The Kenna Problem: Why asking people what they like is sometimes a bad idea by Malcolm Gladwell

[blockquote]Kenna Zemedkun could be just another talented but unnoticed artist were it not for Malcolm Gladwell, who profiled him in his book Blink. This brought Kenna into that sweet spot of Gladwell intelligentsia, music-industry watchdogs and fans of…here is the problem, for Kenna is not easily categorized. If you’re reading this, chances are you like electronica, synth pop, house or even post rock. Or perhaps you read The Tipping Point and Blink and hate feeling completely out of it. Kenna’s music straddles all of the above and more, and while some might feel that leads to jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none territory, his undeniable talent still shines forth. Thus, despite rave reviews from all quarters, he failed to sell well and is arguably no further along in his career with album No. 2 (Make Sure They See My Face) than he was with his debut, New Sacred Cow.
by [/blockquote]

Kenna – “Say Goodbye To Love” MUSIC VIDEO

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Chapter 5 Kenna’s Dilemma: The Right—and Wrong—Way to Ask People What They Want

[blockquote source=”Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”]

The rock musician known as Kenna grew up in Virginia Beach, the child of Ethiopian immigrants. His father got his degree from Cambridge University and was an economics professor. As a family, they watched Peter Jennings and CNN, and if music was played, it was Kenny Rogers. “My father loves Kenny Rogers because he had a message to tell in that song ‘The Gambler,’” Kenna explains. “Everything was about learning lessons and money and how the world worked. My parents wanted me to do better than they did.” Occasionally, Kenna’s uncle would visit and expose Kenna to different things, such as disco or dancing or Michael Jackson. And Kenna would look at him and say, “I don’t understand.” Kenna’s main interest was skateboarding. He built a ramp in the backyard, and he would play with a boy from across the street. Then one day his neighbor showed him his bedroom, and on the walls were pictures of bands Kenna had never heard of. The boy gave Kenna a tape of U2’s The Joshua Tree. “I destroyed that tape, I played it so much,” Kenna says. “I just didn’t know. It never dawned on me that music was like this. I think I was eleven or twelve, and that was that. Music opened the door.”

Kenna is very tall and strikingly handsome, with a shaved head and a goatee. He looks like a rock star, but he has none of a rock star’s swagger and braggadocio and staginess. There is something gentle about him. He is polite and thoughtful and unexpectedly modest, and he talks with the quiet earnestness of a graduate student. When Kenna got one of his first big breaks and opened at a rock concert for the well-respected band No Doubt, he either forgot to tell the audience his name (which is how his manager tells it) or decided against identifying himself (which is how he tells it.) “Who are you?” the fans were yelling by the end. Kenna is the sort of person who is constantly at odds with your expectations, and that is both one of the things that make him so interesting and one of the things that have made his career so problematic.

By his midteens Kenna had taught himself to play piano. He wanted to learn how to sing, so he listened to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. He entered a talent show. There was a piano at the audition but not at the show, so he got up onstage and sang a Brian McKnight song a cappella. He started writing music. He scraped together some money to rent a studio. He recorded a demo. His songs were different—not weird, exactly, but different. They were hard to classify. Sometimes people want to put Kenna in the rhythm-and-blues category, which irritates him because he thinks people do that just because he’s black. If you look at some of the Internet servers that store songs, you can sometimes find his music in the alternative section and sometimes in the electronica section and sometimes in the unclassified section. One enterprising rock critic has tried to solve the problem simply by calling his music a cross between the British new wave music of the 1980s and hip-hop.

How to classify Kenna is a difficult question, but, at least in the beginning, it wasn’t one that he thought about a great deal. Through a friend from high school, he was lucky enough to get to know some people in the music business. “In my life, everything seems to fall in place,” Kenna says. His songs landed in the hands of a so-called A and R man—a talent scout for a record company—and through that contact, his demo CD landed in the hands of Craig Kallman, the co-president of Atlantic Records. That was a lucky break. Kallman is a self-described music junkie with a personal collection of two hundred thousand records and CDs. In the course of a week, he might be given between one hundred and two hundred songs by new artists, and every weekend he sits at home, listening to them one after another. The overwhelming majority of those, he realizes in an instant, aren’t going to work: in five to ten seconds, he’ll have popped them out of his CD player. But every weekend, there are at least a handful that catch his ear, and once in a blue moon, there is a singer or a song that makes him jump out of his seat. That’s what Kenna was. “I was blown away,” Kallman remembers. “I thought, I’ve got to meet this guy. I brought him immediately to New York. He sang for me, literally, like this”—and here Kallman gestures with his hand to indicate a space of no more than two feet—“face-to-face.”

Later, Kenna happened to be in a recording studio with one of his friends, who is a producer. There was a man there named Danny Wimmer who worked with Fred Durst, the lead singer of a band called Limpbizkit, which was then one of the most popular rock groups in the country. Danny listened to Kenna’s music. He was entranced. He called Durst and played him one of Kenna’s songs, “Freetime,” over the phone. Durst said, “Sign him!” Then Paul McGuinness, the manager of U2, the world’s biggest rock band, heard Kenna’s record and flew him to Ireland for a meeting. Next Kenna made a music video for next to nothing for one of his songs and took it to MTV2, the MTV channel for more serious music lovers. Record companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on promotion, trying to get their videos on MTV, and if they can get them broadcast one hundred or two hundred times, they consider themselves very lucky. Kenna walked his video over to MTV himself, and MTV ended up playing it 475 times over the next few months. Kenna then made a complete album. He gave it to Kallman again, and Kallman gave the album to all of his executives at Atlantic. “Everyone wanted it,” Kallman remembers. “That’s amazingly unusual.” Soon after Kenna’s success opening for No Doubt, his manager got a call from the Roxy, a nightclub in Los Angeles that is prominent in the city’s rock music scene. Did Kenna want to play the following night? Yes, he said, and then posted a message on his Website, announcing his appearance. That was at four-thirty the day before the show. “By the next afternoon, we got a call from the Roxy. They were turning people away. I figured we’d have at most a hundred people,” Kenna says. “It was jam-packed, and the people up front were singing along to all the lyrics. It tripped me out.”

In other words, people who truly know music (the kind of people who run record labels, go to clubs, and know the business well) love Kenna. They hear one of his songs, and, in the blink of an eye, they think, Wow!More precisely, they hear Kenna and their instinct is that he is the kind of artist whom other people—the mass audience of music buyers—are going to like. But this is where Kenna runs into a problem, because whenever attempts have been made to verify this instinct that other people are going to like him, other people haven’t liked him.

When Kenna’s album was making the rounds in New York, being considered by music industry executives, on three separate occasions it was given to an outside market-research firm. This is common practice in the industry. In order to be successful, an artist has to get played on the radio. And radio stations will play only a small number of songs that have been proven by market research to appeal—immediately and overwhelmingly—to their audience. So, before they commit millions of dollars to signing an artist, record companies will spend a few thousand dollars to test his or her music first, using the same techniques as the radio stations.

There are firms, for example, that post new songs on the Web and then collect and analyze the ratings of anyone who visits the Website and listens to the music. Other companies play songs over the phone or send sample CDs to a stable of raters. Hundreds of music listeners end up voting on particular songs, and over the years the rating systems have become extraordinarily sophisticated. Pick the Hits, for instance, a rating service outside Washington, D.C., has a base of two hundred thousand people who from time to time rate music, and they have learned that if a song aimed, say, at Top 40 radio (listeners 18 to 24) averages above 3.0 on a score of 1 to 4 (where 1 is “I dislike the song”), there’s roughly an 85 percent chance that it will be a hit.

These are the kinds of services that Kenna’s record was given to—and the results were dismal. Music Research, a California-based firm, sent Kenna’s CD to twelve hundred people preselected by age, gender, and ethnicity. They then called them up three days later and interviewed as many as they could about what they thought of Kenna’s music on a scale of 0 to 4. The response was, as the conclusion to the twenty-five-page “Kenna” report stated politely, “subdued.” One of his most promising songs, “Freetime,” came in at 1.3 among listeners to rock stations, and .8 among listeners to R&B stations. Pick the Hits rated every song on the album, with two scoring average ratings and eight scoring below average. The conclusion was even more blunt this time: “Kenna, as an artist, and his songs lack a core audience and have limited potential to gain significant radio airplay.”

Kenna once ran into Paul McGuinness, the manager of U2, backstage at a concert. “This man right here,”

McGuinness said, pointing at Kenna, “he’s going to change the world.” That was his instinctive feeling, and the manager of a band like U2 is a man who knows music. But the people whose world Kenna was supposed to be changing, it seemed, couldn’t disagree more, and when the results of all of the consumer research came in, Kenna’s once promising career suddenly stalled. To get on the radio, there had to be hard evidence that the public liked him—and the evidence just wasn’t there.


Wiki article on Kenna Zemedkun

[blockquote]Kenna Zemedkun, known professionally as simply Kenna, is an Ethiopian-born American musician, philanthropist and technology creative. His track “Say Goodbye To Love” was nominated for Best Urban/Alternative Performance in the 2009 Grammy Awards.[1] Kenna also partnered with Justin Timberlake to re-launch Myspace and is the founder and producer of Summit On The Summit clean water initiative. Kenna is best known for his genre-defying musical releases that always receive critical acclaim and respect from his musical peers.[/blockquote]


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