Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Power of GoPro -- Exhibit A: My Family’s Costa Rica Trip

I just wrote about our family’s 10 day Costa Rica vacation.  Yes, of course I wanted to capture a journal of our holiday -- but my primary purpose was NOT to make you slog through my personal memories.  Rather, my hope is that our trip -- and my detailed journal (including Top 10 “Must Do’s and relevant resorts, tour guides, adventures, websites and phone numbers) will inspire and help others build their own Costa Rican memories.

Similarly, this compilation GoPro video of our Costa Rica vacation -- which was whipped together in about one hour by our 11 year old son, Luca -- is not intended to chain you down to make you watch my home movies.  Sure, I love the video -- think it is classic!  But, my primary goal here is to underscore the power of GoPro video capture on these kinds of adventures.

Here’s the deal.  We all know that GoPro best captures those adventures and experiences.  But, GoPro does much more.  It actually transforms and amplifies those experiences -- both during and after.  Our GoPro essentially became our fifth family member on our trip, joining us everywhere we went.  It was a play-thing for us all -- it enhanced the fun for our kids -- and enhanced the sense of adventure to us  all.  And, now, we can re-live them again and again (I am not asking you to do that!).

GoPro.  Standard equipment for any holiday.  Your holiday!

Costa Rica In 10 Days & Top 10 HIGHLIGHTS (What to Do From A to Z -- Andaz Hotel Papagayo to Zip-Lining in the Arenal)


My family and I (wife Luisa, 14 year old girl Hunter, and 11 year old boy Luca) just finished one amazing whirlwind 10 days in Costa Rica -- punctuated by extreme beauty and unforgettable experiences (and with only an occasional slip-up) (the video above is my son’s compilation of GoPro videos of the trip; more about GoPro being an absolute necessity on a trip like this below).  We split our time between Papagayo (the beach communities to the West along the Pacific Coast) and the Arenal (the inland rain-forests near the Arenal Volcano), primarily focusing our time in the Arenal and adventure travel (waterfall rappelling, zip-lining, white-water rafting, horseback riding).  After multiple family trips to Europe and Mexico, it was time for us to get outdoors, dirty and get our hearts pumping in an entirely new and natural environment.  Mission accomplished on all fronts.  It was time to shake it up -- and we did.  "PURA VIDA!"  (a Costa Rican phrase you will hear constantly by everyone you meet -- which means, Pure Life, with no worries, no hurries, and living in the moment -- a much cooler version of “Hakuna Matata”).

I hope this post inspires you to create your own unforgettable itinerary to Costa Rica -- definitely a trip worth taking, even when you are pummeled with rain (which we frequently were since July, of course, is during the rainiest of seasons).  After all, we spent most of our time in rain-forests, so we got what we asked for (and, for the most part, loved it and found it to be absolutely beautiful).  But, make no mistake, take your expectations of rain, and double them.  That is the reality.  So plan accordingly.  Pack many pairs of water-friendly hiking/running shoes, socks, and ponchos (and bring adventurous attitudes to match them).  And, perhaps most importantly, bring your GoPro to capture and actually transform all of your adventures (i.e., heighten their overall impact) (which will be the subject of a separate stand-alone blog post).  You won’t (or shouldn’t) be able to bring your smart phone on many of your water-logged adventures.  And, standard images (of the kind highlighted in this post) just don’t come close to capturing the real experience.  Our GoPro videos, on the other hand, are breath-taking.


We had previously never planned a trip through a tour company -- being control freaks, we always schedule our trips, our hotels, everything.  But, this time we did it differently.  Because we knew little about Costa Rica (except for hearing that it is beautiful), we worked through Kensington Tours (a company recommended by American Express’s travel service).  Kensington (phone number is 1-888-903-2001 and arranged everything after listening to what we wanted to do -- and the type of accommodations we wanted to experience -- booking our hotels, arranging our drivers and our individual adventures like white-water rafting (more on those below).  They worked via their local partner in Costa Rica -- Wave Expeditions (011-506-2479-7262 and -- ask for Vanessa at Wave).  Based on our incredible experience, my wife and I highly recommend both Kensington and Wave -- and we are discerning.  Apart from a few hiccups which they graciously and expeditiously ameliorated (i.e., fixed! -- thanks Vanessa!), we felt their depth of Costa Rican knowledge, our lack of headaches, and the money were worth it.  Yes it cost us more (a meaningful amount of “more”, by the way), but saving aggravation and knowing precisely what to do (and with whom) made it worth it to us.  They also did what we couldn’t do by ourselves -- getting us into the Nayara Hotel & Spa in the Arenal Volcano region (which Conde Nast ranked as the #1 resort in Central & South America for 2013).  And, that alone made Kensington worthwhile -- because the Nayara is that magical (more on that below).

THE TOP 10 HIGHLIGHTS (and some low-lights) for those of you who have ADD

Costa Rica is an incredible trip that YOU must take as well.  A trip for the ages (and that is no “Pura Paja” -- which means “no B.S.” -- use that one with the locals, and they will get a good kick out of you).  A trip deserving of anecdotes.  But, I understand many of you don’t have the time to soak all of ours up.  For that reason, I start here first with my Top 10 “hits” of the trip (as well as some “misses”) in Cliff Notes format.  For those of you interested in more depth -- to capture more of the feeling and experiences we had (so that you can plan your own) -- read on below in my day-by-day account.

10 MUST DO’s/Recommendations (all of which are fleshed out with more detail below - and in pics):


(1) Nayara Hotel & Spa -- a “must stay” in the Arenal Volcano region right outside of the city of Fortuna (the website pictures do not do it justice).  Simply magical.  And, shockingly affordable for the luxury.  Request Suite 50 -- you will be glad you did -- direct view of the volcano (once the fog lifts) (the picture to the right is our suite’s private wrap-around deck).  Be sure to spend virtually all of your time in the new upper spa and restaurant area that just opened a few months back (picture below is a view of “Amor Loco”, the upper spa restaurant; the separate picture below and to the right is the bridge that connects the suites to the new upper spa and restaurant area.).  Breathtaking with a river below.  Do not -- I repeat, do not! -- spend much time in the lower main restaurant.  Wasted opportunity.  But DO check out the separate sushi restaurant on-site -- surprisingly good -- and we eat a lot of sushi in Socal.  One more thing -- get to know on-site customer experience coordinator Lindsay Harris -- she is warm, wonderful and adventurous -- just like virtually everyone else at the Nayara (including Luis at the front desk).  Lindsay can help you know precisely what to do -- and with whom.  That is great knowledge to have.  And, she is just plain wonderful.

(2) Andaz Hotel -- on the Papagayo Peninsula -- beautiful entirely new hotel (picture of the main pool area below).  Worth staying over the adjacent Four Seasons (among other things, it is significantly less expensive).  But, expect significant service snafus.  It is new -- and, as a result, the staff’s training likewise frequently feels new (the service certainly is not “dialed in” yet, despite mostly sincere efforts to please).  You may be frustrated (drinks were slow to come, our bills contained several mistakes over and over again).  But, at least you will be frustrated amidst beauty and surprising affordability (and by the time you go, many of those kinks likely will be worked out).  Ask for a room on the top floor of Building 3 for the best views.


(3) Waterfall Rappelling in the Arenal -- an absolute “must”!  (via Pure Trek, the guides we used for this) (more on this and all of these other adventures below in my day-by-day account).

(4) Whitewater Rafting in the Arenal -- of course!  Especially during the rainy season (via Wave Expeditions).

(5) Zip-lining in the Arenal -- are you kidding?  This place was made for zip-lining! (via Sky Trek Adventures).

(6) Horseback Riding to the La Fortuna Waterfall in the Arenal -- yet another magical moment (via Wave Expeditions again).

(7) Private Boat Tour and Snorkeling in Papagayo -- amazing, especially venturing into the caves and being out in the water at sunset behind the rocks (via Wave Expeditions and Captain Mark -- see his direct info below).

(8) Massages at the Nayara Hotel & Spa -- yes, they are that good!  And, to get a massage outside in the midst of a rain-forest (and when it is actually raining hard, very hard) is, dare I say yet again, magical?

(9) Yoga at the Nayara Hotel & Spa -- look, I am not exactly a yoga guy (although I should be).  I am a runner.  But, the yoga temple is that beautiful -- and, again, outside, so yoga amidst pouring rain in the rainforest is a heightened spiritual experience.  Just do it -- and then grab a green juice at the adjacent spa.

(10) Beverages at the Andaz -- the Coffee, the Green Drink, and the White Wine Spritzer at the Andaz -- trust me on this one.  After all, Costa Rica is famous for its coffee.

(11) BONUS -- MASSIVE BONUS -- have the patience to await the clouds clearing from the top of the Arenal Volcano.  Many who come, never see it.  We were amongst the fortunate ones who did.  And, it is breathtaking ... you can clearly see the lava flows of long ago (reflected in the picture at the top of this post).  We were fortunate to observe the peak for a few fleeting moments only before the clouds once again rolled in ... so do NOT waste that opportunity if you have it.  Run, don’t walk!  If you blink, you will miss it (on the right is a picture of us when the clouds cleared for those precious moments -- notice the steam still rising from the right side of the double crater).

AND SOME “MISSES” (but there weren’t many ...)

(1) Didn’t bring enough water shoes -- my bad, no one else’s -- bring multiple pairs.  You WILL be soaked in the Arenal (even more than you think, but that’s part of the adventure).

(2) Didn’t wear jeans horseback riding -- just plain stupid!  Yes, it may have seemed logical to wear only a swimsuit because we took our horses to a waterfall for a swimming experience you won’t forget.  But, chafing only takes you so far!

(3) Long hikes in torrential rains -- if you choose to hike near the volcanos or on the famed hanging bridges to experience wild-life (slots, toucans, monkeys) -- which you should do -- don’t do it during torrential downpours.  Animals take cover too!  You will see lovely greenery ... but you won’t see anything else.

(4) Hot springs in tourist areas -- if you want to experience the famed Volcano Arenal hot springs, I understand the urge to go to the most famous hot springs of them all (the Tabacon).  And it is beautiful.  BUT, it is also Disneyland -- very touristy.  That took the magic away from me.  And, the included meal should just be, well, excluded.  I couldn’t get past all of that (although my wife, Luisa, believes I am being too harsh).  Certainly, if you don’t mind tourists (and really feeling like one yourself), then this is THE place to go.


So much to see in Costa Rica -- but we had only 10 days (including travel).  So, we had to make some tough choices.  We chose the Papagayo Peninsula for a few days of beaches and sun (that’s why we flew into Liberia rather than San Jose, which is the largest city in Costa Rica) -- and we chose to spend most of our time in the Arenal Volcano rain-forest region.  Here is our journey.

Days 1-2 -- Papagayo Peninsula

We chose to stay at the recently-opened luxury Andaz Resort Costa Rica -- an eco-friendly, contemporary, and entirely new resort in Papagayo not far from the much more established Four Seasons Hotel (and about a 30 minute car ride from the Liberia airport).  Bottom line -- we recommend the Andaz highly, but with some meaningful reservations that I discuss above.

From the time our driver dropped us off, we knew we were at the right place for us.  The architecture is contemporary, simple, clean, natural -- straight lines, except for the rooftops of the main resort buildings which are curved in the shape of an armadillo (very cool).  The resort blends into the tree-filled hillside -- it does not overwhelm it.  From our hotel room (absolute contemporary luxury in every respect, including the most comfortable beds you will find anywhere), we felt as if we were in a tree house (a luxurious one, but still a tree house).  And, monkeys were everywhere flinging themselves amidst the trees.  These were no resort monkeys mind you -- these were au naturale in their natural environment.  My kids and I were transfixed.  Best view of their antics could be seen near the high point of the resort in the area of the spa.  We actually saw many more monkeys here than we did in the rain-forests of the Arenal.

Highlights?  In our 1 full day and 2 half-days our highlight by far was an experience that almost didn’t happen (and only happened out of fortuity) -- i.e., a private 36 foot zodiac boat tour by Captain Mark and his first mate Hector (pictured here to the right with my wife Luisa).  What was a near disaster, turned into one of the most memorable parts of our trip.  We had been scheduled for a catamaran trip with others, but our driver never showed.  So, our tour company fell on their sword (as they should) and stepped up to the plate with Captain Mark -- and we have no doubt that our private tour to the caves and coves of the Costa Rican shores far surpassed any group tour.  It truly was a magical experience.  This sunset pic below tells it all.  This is a “must do.”  If you can arrange a private boat, then do it.  Worth the money.  You’ve come a long way to get here.  Make it count!  (Captain Mark -- don’t know his last name -- can be reached directly from the U.S. at 011-506-8707-1837 -- call him -- you will be glad you did -- he knows where to take you).

Other highlights?  Breakfast at the Andaz Hotel.  Excellent food.  Excellent service.  And a barista who rules the world.  Check out the customized coffee drinks that master barista Luis Carlos Herrera makes just for you (my favorite is pictured here above to the right).  Another highlight -- as “inconsequential” as it may seem -- is the welcome fresh green concoction they give you when you arrive (and which we requested over and over again) -- made of cucumber, pineapple and mint.  Trust me, it’s that good ... over and over again (and feel free to add some vodka when you are so inclined, which may be frequently on a trip like this).  Then, of course, there is poolside at the Andaz.  3 different pools -- we chose to escape the heat and humidity in the main pool -- and then venture down to the private, but all natural, beach and into the beautiful aqua of the ocean bay.  There, we laid back and enjoyed the ride of the buoyant water.  But, before we knew it, it was time to stop relaxing -- and head off to the Arenal, the rain-forest surrounding the famed Arenal Volcano (a 3.5 hour car ride from the Andaz to reach our hotel -- the Nayara).  It was time for our adventures to begin.

Days 3-8 -- Arenal

The Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens -- right in the heart of the Arenal and within close proximity and direct line of sight to the famed Arenal Volcano itself (which I discuss in more detail above).  Arrived our third night -- but didn’t really “get” it (all the beauty, the majesty, that has earned it Conde Naste’s #1 Resort award) until the 4th day here when we chilled out from all of our adventures and spent most of our time in the new upper spa area (including great meals amidst the beauty of the Amor Loco restaurant -- and separate spa treatments at their world class spa).  And now, onto the adventures.

Our first -- horseback riding to the La Fortuna waterfall amidst the rain and lushest green you will ever see.  Another unforgettable activity -- and our guide Eric (arranged via Wave Expeditions) was gracious, fun and just plain good (ask for him -- he aims to please).  He punctuated every other sentence with the Costa Rican anthem -- PURA VIDA!  Was a classic Costa Rica experience -- no need to sign waivers.  Not here.  Just mount your horse and off you go (and these weren’t little state fair ponies).  We traversed steep hills, across small rivers, and galloped whenever we wanted.  Only one problem (for me).  I wore shorts!  Thought that was smart (you know, heat, humidity, waterfalls and all) -- but, we were riding horses!  So, my legs burned from the friction (not a pleasant feeling as you bump up and down on your horse).  Note to self -- always wear long pants when riding horses (which may seem obvious to you, but certainly wasn’t to me).  And, at the end of the trail -- we hit the big pay-off with the La Fortuna Waterfall.  Spectacular.  Plain and simple.  One for the ages.  As I write above, bring your GoPro -- Costa Rica screams GoPro for every move you make.  Make no mistake -- these are memories of a lifetime.

That was just our first morning in the Arenal.  In the afternoon we traveled to the famed Hanging Bridges in the midst of the rainforest (there are many such places, so Wave Expeditions can help you pick the right one) -- beautiful, but somewhat of a bust due to the monsoon-like conditions in the afternoon (hey, just keeping it real -- no animals or birds revealed themselves amidst torrential downpours).  The 2.5 mile hike was beautiful -- without a doubt -- but the rain truly was torrential and our feet utterly soaked (I think they became webbed at some point) (the pic to the left is my daughter, Hunter, running across one of them).   Candidly -- and perhaps I shouldn’t admit this (but, why not?) -- we were happy to race through the monsoon and end up at the local bar/restaurant where we watched the end of Argentina beating the Netherlands in the World Cup).

Following our first day of adventures, we experienced a continuing series of extraordinary events.  Zip-lining?  Check.  Did that.  You must too.  We chose Sky Trek -- a series of 8 separate zip-lines, one of which is 750 meters long and very very fast, cutting through the trees themselves at one point -- creating a tunnel of sorts.  Another “must do” -- and must GoPro moment (that is my family and I to the right on one of the platforms).

Rappelling down a waterfall?  Yup, did that too, despite the fact that my daughter and I are not at all good with heights.  We just sucked it up.  And, this was THE experience of the trip for me -- and of a lifetime.  This was real rappelling -- four separate rappels, the first of which is 180 feet tall and literally straight down and into a coursing waterfall that follows you down and meets you (dousing you) all along the way (book directly through Pure Trek right outside the city of Fortuna in the Arenal).  Wish I had more pictures here (the picture to the left is one taken by Pure Trek of my daughter rappelling down the last of the 4 cliffs -- about half the height of the longest one -- and directly into the waterfall), but Pure Trek’s website (link above) will give you a great idea of what you will experience via pictures.  We did, however, bring our GoPro once again -- and the moments are captured vividly for a lifetime.  Pure Trek bills itself as “The Ultimate Waterfall Rappelling in Costa Rica -- and I believe them.  We followed that adventure with an afternoon hike along the base of the Arenal Volcano, which we still couldn’t see due to the heavy rains.  These did not lift during our afternoon hike so, yet again, we saw no wildlife -- got soaked -- but at least had umbrellas this time (which is, admittedly, somewhat non-adventurous, but we were glad we did).  We ended the hike at the famed Tobacon Resort hot springs (discussed briefly above) which, yes, were kind of cool (they are natural hot springs after all).  But, in the end, I would pass on this experience, which felt a bit like Disneyland (although my wife, Luisa, wouldn’t).  Definitely too touristy for my taste.  If you want to visit the hot springs near the volcano, then find a spot where the locals go.

On a later day, we also chose to experience a leisurely 2 hour rafting trip down the lower Penas Blancas River, which was beautiful but relatively uneventful -- although we did see a crocodile along the way (as well as iguanas and rare birds).  That was fun for the kids.  (Separate and personal related funny family anecdote.  During our entire Costa Rica trip, we listened to the music of Lana Del Rey -- who morphed into Iguana Del Rey at some point on the trip, which at least I think is kind of funny; at one point on our return drive, we also saw a restaurant called Ceviche Del Rey, which led to more chuckles amongst my family and I; just one of those the little moments that also make these family trips memorable).  Later that same day, we met with a family at their private home to learn more about the local culture -- and to give an opportunity for my kids to have their own hand in making tortillas (the picture to the right is with Danny [on the far left]-- our somewhat wacky, but extremely knowledgable guide -- who is happy to give his very candid and interesting personal assessment of Costa Rican and U.S. politics; and on the right is the affable son of the family who owns the private property).  I know this particular experience may sound uneventful.  But, it wasn’t.  It was surprisingly refreshing.  My kids really enjoyed it -- and our authentic lunch was amongst the best food we experienced on the trip.  If you have the time, do it.  Wave Expeditions will know how and where to do it.

Then, our final major adventure -- white-water rafting via our guides at Wave Expeditions (a 1.5-2 hour drive from downtown Fortuna, the city near the Nayara resort).  Again, this was not your basic white-water rafting tour.  This was a true class 3/4 experience, especially due to the heavy rains, high water levels and coursing river.  In fact, the tour was cancelled the day before for others, due to concerns about those high water levels and potential dangers.  For some reason, our day happily proceeded.  And, yet another amazing (and at moments, somewhat scary) experience (the pic on the left is at the start of our trek -- and the one below to the right gives some idea of the trek itself -- yes, that is the 4 of us, with only the guide’s head showing).  Once again, we captured the experiences on our GoPro, complete with our somewhat annoying 1-2 paddling chant, “Rice, Beans, Rice, Beans” (which is the local favorite dish).  Our 2.5 hour journey down the river was one never-ending rapid (literally) -- some hairier than others, but definitely real rapids, real dangers.  Our highly qualified guide got us through it, but not completely unscathed.  I fell out of the raft near the very end -- and my daughter joined me after she tried to save me (you gotta love a family literally pulling for each other!).  But, all was good -- and, in the end, that added to the overall experience.  For my son, Luca, this was his favorite experience.  It ranked in the top 2-3 for the rest of us.  So, don’t let fear get in the way -- just do it.  You gotta live!  And, trust me, you will.  Our guides (arranged through Wave Expeditions) were great.  Costa Rican guides are notoriously real professionals -- highly trained on all of these adventures.

As I mention above, the magical Arenal Volcano accompanied us every step of the way on the Arenal portion of our trip, shrouded in the mystery of mist throughout our soggy stay.  But, perhaps that led to the overall mystique of this Arenal region?  Perhaps nature did not want to fully reveal itself except for a few shining moments on our first visit to Costa Rica.  Perhaps nature simply wanted to pique our interest even more.  My wife and I, after all, vowed to return again -- to experience the beauty of Arenal via the Nayara.

Day 9-10 Back to the Papagayo Peninsula and Travel Back Home

We ended our trip the way we began -- at the Andaz Hotel (after our 3.5 hour return road-trip from the Nayara).  We left early enough in the day to enjoy virtually a full day of relaxation after all of our adventures -- highlighted by jet-skiing in the bay.  Then, back to reality -- which isn’t so bad here in SoCal.

One word to describe our Costa Rican experience -- “Magical.”  It likely will be yours as well.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

See You at the Siemer Summit Later Today & Tomorrow

Back from my Costa Rican family vacation -- which was epic, with rappelling down waterfall cliffs, whitewater rafting, zip-lining through the rain forest, snorkeling, hanging bridges, horseback riding -- you get the point.  Was time to get dirty.  Mission accomplished.  More on that later -- including the way these adventures were transformed and forever captured in the ONLY way to go -- with a GoPro.

So, back in the saddle -- kicking off my return with my company, Manatt Digital Media’s, biggest sponsored event of the year -- the annual Siemer Summit, a digital media and technology conference at Shutters Hotel in the heart of Silicon Beach -- i.e., Santa Monica, California.  Will be a great and high-profile event, featuring both captains of the digital media and tech industries, as well as some of the most impressive entrepreneurs and venture-backed companies that fuel the innovation we see all around us.

Tomorrow, at noon, I will moderate a panel focused on multi-platform digital media creation and distribution.  My panel will feature an A-list of players who cover different segments of the overall digital media eco-system, including Jessica Schell (EVP, New Media & Digital Entertainment for Universal Pictures); Albert Cheng (EVP & Chief Product Officer, Digital Media for the Disney/ABC Television Group); Allen DeBevoise (Chairman & Co-Founder of leading MCN Machinima, as well as active angel investor); Dennis Goh (Director, International Digital Media Operations for leading Asian-focused communications group SingTel); and Andrew Wallenstein (Editor-in-Chief, Digital, of leading media and entertainment-focused publication Variety magazine and  Should be a good one -- and I will keep it lively.

See many of you there.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

2 Week Blog Break -- See You at LA’s Siemer Summit July 16-17

I am off for two weeks from my blogging -- and will next see you at LA’s premier digital media/tech conference -- the Siemer Summit on July 16-17, where I will be moderating a multi-platform video panel on day 2.  I look forward to seeing many of you there.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Google Buys Its Way Deeper Into Music for a Song(za) - Here’s Why

Digital music wars continue to escalate.  Apple/Beats (bought for $3 billion).  Amazon Prime Music (recently launched).  Samsung/Slacker (major strategic partnership).  YouTube Music (coming soon to a smart phone near you).

And now Google itself, announcing yesterday that it has acquired curated digital radio service Songza -- something previously rumored and something I just predicted last week when I wrote:

The M&A market will heat up again soon -- and don’t be surprised if the next major move is Google swallowing up Songza.

Initial reports when the Google/Songza news first surfaced indicated a price tag of $15 million.  But, due to an apparent wealth of suitors following initial rumors, Songza was picked up for significantly more -- music to its investors ears, since the start-up (which I use regularly) had only raised $1.5 million to date.  

Expect more M&A in this white hot space in the next several months, precisely because it is increasingly daunting for stand-alone privately-held services like Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, 8tracks, and Slacker to compete and profit amidst these gorillas (here is last week’s analysis about that very issue).  One obvious move would be for Samsung to buy its Milk Music partner Slacker.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

WORLD PREMIERE VIDEO - What Is Manatt Digital Media?

Manatt Digital Media -- who we are, what we do -- in video (because nothing tells a story like video, especially in our multi-platform world). You see it here first.

Friday, June 27, 2014

VidCon - Brands & Media Companies - If You Miss It, You Don’t Get It (& You Will Be Left Behind)

VidCon 2014 --  like the 1892 Chicago World’s Fair that heralded a new era of disruptive technology (how do you like that reference?) -- this may be the event upon which we look back and say, for media companies, brands, and marketers, “this was the moment that defined the mainstreaming of premium short form video content and consumer engagement via technology and the fundamental overall transformation of the media and marketing business in general.”

That is no hyperbole -- that analogy is apt, and this sea change is real, very real.  And to “get” -- really “get” -- that fundamental point (from which fundamental strategic shifts inevitably must follow -- or not, at your peril), you just gotta be there.  On the ground.  At VidCon.  You just gotta see and “feel” the energy of the throngs of 10-20 year old kids who scream and swarm -- a la “back in the day” with The Beatles (another bell-weather of things to come at that time) -- every time they saw a YouTube “star”.  Those shrieks -- that frenzy -- happened every 10-15 minutes (or more) throughout the 7 hours I attended my first VidCon yesterday.

And those 7 hours cemented -- even more deeply -- what I had already concluded (but hadn’t really “felt” on a mass scale with the new generation of consumers -- i.e., the kids that media and brands want and need to reach right now).  That you better get on the bus in this transformed YouTube economy or forever be left behind (this picture of the kids with the signs says it all).  I was not alone with the deep internalization of this point.  Long-time digital media exec David Hyman -- who founded MOG music (acquired by Beats Music) and with whom I interacted “back in the day” at Musicmatch when he was with Gracenote (acquired by Sony) -- summarized it perfectly.  In his words, “This Blows My Mind!”  I violently agreed.

But it is not just about the fans.  VidCon brings together industry execs and the creative community together with the fans -- something that is rarely done at industry conferences (Comic-Con is another rare example).  And here’s the point -- all media companies and brands need to have their minds blown.  We are in the midst of a sea-change people.  Fundamental sea-change.  The media business -- and the way that marketers/brands engage with consumers -- will never be the same.

But, the vast majority of media and marketing execs still just don’t “get” it (or don’t want to “get” it and hope to wish these transformative/disruptive changes away).

One glaring example.  YouTube apparently invited the top 100 brands to attend VidCon -- to experience it -- on their dime.  Yes, YouTube offered to pay for all of their expenses.  But you know what?  Only 30 of those 100 brands took them up on that offer!  That is insane!  Those other 70 marketing execs should be, um, demoted!  They will be if they don’t change their mindsets fast, because their worlds are being rocked right now.  And, the pace of this transformation (disruption, or whatever you want to call it) is accelerating.

Here is another example.  These 10-20 somethings “think different” -- they just do.  The world of YouTube has wired their brains differently -- and their sensibilities are just different (and in many ways, refreshing).  Gone are the days -- at least for them -- of the traditional definition of “Celebrity.”  Yes, they still may like the boys of One Direction, but “celebrities” of this new media age are fundamentally different from the celebrities of yore.  They are relatable.  They are approachable.  They are authentic.  They are just simply “regular” kids who somehow amassed a frenzied following using the YouTube platform.  That’s why, no matter how many times they were accosted at VidCon yesterday, they stopped, talked and took pictures with the kids who adore them.  Again, the only way to really “get” this is to attend VidCon -- to swim in that sea of kids -- to watch how they react.  To watch how they cry after meeting their favorite YouTube “star” (yes, I saw several girls crying because that experience was simply overwhelming).  If you have any doubts, just watch these two videos (the first shows screaming girls flock to YouTube “star” Ricky Dillon -- and the second shows fellow stars Kingsley and Lilly Singh take the stage for a Q&A).  VidCon 2014, among other things, was Coachella for Kids! (I coined that, so don’t use unless you give me royalties ...).

One more glaring example underscoring how the media world has changed for Gen Z took place when legendary media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg took the stage for a fireside chat following a panel of digital media/YouTube economy execs.  In the words of a colleague who attended that event, “the room was packed, but half the people left when Katzenberg took the stage.”  To be clear, this is no slam on Katzenberg.  He absolutely fills (and overflows) a room in the “traditional” media world.  But, that’s the point.  That world is gone.  Nothing is “traditional” anymore.  For media execs.  For marketing execs.  (Fortunately for DreamWorks, Katzenberg “gets” it -- that’s why DreamWorks is ahead of the curve with its acquisitions of MCNs AwesomenessTV and Big Frame, as well as its recent launch of YouTube network Dreamworks TV (about which I recently wrote)).  Doesn’t mean that “traditional” media has no role in this brave new world -- it just means that so-called traditional media platforms (TV, motion pictures, etc.) are now just part of the overall multi-platform spectrum and world in which we live.

VidCon 2014.  For me, the single most important and “must attend” industry event of the year.  I would argue that it should be the same for media, marketing and brand execs.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

MCN Feeding Frenzy Continues, As Food Network Invests In Tastemade

As expected, the MCN frenzy of the past few months shows no signs of abating (a frenzy which I have chronicled in great detail and previously highlighted Tastemade).  Now, Scripps Liberty Media -- the company behind the Food Network -- just announced that is leading a major $25 million round in leading food-focused and LA-based Tastemade.  Media giant Comcast’s venture arm also joins the party.  Obviously, these major media companies -- like the others jumping into the stew in the past few months -- are following the bread crumbs to where the action is.  That means mobile -- where the kids are -- where marketers increasingly are going -- and where we see the rise of short form premium video.

For Digital Music, Size Matters -- Music As The Trojan Horse (Or Not)

What a whirlwind it has been the past few months in the world of on demand music streaming -- and, importantly, the rise (and mainstreaming) of the music subscription model.  All of the “usual suspect” behemoths have thrown their over-sized hats into the ring.  First, Apple buys Beats (and Beats Music) for a cool $3 billion.  Next, Amazon launches Prime Music under a stealth subscription model (no separate fee for the service itself, so long as the user already subscribes to Amazon Prime).  And now, YouTube is expected to soon launch its own subscription service.

And, that ain’t great news for the much smaller, privately-held “pure play” on-demand music streaming services like Spotify, Rdio and Rhapsody (not to mention online radio services Pandora -- more on them later).  Yes, Spotify reports that it now has over 10 million subscribers world-wide (in other words, its reach is impressive), but that is a fraction of the reach of the behemoths mentioned above (and their eventual music subscription traction through their built-in captive audiences, sheer marketing mass and brute force of will and virtual unlimited resources).

One more critical thing -- the behemoths business model is fundamentally different than the business models of the stand-alone privately-held services.  For Apple/Beats, Amazon/Prime Music and YouTube, subscription music streaming is just a means to an end -- it serves to serve the company’s underlying core business model (which is fundamentally different for each of these three behemoths).  In other words, the music service itself is just the Trojan Horse -- the entry or retention point.  That means that music service itself need not be stand-alone profitable, so long as its overall impact is positive.  But, for the pure play services (Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody), the music service IS the thing.  There is nothing else to monetize.

Let’s take Apple/Beats.  Apple is a hardware company pure and simple.  Apple needed an on demand music service (it saw its core music download business declining), so it looked in the marketplace and found a kindred spirit in Beats, which too is fundamentally a hardware company.  For Apple, Beats Music serves as yet another entry and retention point to drive greater hardware sales (iPhones, headphones).

Amazon’s business model is different.  Yes, Amazon too sells hardware (including the new Amazon Fire phone), but Amazon is not and will never fundamentally be a hardware company like Apple.  Amazon is all about ecommerce -- selling stuff -- pure and simple.  So, Amazon Prime Music -- and the hardware that supports it -- are new important entry and retention points into the world of shopping (and critically, mobile shopping).

And now YouTube Music.  You know what that is.  It certainly isn’t about maximizing the monetization of the new service itself (or apparently pleasing the indie labels with its deal terms).  It is ALL about YouTube and Google’s fundamental business model -- to sell ads.  Google already prints money.  Now its voracious appetite turns to music and yet another reason for all of us not to leave its printing press.

We all know that on demand music subscription service economics are tough -- on all players in the overall eco-system.  But, while Apple, Amazon and now YouTube can flick those issues off of their collective shoulders, Spotify, Rdio, and ever-silent Rhapsody cannot.  They MUST be stand-alone profitable -- or they are gone.

What does all of this ultimately mean for those pure-play services?

Yes, Spotify is on its way to an IPO to fill its coffers with new resources to compete.  Nonetheless, its fundamental business model will never change.  That means that ultimately it will be acquired.  White hot gorilla Samsung is a likely candidate (in fact, I have little doubt there is much kicking of the tires now).  Yes, Samsung just recently launched its own music service -- Milk Music -- in partnership with San Diego-based Slacker, but that is just online radio like Pandora.  And, let’s not forget that Apple had its own online radio service before it acquired Beats.  But, online radio wasn’t enough.  Same holds true for Samsung.  

As for Rdio, Rhapsody and others, they too either will be acquired (likely this year) or whither away -- nibbled at little by little by the big dogs.  Same holds true for other online radio services like Pandora, Songza, 8tracks and others.  They just can’t be alone.  They are social creatures that need to partner up. The M&A market will heat up again soon -- and don’t be surprised if the next major move is Google swallowing up Songza (which has been in the rumor mill for some time).