label – perhaps the 1812 Overture sonic blockbuster featuring the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (and also featuring real cannons and bells) that would become the first classical album to sell more than one million copies.

A native Mississippian who grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas, Wilma Cozart graduated with college degrees in Music and Business, then went to work in the late 1940s for the newly reorganized Dallas Symphony as personal secretary to the orchestra’s new music director, the fiery Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati. The Dallas Symphony managed to secure a recording contract with RCA Victor – highly unusual for such a young ensemble – and proceeded to release a number of praised recordings including the Bela Bartok Violin Concerto #2 with Yehudi Menuhin.

When Dorati took up a new position as music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Cozart decamped to there as well. Shortly thereafter, she was retained by Mercury Records in New York City to manage the label’s newly formed classical record division.

Using her orchestra management acumen, Cozart, all of 24 years old, snagged a recording contract for Mercury with the lauded Chicago Symphony Orchestra – the first of several exclusive contracts she would negotiate with orchestras in Minneapolis, Detroit and Rochester.

The debut classical recording produced by Mercury’s sound engineers led by C. Robert Fine was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and it caused a sensation in the music world when it was released in 1951. It was widely praised as the best-sounding classical recording made up to that time, with the New York Times reporting that the realism and clarity of the recording made it seem as if the listener was “in the living presence of the performers.” Sensing the marketing power of this description, Cozart would adopt the “Living Presence” moniker for the entire Mercury classical catalog.

The secret to making the Mercury classical records was simple in concept yet quite challenging to implement: A single microphone was painstakingly tested for positioning in the auditorium above and in front of the orchestra at the precise location where the sound would “bloom” most naturally. (Later, when stereophonic disks were introduced, three microphones would be used during recording and then mixed down to two channels.)

Cozart, who married Robert Fine in 1958, learned the craft (and art) of record production from the ground up. In the end, she and her team would release several hundred Mercury classical recordings before the label was acquired by Dutch-based Philips.

It is difficult to cite another instance in which a classical record producer such as Ms. Fine has had such a positive impact on the reputations of the conductors and performers being recorded. Indeed, the enduring popularity of conductors like Antal Dorati, Paul Paray, and Frederick Fennell and his Eastman Wind Ensemble would not be nearly as potent without the documentation of their art as taken down by Fine and her production team.

As the years have ticked by – with new technical innovations introduced and thousands of new classical records produced – the Mercury recordings have retained their reputation as examples of exceptional clarity and realism in sound. For many, these recordings remain the audiophile standard against which all other sound production quality is judged.

But the story doesn’t end there. The pioneering efforts of Ms. Fine would have an interesting “second act” more than three decades later. It was to her that Philips turned in the early 1990s to undertake the endeavor of remastering and transferring nearly the entire Mercury classical catalog to CD. And this was no mere “symbolic” or cameo effort on Fine’s part, either. The original Mercury mixing equipment would be repaired and brought back into production for the project. Ms. Fine performed the digital editing herself – nearly 50 years after she had done it (in analog) the first time around!

And again, the critics swooned.

What is the legacy of Wilma Cozart Fine? It’s not just that she was a pioneer in classical music’s Hi-Fi wave – or that she was the first woman to break into a male-dominated field. It’s that she and her team brought the world some of the best classical recordings ever made …and set a standard for excellence that has yet to be surpassed nearly six decades on.

Jazz music: Gone classic? Or just gone?

The National Endowment for the Arts’ latest survey of public participation in the arts has some very interesting – and sobering – statistics about the U.S. audience for jazz music. In a nutshell, the audience is both aging and getting smaller.

Since this is the fourth survey of its type conducted since 1982, the latest data can be compared against earlier NEA surveys. Here’s one choice statistic: In 1982, the median age of adults who attended a live jazz performance was a youthful 29. In this year’s survey, that median age has grown to a paunchy 46.

Moreover, the proportion of adult Americans who have attended a jazz performance over the past year (fewer than 10%) is down nearly one-third from the previous NEA survey fielded in 2002. That degree of decline was seen across all sectors – including college-educated adults who have typically been the most jazz-inclined audience segment.

The new NEA survey confirms that the median age of the jazz audience is now comparable to the audiences for opera (48), ballet (46), classical music concerts (49), and non-musical plays (47). This is the first time this has happened, and it underscores the significant aging of the jazz audience.

What this means, of course, is that jazz has finally “grown up.” Once an emblem of a more hip and outré culture than those represented by the (stuffy) other arts, jazz seems to have lost its edginess and has settled into comfortable middle age.

… A comfortable “elitist” middle age, actually. Terry Teachout, a drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, notes that in recent decades many jazz artists have been disinclined to present music in a genuinely popular idiom, and instead have focused on creating a form of “sophisticated art music.” It seems that some jazz artists don’t care at all whether their music is understood or appreciated by the “popular masses.”

Indeed for some artists, it may even be a strike against jazz music if it has broad popular appeal. In this sense, the parallels of jazz to modern art and modern classical music are uncanny. It’s all very important and terribly sophisticated … but who’s listening? Who’s looking?

When George Gershwin’s famous Rhapsody in Blue was premiered by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra at New York City’s Aeolian Hall back in 1924, the conductor Walter Damrosch famously declared that Gershwin finally “made a lady out of jazz.” Of course, that statement was a few decades premature. But it we’ve certainly gotten there now – in spades.

Which brings us to the final question: What – besides an audience – has jazz music given up along the way?