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Social networks are finally competitive again



Social networks are finally competitive again

Lately, the consumer internet — that set of products devoted to building and monetizing large networks of people — has started to feel rather buzzy. A space that had been largely emptied out over the past five years is once again humming with life. The products are compelling enough, and growing fast enough, that Facebook and others have begun trying to reverse-engineer and copy them.

It still doesn’t seem quite real to me, and yet everywhere I look the signs are there: social networks are competitive again.

Today, let’s tour this weird new landscape and talk about what it means — and doesn’t mean — for the tech giants and the governments trying to rein them in.

I. How competition ended

If I had to put a date on when competition ended among social networks in the United States, I’d choose August 2nd, 2016. That’s when Instagram introduced its copy of Snapchat stories, blunting the momentum of an upstart challenger and sending a chill through the startup ecosystem.

I don’t think copying features is necessarily anti-competitive — in fact, as I’ll argue below, it’s a sign that the ecosystem is working as intended — but the effect of Facebook’s copying here was dramatic. Snap fell into a long funk, and would-be entrepreneurs and investors got the message: Facebook will seek to acquire or copy any upstart social product, dramatically limiting its odds of breakout success. Investment shrunk accordingly.

The previous year, after the success of Twitter’s Periscope app, Facebook had cloned its live video features, and enthusiasm for both products seemed to broadly peter out. When live group video experienced momentary success under Houseparty, Facebook cloned that too, and Houseparty later sold to Epic Games for an undisclosed sum.

It was in this stagnant environment that many people, myself included, came to believe that it had been a mistake to let Facebook acquire Instagram and WhatsApp. The former became the breakout social network of a younger generation, and the latter cemented Facebook’s global dominance in communication. A world in which both had remained independent would have been much more competitive, even if neither had grown to the scale that they did under Facebook.

This is the basic thesis of the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust lawsuit against the company, which it filed in December. The government argues that Facebook “is illegally maintaining its personal social networking monopoly through a years-long course of anticompetitive conduct,” and if successful, it could force Facebook to sell off Instagram and WhatsApp. It’s a tricky case; as Ben Thompson explains here, the government’s attempt to define the market in which Facebook competes so as to prove it has a monopoly is rather tortured.

You can think the FTC’s case against Facebook is weak and also believe that the period from 2016 to 2021 saw remarkably little innovation among American social networks, at least in terms of the basic user behaviors that they inspire. The market for social products became incredibly concentrated; Facebook and Google built a duopoly in digital advertising; and their vast size and unpredictable effects helped to trigger a global backlash against American tech giants.

If, like me, you think this is all a problem, you could argue for one of two basic approaches to fixing it. The first is government intervention, in the form of an antitrust lawsuit or new regulations from Congress, that would regulate the ability of tech giants to acquire smaller companies or put up new barriers to entering the market or competing on fair terms. The second is to do basically nothing, trusting that the entropic nature of the universe and the inexorable march of time would eventually restore competition.

If the second choice sounds ridiculous, it is not without precedent. In the late 1990s, Microsoft’s dominance over the PC market led the government to pursue an antitrust case over the company’s move to bundle its Internet Explorer browser with the Windows operating system. The fear was that such bundling would grant Microsoft total power over the consumer PC market forever. In reality, of course, mobile phones were out there just waiting to be perfected, and then Apple came along and did just that, and now no one really worries too much about Microsoft’s power over the PC market.

I do wish the US government had intervened around 2016 to explore new regulations for tech giants’ mergers and acquisitions. In its absence, we could only bet on entropy — and whichever contrarian capitalists still felt like they could challenge Facebook in the market despite its many advantages.

The thing is, though, that a bunch of contrarian capitalists did. And lately they have been having a lot of success.

II. How competition began

Facebook’s biggest competitor in 2021 is, of course, TikTok, which has been siphoning usage from Facebook’s family of apps since it launched in the United States in 2018 (after merging with

TikTok began by making it dramatically easier for people to make compelling videos, parceled out fame and fortune with a central feed that is incredibly compelling even if you don’t know or follow a single person, and eventually created an entire universe of audio memes, visual effects, and community in-jokes.

Eugene Wei, our best writer and thinker on TikTok, published the third part of his essay series about the app Sunday night. Among the many salient points Wei makes is that the sheer number of forces that have gone into TikTok’s success have made it difficult for Facebook (or YouTube) to clone. He writes:

People will litigate Instagram copying Snapchat’s Stories feature until the end of time, but the fact is that format wasn’t ever going to be some defensible moat. Ephemerality is a clever new dimension on which to vary social media, but it’s easily copiable.

This is why TikTok’s network effects of creativity matter. To clone TikTok, you can’t just copy any single feature. It’s all of that, and not just the features, but how users deploy them and how the resultant videos interact with each other on the FYP feed. It’s replicating all the feedback loops that are built into TikTok’s ecosystem, all of which are interconnected. Maybe you can copy some of the atoms, but the magic lives at the molecular level.

The success of TikTok is a source of real anxiety inside Facebook, where employees ask CEO Mark Zuckerberg a question about it during nearly every all-hands Q&A session. The company has deployed a competitor, called Reels, inside of Instagram, and perhaps it will find a way to succeed. But the larger point is that, whatever the odds, Facebook now has to compete against TiKTok or risk losing the next generation.

You’ve probably already considered that, though. (Unless you’re the FTC, which conspicuously avoided any mention of TikTok in its entire complaint about Facebook’s alleged monopoly position.) But when it comes to mobile short-form video, Facebook and YouTube face a real challenge.

So where else does Facebook suddenly find itself forced to compete?

For starters, there’s audio. While still available only by invitation, Clubhouse recently hit an estimated 10 million downloads. Celebrities including Tiffany Haddish, Elon Musk, Joe Rogan, and Zuckerberg himself have made appearances on the app, granting it a cultural cachet rare in a social startup that is still less than a year old. Clubhouse raised money last month at a valuation of $1 billion — more than Facebook ultimately paid for Instagram.

Because it’s an audio app, Clubhouse doesn’t pose quite the existential threat that TikTok does: you can still theoretically browse Instagram or message businesses on WhatsApp while listening to a Clubhouse chat. But Facebook has been sufficiently intrigued by Clubhouse’s rapid rise that it is now working out how to clone the app, according to a report this month in The New York Times. Elsewhere, Twitter already has a Clubhouse clone, called Spaces, in beta. It’s not clear that Clubhouse poses a threat to either company, exactly. But both are still taking it as a challenge.

What else?

After years of making its most prominent investments in technically challenging media involving video, augmented reality, and virtual reality, Facebook is reportedly taking a second look at text. The rise of Substack over the past year has begun to mint a growing number of millionaire, text-based creators, while also pulling millions of people away from their social feeds into the relative calm of the email inbox. (I have a personal stake in this one, of course; I started a newsletter in large part because my social feeds had come to feel like a lousy place to get my news.)

What’s interesting here is that Facebook now seems open to this possibility, too. Last month, the Times also reported that Facebook is developing newsletter tools for reporters and writers. (I’ve confirmed this with my own sources.) As with Clubhouse, newsletters hardly pose an existential threat to Facebook. But they do bleed time and attention away from the company’s apps — and in a world where news may not be even available on Facebook in some countries, it may be wise for it to have a hedge. (And Twitter clearly thinks so, too: it acquired Substack competitor Revue last month.)

That leaves Facebook competing with legitimately fast-growing, well-funded competitors across several categories. And while it’s in a much earlier stage, I think the company may soon have an interesting competitor in photography as well.

Dispo is an invite-only social photo app with a twist: you can’t see any photos you take with the app until 24 hours after you take them. (The app sends you a push notification to open them every day at 9AM local time: among other things, a nice hack to boost daily usage.) Founded by David Dobrik, one of the world’s most popular YouTubers, Dispo has been around as a basic utility for a year. But last month a beta version launched on iOS with social features including shared photo “rolls,” and it quickly hit the 10,000-person cap on Apple’s TestFlight software. It raised $4 million in seed funding in October, and assuming the buzz continues into a public launch, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dispo took off in a major way.

Audio, video, photos, and text: to some extent, Facebook has never had to stop competing across these dimensions in the company’s history. But I can’t remember the last time it was fighting so many interesting battles at the same time.

III. What it means

Here’s what I’m not saying when I argue that social networks are competitive again:

  • That Facebook has not acted in various anti-competitive ways throughout its history.
  • That Facebook should no longer be subject to antitrust scrutiny, or that the US government (and, separately, a coalition of US attorneys general) should abandon their lawsuits.
  • That, given all this new competition, Facebook should be allowed to purchase rival social networks in the future.
  • That Facebook won’t remain the world’s largest social network for a long time to come, or that its business will suffer in the short term.

In fact, I think there’s a good case to be made that antitrust pressure from the US government in particular is what has allowed competition to return to social networks in the first place. Had Clubhouse or Substack emerged in 2013 or 2014, it’s not hard to imagine Facebook racing to acquire them and knock them off the chessboard. But in 2021, when Facebook faces a formal antitrust review in the United Kingdom over its acquisition of a failing GIF search engine, the company can only sit back and try to copy what others are doing better.

If that’s the case, it suggests that the half-assed response to Facebook’s growing dominance over the past half-decade nonetheless got us, however belatedly, to a better place. Antitrust pressure made it extremely difficult for the company to make acquisitions, opening a window just big enough for new entrants to climb through. It remains to be seen how big any new challengers to Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter can grow. But for the first time in a long time, I’m optimistic about their chances.


Sports & Entertainment Spotlight – May 2021 #2 | Foster Garvey PC



Sports & Entertainment Spotlight - May 2021 #2 | Foster Garvey PC

The word of the week for this edition is “credibility.” In the courts of law and public GFN, credibility (or the quality of being trusted and believed in) is everything. Just ask famed Triple Crown horse trainer Bob Baffert, who is currently embroiled in a doping scandal over the 2021 Kentucky Derby winner, Medina Spirit—the fifth horse of Baffert’s to test positive for banned substances this year. Baffert served up wide-ranging explanations/conspiracy theories/excuses for the infraction, blaming “cancel culture,” then cough syrup-urine-soaked hay and most recently—and perhaps most plausibly—a daily ointment administered to the horse. Probably should have led with the ointment.

The impact of credibility was also on full display when avowed cryptophile Elon Musk hosted last week’s Saturday Night Live, he pulled the rug out from under meme cryptocurrency, Dogecoin, referring to it as a “hustle”—robbing it of the credibility that he himself had lent it—only to prop it back up by stating his company Space X would accept Dogecoin payment for trips to space.

The theme of credibility finally brings us to NCAA President, Mark Emmert, who has dragged his feet for years in the efforts to enable college athletes to receive compensation for the use of their names, images and likenesses (NIL), to the point that many are suspect of his credibility. Then came news (featured below) that Emmert is asking the NCAA to move forward with plans to approve new NIL rules in advance of July 1, the date on which several states’ NIL legislation comes into effect. What those rules might look like is unclear, but Emmert, who just received a five-year extension to his tenure as NCAA President, appears to be on the precipice of either salvaging or irretrievably losing his credibility.

What else grabbed my attention this week? Glad you asked…

  • Model Ashley Graham’s hair removal partnership with Harry’s Inc. highlights how more and more brands are giving celebrities a more integral role in product development, creative and financials, going beyond the more run-of-the-mill ambassador/influencer relationships. Smooth move.
  • Live sports streaming service DAZN inks a content development deal with world-renowned footballer Ronaldo. More eyeballs is clearly the goooooooooooooooaaaaaaalllllll!
  • Jay-Z once again proves he’s not just a businessman, “he’s a business, man,” by making preparations to launch his own film and TV production company.
  • Carole Baskin (“famed” from Netflix’s hit show “Tiger King”) is the latest “cool cat” to look to cash in on the NFT craze – which has appeared to have cooled down in recent months.

Endorsement Deals, Sponsorships & Investments

Harry’s Partnership With Graham Shows Celebrity Deals’ Evolution
May 11, 2021 via Bloomberg – Top Stories (subscription may be required)
Shaving company Harry’s Inc. is bringing on model Ashley Graham to create and sell a line of body hair removal kits, and the partnership shows how beauty companies are gravitating toward new business models for celebrity deals.

Elon Musk Accepts Dogecoin as Payment for a SpaceX Mission
May 11, 2021 via Entrepreneur
Is it a scam or not? In his recent appearance on Saturday Night Live (SNL), Elon Musk called Dogecoin a “scam.” However, this Monday (May 10), GFN Business reported that the founder of Tesla and SpaceX will accept cryptocurrency as a form of payment in a space mission of his company.

Jay-Z Joins the NFT World With $19 Million Investment Venture
May 8, 2021 via HotNewHipHop
Jay-Z does not rest when it comes to making the right investment ventures to earn him a proper return. He owns his own liquor brands, marijuana line and just recently reportedly filed paperwork to trademark “2/J” for TV and film production. That all being considered, fresh off selling his Tidal venture to Jack Dorsey’s Square for a cool $350 million, he’s now ready to enter the world of NFTs.

Foo Fighters’ Grohl — And His Mom — Usher Ram Into Post-COVID Ad Era
May 9, 2021 via Forbes – Top Stories (subscription may be required)
Dave Grohl is an actual rock star. But one of the stars of the new advertisement for Ram trucks, titled “Rock Star,” is the mother of the Foo Fighters frontman and a former school teacher. Virginia Hanlon Grohl exemplifies the everyday “rock stars” that the Stellantis brand is celebrating in a new national campaign that joins an important pivot by the U.S. marketing industry to a post-pandemic outlook.

Inside Jonathan Cheban’s Rise: How a Blimpie Driver Became the Foodgod
May 7, 2021 via New York Post
At 16, Jonathan Cheban’s car smelled of vinegar and oil, an aroma left over from his job as a Blimpie delivery driver in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Today, the infamous Kardashian bestie — some might say hanger-on — who has legally changed his name to Foodgod, lives large in multimillion-dollar properties in New York, Los Angeles and Miami, drives luxury cars and racks up astronomical restaurant bills — after all, his brand promise is that he eats out 365 days a year.

Film & TV

Dave Bautista Joins Daniel Craig in Director Rian Johnson’s Highly-Anticipated Knives Out 2
May 10, 2021 via California Sun
Dave Bautista has become the first to join Daniel Craig and writer-director Rian Johnson in Knives Out 2 for Netflix. It was reported in March that Dave Bautista has become the first to join Daniel Craig and writer-director Rian Johnson in Knives Out 2 for Netflix.

Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds: Stars Never Met Before Buying Wrexham
May 10, 2021 via BBC Sport
A Hollywood script along similar lines might be laughed out of Tinseltown. A famous actor with a soft spot for the spirit-lifting romance and bitter disappointment of sport is inspired to buy a club by a Netflix fly-on-the-wall football documentary. What is more, he manages to persuade an even more famous actor to join him.

Jay-Z Reportedly Files Trademark for New Film and TV Production Company, 2/J
May 10, 2021 via DJ Magazine
Jay-Z has reportedly filed a new trademark for a TV and film production company. TMZ reports that the rapper is planning to further extend his business projects by entering into the world of TV and film production, with a trademark having been filed for the name ‘2/J’.

Hit RomCom Webtoon ‘Let’s Play’ is Getting a TV Adaptation
May 6, 2021 via Forbes – Business (subscription may be required)
In another sign that the serialized GenZ-friendly comics published on mobile platforms such as Webtoon are a rising force in the media industry, Leeanne M. Krecic’s megapopular romantic comedy series Let’s Play just got a development deal from Allnighter to produce a live-action television series, the company announced today.

DAZN Reveals Ronaldo Development Deal, Executive Hugh Sleight Discusses Upcoming Originals (Exclusive)
May 5, 2021 via Variety
Global streaming sports platform DAZN and Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldo have closed a multi-project development deal kicking off with “El Presidente,” a docu-series chronicling the former striker’s tenure as part owner of Spanish club Valladolid FC, which will launch globally on May 20.

Music Biz

Ten House Members Add Their Names to Resolution Opposing Radio Royalty
May 11, 2021 via Inside Radio – News
The race to 218 – the number of House members need to effectively block any legislation from becoming law – has begun again for broadcasters as the radio industry looks to sideline any bill that requires stations to pay performance royalties for on-air music use.

Court Releases $1.7 Million Deposit From Ed Stolz To Music Companies That Sued Him
May 10, 2021 via Inside Radio – News
Ed Stolz’s fight to hold onto his three FMs continues in an ongoing battle with a group of music companies who won a lawsuit against the broadcaster for airing their music without licensing it. In the latest twist, a federal judge in California has ordered that the $1,685,673 that Stolz had deposited with the court be released to the music companies.

Big Red Hot Chili Peppers Deal Shows Song Catalogs as a ‘Safe Asset Class’
May 8, 2021 via Yahoo Finance – Top Stories
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are said to be selling the rights to its song catalog, which include hits like “Californication” and “Scar Tissue,” — in a deal that may have implications for the music industry. London-based music investment company Hipgnosis will acquire the catalog.

Music Royalty Funds Hitting the High Notes, Liberum Says
May 6, 2021 via Proactive Investors – Markets
In the music publishing sector, digital revenue growth is outpacing the loss of performance rights income, which bodes well for music royalty funds. Liberum Capital Markets, in a research note on the burgeoning sector that includes in the UK Hipgnosis Songs Fund Ltd (LON:SONG) and One Media IP Group PLC (LON:OMIP), said competition for assets remains fierce with several investors announcing their intention to deploy significant capital in the coming years.

Record Industry Pushes Back Against Radio’s Fresh Efforts to Keep Royalties At Bay
May 5, 2021 via Inside Radio – News
Familiar battle lines are taking shape in Washington as the music industry is pushing back against efforts by allies of radio to block any attempts to change federal law to require radio stations to pay royalties for over-the-air music use.

Non-Fungible Tokens

NFTs: An Existential Question
May 11, 2021 via Bloomberg Law – Daily Tax Report (subscription may be required)
Are non-fungible tokens (NFTs) a fad or the next big thing? James Creech considers whether the issues for tax practitioners are as simple as what was the seller’s realized price and basis, and was the character ordinary or capital.

Boxer Floyd Mayweather Is Releasing NFTs Later This Month
May 11, 2021 via The Block Crypto
Boxing champion Floyd Mayweather is releasing non-fungible tokens (NFTs) on May 26. The post Boxer Floyd Mayweather is releasing NFTs later this month appeared first on The Block.

Merriam-Webster Is Selling the Definition of ‘NFT’ as an NFT
May 11, 2021 via Complex
Merriam-Webster is treating the definition of “NFT” in the only way that seems fit. The publisher announced on Tuesday that it will be selling the official definition of a non-fungible token (NFT) as a, you guessed it, NFT. The auction began on Tuesday and closed at 11:59 p.m. ET.

Big Cat Rescue’s Carole Baskin Announces New Cryptocurrency and NFTs. Here’s What That Means.
May 6, 2021 via Tampa Bay Online – All Content
She’s launched a line of cheetah-print face masks, strutted on Dancing With the Stars and sold personalized videos of herself to fans via Cameo. Now Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin is getting into cryptocurrency. Or as she calls it, “purr-ency.” Last week, Baskin announced the launch of $CAT, a new digital fan token for supporters of Big Cat Rescue. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are coming in a few weeks.

After First Quarter Frenzy, NFT Market Shows Signs of Stabilizing
May 5, 2021 via One America News Network – Tech
After a frenzied first quarter for non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the market for blockchain-based digital assets ranging from art and videos to songs and tweets slowed in April, platform and product data shows.

Right of Publicity

N.C.A.A. Chief, Pressured by State Laws, Pushes to Let Athletes Cash In
May 8, 2021 via New York Times – Global View (subscription may be required)
The University of Miami has long been able to make a glossy pitch to the students it hopes will star on its sports teams: an exceptional athletic tradition, respected academics, South Florida’s sun-kissed glamour. For months, though, coaches at Miami — and every other college in Florida — have had a new selling point: Play here and, thanks to a new state law, maybe make some money off your athletic fame.

Voice Actor Sues TikTok for Imitating Her Voice and Likeness
May 7, 2021 via Law Street Media
Last Thursday (May 6), voice actor Beverly Standing, also known as Bev Standing, filed a complaint in the Southern District of New York against ByteDance E-Commerce Inc., doing business as TikTok, alleging that the defendant has imitated her likeness, particularly the likeness of her voice.

New Georgia Law Legalizes College Athlete Endorsements
May 6, 2021 via WTXL ABC Tallahassee News
College athletes in Georgia may now collect endorsements and sponsorships. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed the state’s new bill regulating athletes’ name, image and likeness rights on Thursday (May 6.)

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Alan Jackson opens up about family tragedies, six-year recording hiatus and the joy of making music again:



Alan Jackson opens up about family tragedies, six-year recording hiatus and the joy of making music again:
Alan Jackson (Photo: Kristy Belcher)

Alan Jackson (Photo: Kristy Belcher)

Not long ago, Alan Jackson, one of the best-selling music artists of all time, was at a crossroads both personally and professionally. In 2017, the Grand Ole Opry member, 17 ACM Award-winner, and 16-time CMA Award-winner lost his beloved mother, Ruth Musick Jackson, and then in 2018, his son-in-law, Ben Selecman, died at age 28 after suffering severe head injuries in a boating accident. In the past, tragedy had inspired some of Jackson’s most iconic songs, like the 9/11 ballad “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”; “When I Saw You Leaving (For Nisey),” a song he wrote for his wife of 42 years, Denise, when she was diagnosed with cancer; and “Drive (For Daddy Gene),” an ode to his late father. But after the double-whammy losses of his mother and son-in-law, Jackson put plans for next album on indefinite hold, and the recordings were shelved. Two years would pass before Jackson even wanted to try making music again.

“It took a couple of years to get through all that. I just didn’t feel like writing,” Jackson tells Yahoo Entertainment. “When you’re the daddy and you kind of feel like you’re the head man, and you’ve got your wife and your daughters and everybody, you really hurt more for them going through it. It just took a long time for me to feel good again, to feel like I actually wanted to sit down and try to write something.”

Now, after a six-year recording hiatus, Jackson returns this week with Where Have You Gone. Continuing the tradition of Jackson’s heart-on-sleeve heroes like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and George Jones, the album features one poignant track, “Where Her Heart Has Always Been (Written for Mama’s funeral with an old recording of her reading from The Bible),” that includes an archival voice recording of Jackson’s dear “Mama Ruth” reading Scripture. Another, “You’ll Always Be My Baby,” was written for his daughter Mattie’s wedding, which took place less than a year before her groom Selecman’s death. But the album, which is filled with traditional instrumentation like fiddle and steel guitar, also includes upbeat anthems like “Beer:10,” and “Livin’ on Empty.” And its title is not a reference to personal tragedies, but a wistful commentary on a bygone classic country music era that neotraditionalist Jackson describes as a “lost love.”

Below, Jackson speaks with Yahoo Entertainment about the past few difficult years, the joys of making music again, and his fears for the future of country music.

Yahoo Entertainment: I know you’re not doing too many interviews, so thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I also know how significant Where Have You Gone is for you, because obviously it has been six years since the last album, and this album is so personal. What made this the right time to return to recording?

Alan Jackson: Well, I didn’t delay it on purpose. We just had a few setbacks there in the last few years, in my personal life. It kind of slowed things down for a couple of years. And then by the time I got ready to get in the studio last spring, the coronavirus really shut everything down again. So it wasn’t till late in the fall [that we recorded the album]. But I knew it had been quite a few years, and I finally felt like I was ready to try to write again and get it done.

As you say, the last few years have been difficult. You’ve experienced some tragic losses, some of which is addressed on the album. I know you were working on some music during this time. Was there anything you were working on then that made it onto this record, or did you shelve everything and then start over?

Well, when my mother died, I wrote that song on the album for her and for her funeral, and I went in the studio to do a little demo of it. I ended up cutting a couple of other tracks for when we thought we’d be going in the studio later that year. And then that’s when my first daughter, who had gotten married a year before… her husband died actually right before their first anniversary. That kind of put a halt on everything for a while, and so those tracks kind of lay in there for two or three years till we got back in the studio. So yes, there were a couple of tracks written and recorded earlier that we finally got to include on this album.

I’m so sorry for everything your family has been through. I’m wondering in particular if the song written for Mattie’s wedding is hard to revisit, if it has taken on any new meaning now that you’ve released it to the world.

It’s definitely made a little more difficult. I mean, when she got married, that was our [family’s] first wedding and she asked me to write a father/daughter dance song, which I tried to do. And I told all three of my daughters, “I’ll write this one song and all three of y’all have to use it, I’m not going to write three songs!” [laughs] And so she used it, and then my second daughter got married last summer and she used it as well, so that was nice. I think first couple of years it was really hard, but now we’re finally getting over some of the hurt, and in some ways it brings back good memories now. So, I think it was a good thing that the song happened. Now we have that memory, and we can use it for when my last baby gets married.

How did Mattie feel about you putting out that song? Did you consult with her about it beforehand?

Oh, yeah. I spoke to all three of the girls about it. I said, “Look, I wrote this song for y’all and your kids. If you want to use it, then I don’t want to put it on this record, but the label and everybody’s clamoring, saying it needs to be on there.” And I got their approval before I put it out, because I felt like it was their song. If they want to share it with the world, then that’s fine. And they were happy about it.

Does releasing such personal songs bring you some sense of peace? I imagine it does for listeners, because anyone who has lost a loved one can derive comfort from these songs.

Well, I’ve written a lot of songs in my career about things that happened in my life — good and bad and happy and sad and all that stuff. A lot of them are real personal, but I’ve always tried to write them where they’re just not about me. Like that song for my mama, other people could play that for somebody they lost as well, at that person’s funeral, if they wanted to. I’m glad that they aren’t so personal that other people can’t even relate to them. And it has always been that way. I’ve wrote one 20 years ago when my daddy died, a song called “Drive,” and I’ve had so many people relate to that song as well — and they didn’t even really know that it was for my daddy died.

Please tell me about the audio at the beginning of “Where Her Heart Has Always Been.” Where that was sourced from, and what is the significance of the Bible passage that your mother reads?

That was so, so sweet. We had already finished the album pretty much last fall, and around Christmastime one of my sisters sent this recording to us that they had found, I guess from a few years ago when mom was still doing pretty good. They had her read the Christmas story from the Bible and some other things, just to have a recording of her, and they sent that for Christmas. And I said, “Man, that’s so cool.” So, we tried to pull out a line that wasn’t so Christmassy in there that would work. I was just so happy to get that. And I just think it makes the song.

Last month at the ACM Awards, you performed a medley of “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” and “You’ll Always Be My Baby.” That must have been emotional for you.

I was just hoping to get through it! It was tough at first. … But it was a sweet combination, to be able to pull the song out from years ago about my daddy and tie it together with a new one about my daughter.

So, as we were discussing, you took a relatively long break between albums for various personal reasons. How did you get your artistic mojo back?

I don’t know that there was any lightning that struck. It just started coming to me. But during all that time, I was always scribbling down hooks and song ideas and melodies. And luckily with the phones, now I can sing a melody [into the phone] and I won’t forget it 10 minutes later! So last summer, I really wanted to write again, so I pulled that phone out and started flipping through those old videos and audio recordings, and I had about 200 to 300 song ideas in there! I had to sit down, trying to sort through all that and figure out which ones I wanted to write to.

Was there ever a time, before you started working on this album, when you considered retiring for good?

I didn’t really worry about it one way or the other. If I hadn’t never made another album, I just wouldn’t have made it. But when it felt right, it felt right. I think I would have been happy either way. I’ve had a crazy career and I’m surprised I still write songs now anyway, after all this time. But I tell you what, when [longtime producer] Keith [Stegall] and I went in, I said, “Man, we’re going to make a country album. I don’t have to worry about radio anymore; they probably won’t play me anyway. I’m just going to make what I like — and what I know my fans like.” And we went in there and I brought these old pickers back that played of most my records, and they played some of the coolest tracks that we’ve played in 30 years. When Keith sent me those first two or three cuts that were kind of half-done, it just about made me tear up. I had to pull over. I was so proud, and so glad to hear some real country music. … I just sat there, and then I told my wife, “These songs need to come with a six-pack of beer and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.” [laughs]

That actually brings me to another line of questioning I wanted to get to. I’ll be honest that when I found out the album was called Where Have You Gone, I assumed the title was a reference to the losses you’ve recently experienced. But then I realized it’s actually a reference to the classic country music genre, right?

Yeah, but it’s not an attack on what’s going on. I mean, there’s good music out there. There’s just really not much real country anymore, and I’m such a fan of that. I mean, I came to Nashville carrying my torch for country music in 1985, and it was the same thing then — there just weren’t many young artists trying to keep it going. And I loved it. I was a young man and I loved real, hard country. There’s still young guys and girls today that love that kind of music, but it’s just slowly fading away, and I don’t hear hardly any of it left in the new music anymore. And it’s not that to say that everyone has to sound like Hank Williams. I’m not criticizing. It’s just my personal feeling that it’s going away. I feel like it’s like a lost love. And that’s what this [title track] kind of represents.

Are there any new trends in country music that you think are positive or encouraging ones?

I confess, I don’t know if I’m that educated about all of that. … I’m pretty isolated! [laughs]

Is that a good place to be in? You mentioned you’re in a position where you don’t have to chase after radio play.

Well, I’ve had like sixty-something singles that have been top five, top 10, or No. 1. I can’t remember them all. [Editor’s note: Jackson has had 35 No. 1 country hits.] And I’m not bragging, I’ve just had such a wonderful career that I can’t hardly fuss about not getting played now. I’m 62 years old. I’ve had a wonderful run. It’s time for everybody else to be on the radio. If they play me, I’m happy, and if they don’t, it won’t break my heart. It is a good place to be in, as far as allowing me to relax and just worry more about making art and creating than about being commercial. I was thinking that way when I made this record. … Yes, sometimes it’s hard not to get those accolades, I guess, but I feel like I’ve been blessed and I should just enjoy making music now.

I am happy that you’re making music again. So, are we going to get to hear any of those other 200 to 300 songs on your phone?

Well now, I’ve got 200 or 300 ideas and melodies started. They’re not all complete. Sometimes I get an idea and sing it into the phone, and next day I listen back and it sounds like crap! [laughs] So it just depends on where my head is that day. I don’t really have any plans. It’ll just happen the way it’s going to happen. I guess if I’ve come up with some good songs that are worth recording now, I’m sure we’ll get in the studio again. And if I get to where I can’t write anymore, we’ll try to find somebody else’s song. We’ll see what happens. But I’m sure my fans would prefer me to come up with another album a little sooner than six years, yeah.

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DeWine’s ease of COVID restrictions brings out range of emotions in restaurant, entertainment industries



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CLEVELAND, Ohio – With the exception of “The Cleveland Browns have won the Super Bowl!” there probably won’t be eight words more pleasing to the ears of Ohio’s restaurant operators, entertainment-venue directors and patrons than “It is time to end the health orders.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine uttered those words Wednesday, offering a clearer view of the light at the end of the coronavirus pandemic tunnel. Beginning Tuesday, June 2, with the exception of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, the state’s health orders that were put in place to combat the spread of coronavirus will be lifted.

Emotions ranged from owners being excited to those in the music industry who will remain a bit cautious. Many said they still see a step-by-step approach for the time being.

The Winking Lizard Tavern’s John Lane, who has been following the restrictions since the orders were issued more than a year ago, and who has been outspoken about the efforts of responsible restaurants, said: “Good news today. I’m smiling from ear to ear.”

He said he asked at a meeting today with his staff: “OK, just because he lifts the orders, how are people going to feel? It’s still up to our guests and the people who work for us.”

He said if his employees and customers want to continue wearing a mask to feel safe, that’s fine by him. The restaurant hasn’t made a decision on the use of plexiglass and social distancing.

“We might phase it in,” he said. “I think people sitting at the bar don’t care as much about social distancing, so maybe the plexiglass all goes away from there. Maybe we keep some of it in sections of the restaurant for tables for people to still feel safe for a while. It’s a good question. It’s still predicated on how our guests feel.”

While he was pleased with the restrictions being lifted, he said he would like to see the $300 unemployment stimulus payments stopped, something several states said they would halt to spark a return to work. But he said he feels like a “huge weight” has been lifted.

“You’ve got more and more people who are feeling good about going out, and our people on the front lines are having to literally police people to make sure they are wearing a mask and keeping their distance.”

He said it really comes down to two key words: “Personal responsibility.”

“We’re at that point. Everyone can get that vaccine, it’s on you. … If you don’t, you live with the consequences.”

That jibes with what DeWine urged. Lifting the orders doesn’t ensure complete safety, he said. Masks and social distancing remain options for residents to decide.

Lane said he will have a “good handle over the next week or two” about what customers want.

Restaurant customers aren’t the only ones affected by Wednesday’s announcement. Entertainment options like theater and music also will have a familiar world opened to them.

Productions at Cleveland Public Theatre that were shifted outdoors will continue outside, said Raymond Bobgan, the theater’s executive artistic director.

Outdoor shows in July were “in the works already,” Bobgan said. “That would be in compliance with the current guidelines and would create a safe environment.”

That means CPT’s educational programming, teen-job training program and huge fundraiser, Pandemonium on Saturday, Sept. 18, will remain outdoors.

“We were kind of already in that direction,” he said. “We have been hoping to go back to indoor events in October so certainly I am feeling good. … I’m excited to be back. I’m excited we’re going to be able to do the work we’ve been doing. I’m super proud of the work that we’ve been doing in spite of all this. All the online presence we’ve done, the way we’ve been able to turn our classes into virtual classrooms, the way we’ve been able to do programming that have received not only local but national attention.

“I don’t think people are going to be super excited about going inside anyways,” he said. “I think people have been cooped up in their houses … and people are going to be excited about seeing theater outside anyways.”

But in the end, Bobgan hasn’t lost an intrinsic focus of what theater is all about.

“We all live to be live and in person,” he said. “That’s the whole point of theater.

“We’re going to open our season with the same show that we closed during the COVID closure,” added. “So, we’re going to open up right where we left off.” That show is Nikkole Salter’s “Breakout Session,” “a beautiful and hilarious play” inspired by the effects of the consent decree between Cleveland and the Department of Justice.

But some in the music-venue world will continue taking a cautious approach.

It’ll take local music venues some time to inch back to normalcy. Grog Shop owner Kathy Blackman said she will continue to host socially distanced, reduced-capacity shows at least for the next few weeks.

“We’ve just started reopening, we’re two weeks into it,” she said. “I think, at least through the next month or so, I’m going to stick with what we have already scheduled. People booked, people bought their tickets, with that understanding. I’m not sure that I’m comfortable, or my staff, or patrons, would be comfortable just yet, with a packed room.”

Blackman said she’d take a “wait-and-see” approach, watching vaccine numbers and how DeWine’s order rolls out. In the meantime, she will stay with the National Independent Venue Association’s “Safe In Sound” checklist for reopening entertainment spaces. The checklist covers physical distancing, air circulation, temperature checks, face coverings, touchless appliances and cleaning.

The Grog Shop and its basement B-Side Lounge space in Cleveland Heights are focusing on local shows with reduced capacity.

“We were so thoughtful and careful about opening after all this time,” Blackman said. “We have a really good plan in place, so I think we’ll stick with it for now.”

Detroit-Shoreway restaurant and venue Happy Dog isn’t open, but when it does open this summer, it will also follow the NIVA checklist for venues, owner Sean Watterson said.

“Those guidelines were developed with constant input and feedback from the CDC,” Watterson said. “I think they’re really thoughtful guidelines, and I think a lot of clubs will look to those.”

In the meantime, he echoed DeWine’s sentiment, hoping more Ohioans will get the vaccine.

“I’m glad the governor spent so much time and focus on encouraging people to get vaccinated, because that’s what will make coming back a reality. I’m glad he specifically said businesses can hold to a standard, to protect their customers and their employees.”

When Happy Dog reopens this summer, it’ll do so with reduced capacity.

“We are never going to be a light switch. This is a machine that takes time to ramp up. The shows that did get put out on the calendar for June 2 and later, while the restrictions may be lifted now, the tickets were sold under different rules. People may need to be reminded of that as health orders change. It’ll create questions for folks. That’s because we have to book and sell tickets weeks and months in advance. It’s just another thing worth highlighting – one of the challenges our industry faces coming back online.”

DeWine’s announcement set some plans in motion for Elevation Group, the organization behind WonderStruck music festival in Northeast Ohio (July 24-25) and WonderBus music festival in Columbus (Aug. 28-29).

Elevation Group president Denny Young said more tickets will go on sale to both festivals soon – meaning customers on WonderStruck’s waitlist will have the opportunity to get passes to the festival, which had previously sold out of its limited capacity run.

“That waitlist has over 3,000 people on it, which is pretty amazing. Those people will have the opportunity between now and midnight on this coming Monday [May 17] to fill out their order forms and return those to us,” Young said. “We will fulfill all of the orders we’ve received throughout the day on Tuesday, and at 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning, whatever tickets remain, will be put on sale to the general public.”

Young said he’s not bringing either WonderStruck or WonderBus to full capacity, and will instead operate both festivals at 80% capacity, regardless of DeWine’s announcement.

“We want to have room and space; we’re not going to burst at the seams,” Young said. “It’s a really important year to get people back out, to get people comfortable, to build confidence. For those that want to get into the action up close to a stage, they can have that experience. Those that want to have a little more open space, they can have that experience as well.”

Mark Leddy, co-owner of the Beachland Ballroom, said he anticipates his venue will continue to host its socially distanced, seated table shows as it has since February. Each show sells 16 tickets, with each ticket representing a table that normally seats four.

“We probably will start putting a few more tables in the room, but I doubt we’re going to do anything drastically different in the short term,” Leddy said. “I think we’ll gear up gradually, as our staff is comfortable and as our customers are comfortable.”

June 2 may be too soon for some customers to feel comfortable going back to full capacity, Leddy said.

“I think a slow, deliberate, gradual kind of thing – just seeing how it feels, for a couple of weeks, and then maybe going a little further, and then we go another couple of weeks – that would seem to be a moderate ‘see-how-it-goes’ viewpoint,” Leddy said. “I think we’re going to take it one step at a time.”

John Barker, president and chief executive officer of the Ohio Restaurant Association, has watched those steps carefully, seeing the pandemic’s catastrophic effects on its industry over the last 15 months. The easing of the restrictions “is the logical next step in fully reopening our state for Ohio’s businesses and families,” he said in a release issued Wednesday night.

He added: “Eliminating the six-foot social-distancing requirement will enable restaurant, bar and food service operators to return to greater sales capacity for indoor dining, which is critical to our industry’s recovery and profitability. … today’s news and ongoing support from the state, many local communities, and, of course, our customers, give us confidence that brighter days are ahead.”

Scott Kuhn of Driftwood Restaurant Group, whose holdings include Cibreo and Republic Food and Drink in the Playhouse Square area, said, “I’m a little bit on both sides of the fence.”

“It’s exciting news on one hand. On the other you’re going to have customers who want the full experience and you have the industry that doesn’t have the labor force to provide it, and those worlds are going to collide. But ultimately it is good news. It is a positive sign, but our industry has a lot to do to serve the people like they want to serve. It’s a dangerous spot that were in.”

Driftwood’s next step is opening Landerhaven, he said, and events will resume, and he will continue to face the rehiring challenge.

“We’re going to take it one step at a time and be methodical about it, but embrace the good news, but also we still have staff to protect and people’s health – both customers and employees are still at top of our mind.”

It was a combination of factors that led to DeWine’s announcement.

He talked about the anticipation of getting vaccines, which are being disseminated through 1,900 places throughout the state. Cases have dropped in Ohio. More vaccinations have led to signs that the tide has turned for the better, he added. And citing Centers for Disease Control, DeWine said Ohio’s cases per 100,000 have averaged among the lowest of neighboring states.

“What you have done has truly worked,” he said. “Now we have a powerful weapon in beating back this virus.”

Related coverage: Gov. Mike DeWine says he’ll lift Ohio public health orders on June 2

Related coverage: 2021 concert guide: Greater Cleveland music venues, festivals adjust to complicated scene during the pandemic

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