Software Notebook: Microsoft, others tap music veterans
By TODD BISHOP
Monday February 26th, 2007
Like many Microsoft Corp. employees, Kyle Hopkins and his team bring years of experience to their jobs. Unlike many others, they won't be found debating the finer points of Windows coding or SQL Server database security.
But if the subject is the musical similarities between the Germs and the Blood Brothers, then this is the right group.
Andy Rogers / P-I
Zune Marketplace editorial team: Paul Pearson, in
Zune. Behind him, from left, Kyle Hopkins, Omid
Fatemi, Jon Kertzer, Andy Kessler and Emily Griffin.
Hopkins -- also known as DJ "Kid Hops" on KEXP-FM -- leads a group of music experts, disc jockeys, producers, journalists and musicians responsible for editorial content and programming on Zune Marketplace. The online music service works with the Zune device, Microsoft's bid to take on Apple Inc.'s dominant iTunes and iPod combination.
"All of our backgrounds are in music," Hopkins said. "We're music fanatics. That's why we're doing this."
The composition of the Zune team reflects the ongoing blurring of lines between the music business and traditional tech companies. To the outside world, the interplay between the two industries is most visible as top executives from each grapple with tough issues such as copy protections for digital music. But it's also evident in hiring patterns.
And not just at Microsoft. At RealNetworks Inc., for example, the editorial team behind the Rhapsody digital music service is a slate of music-journalism and radio industry veterans.
"The technology guys need to know how to structure their services so that they appeal to the music listener, and that's what the people that they're hiring have knowledge about," said Phil Leigh, senior analyst at market research firm Inside Digital Media Inc.
For music consumers, the importance of that expert guidance increases with the ability to access more and more music online. Music services such as Rhapsody, Zune Marketplace and iTunes offer millions of tracks, and it's not difficult to get lost in it all.
"The question becomes, how do you find what you're going to like?" said Jon Kertzer, whose varied career in music now includes programming the world, jazz, blues and classical genres for Zune Marketplace. "That's what we're here for."
Common editorial duties at online music services include assembling playlists, writing accompanying articles or reviews, and choosing which songs and albums to highlight.
"All the brand new releases definitely have a home within Zune Marketplace, but there's room to highlight really cool stuff from the past, as well, and we take a lot of time to do that," Hopkins said.
One major difference from the offline music world is the role of data, said Jon Maples, Rhapsody's editor in chief.
"You have up-to-the-minute statistics that you can review immediately," he said. "The whole idea of programming by feel is important ... but we can tell when something is successful and when something is not almost instantaneously."
For music writers shifting from traditional magazines and radio stations, another major difference is that they can't simply dismiss particular artists out of hand, Maples said.
"Our customers aren't paying us 15 bucks a month for us to tell them that their musical taste sucks," he said. "We have to make sure that if someone is a Mariah Carey fan, we're serving their purposes."
That doesn't mean they can't write with some attitude.
"It's a sick fact of life that with the release of Rainbow, Ms. Carey pushed ahead of the Beatles as the artist with the most cumulative weeks spent at the top of the singles chart," wrote Linda Ryan, a Rhapsody senior editor, in one blurb. "On this release, her five-octave range takes a backseat to guest vocalists, easy hip-hop beats, dance grooves and plenty of flesh-peddling videos."
And a country music playlist featured prominently on Zune Marketplace last week was titled, "Rednecks: Hell yeah, hee-haw!" (Each song had "redneck" in its name.)
Microsoft put together the Zune Marketplace editorial group in advance of the Zune player's November launch, drawing people from the industry and from its earlier MSN Music initiative.
Members of the team include Andy Kessler, who was the guitarist for The Gits, the legendary Seattle punk rock band. Zune Marketplace writer Paul Pearson has been a DJ, independent record-store marketer and a repeat winner of the daunting Rhino Music Aptitude Test trivia challenge.
Emily Griffin, a Zune Marketplace music programmer, has worked as a radio producer and DJ, a music-magazine marketing director, and run her own company involved in music supervision and licensing for television and film.
Omid Fatemi, another Zune Marketplace music programmer and the team's self-described "hip-hop dude," has written for a variety of music publications and worked on projects including the well-regarded "Puma 5x12" box set designed to promote emerging artists.
Members of the group have been adjusting to certain aspects of the Microsoft culture, learning what the infamously numerous acronyms mean. But it's clear that these are not your ordinary Microsoft employees. Never, for example, will you hear them refer to one another by their e-mail aliases in casual conversation.
"No way," Fatemi said, smiling, as the rest of the group cracked up. "Actually, we're staunchly against that."
Software Notebook is a Monday feature by P-I reporter Todd Bishop. He can be reached at 206-448-8221 or firstname.lastname@example.org