Reporter is Wined and Dined, Feels Refined; Still, Many Things About that Day Linger in Gumshoe’s Mind, Rendering him Blind: My Experience with Microsoft and Its Zune

As many of you know, we at TMT strive to not only report important happenings in the music world, but to shed additional light on these happenings through alarmist, cheap, crass, and often even flat-out nonsensical humor. Hey, it's a delicate recipe, but if you mix it just right — and hire a fat batch of news writers every so often — you come out the other end with dynamite. It's great! It's... supoib.

Truth be told, I don't really know where this intro is leading; I'm actually avoiding the subject at hand because I've been racking my brain trying to figure out how to present it in the best possible way, with all the supplementary details included. I had quite an experience recently, after all.

You see, a few weeks ago a teeny-tiny-tabletop company called FUCKING MICROSOFT — heard of 'em? — invited your hero/adversary Gumshoe and a group of "music bloggers" to its Seattle think tank to... well, actually we weren't supposed to find out until we got there. However due to instinct, savvy, and big-big-big balls, I instinctively knew the whole thing was centered on the eventual release of the nu-iPod, the Zune. (Actually, to its credit, Microsoft isn't trying to supplant the iPod, but we'll get to that later.) I also knew I was in for a treat or two since my amazingly astute neighbor told me earlier the company furnishing my trip is well-known for treating journalists like the highest line of glitterati. As soon as I was made privy to this little info nugget, I resolved to keep my head on straight no matter how many wraps of blow, sedans of hookers, and copies of Halo II were thrown my way...

So M-to-the-Soft booked me a plane ticket to Seattle and promised meals and drinks and a nice hotel room. I was all like, "YOU THINK A SWANKY HOTEL ROOM WILL BUY MY AFFECTION!? WELL, YOU'RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. WHOSE TAINT DO I POLISH FIRST???" But before I checked into the hotel after the flight, I found something, or should I say someone, waiting for me in the baggage claim: a dude in a suit with a sign in his hand. What was on the sign isn't important... oh wait, yes it is! The sign read: Purdum. That's my last name! I'll admit I felt a little flattered and expectant once Mr. Beauregard opened the door for me and guided my Lincoln Towne Car through downtown Seattle like a pro. He was bantering about his time in the Army and driving Mick Jagger about town all the while. I checked in at the Hotel Maxxx — a popular porn-shoot site no doubt — and took a long nappy-nap to freshen my senses. (I had stayed up falling in love the night before. Yeah, I hate people in love, too.)

Wiping the hard crust of sleep from my eyes, I headed downstairs for the big rendezvous. I spotted an indie type in the lobby. Being the assuming sort, I walked right up and said, "HEY, WHEN ARE WE GETTING THIS SHIT STARTED!" to the polite New Yorker, who softly said... well shit, I don't remember. In fact, I'm not sure of what I said. Suffice to say, he was from the blog Music For Robots and was thus definitely a member of our "blog" team. Soon the others joined us: the guy from My Old Kentucky Blog, a dude from 3Hive (a great man), and a girl from some blog I can't remember. Fuck it. Also, the managing editor of Stereogum made an appearance or two. (Admittedly Stereogum was the only blog out of these I'd previously heard of, though I keep up with them all periodically now.)

Although I wasn't able to smuggle any stick-icky on the plane, my memory of the day is still a bit clogged, like that bong in the corner you gave up on because the damn thing, you know, clogs. I think we rode over in an SUV, a big one, but I can't really be sure. Who cares anyway!? The most important thing at that time, for me, was to make sure I would be fed. I was ecstatic when one of the project leaders informed me there were to be... wait for iiiiiiiiit... wraps. Hey, that was all I needed. I began dreaming of wraps... multiple wraps... big, beautiful wraps. I'll always be partial to sandwiches, but wraps are damn acceptable.

So we get there and, alas: no wraps. But I did munch on cookies and spicy Hawaiian chips. NAWT TU SHABBY! At first we sat on a table in a large waiting room sipping soda. We all signed large "non-disclosure" agreements. Well, most of us signed them. The dude from 3Hive (pictured on the right with me), being the dope-ass muh-fuh he is, actually snagged his agreement and put it in his bag. Luckily, disaster was averted when one of the M-soft folks noticed, chased down our SUV as we headed away from the soda room and asked him where his agreement was. He sheepishly fished through his bag, found it, signed it, and handed it over. (And in all fairness he seemed like an honest dude; I don't believe he did it on purpose... OR DID HE!?!).

Then we were sequestered in another room. There were a few people sitting in the room, which would delay our meeting. Needless to say, this wasn't going to fly. They scuttled out of the room. Perhaps buoyed by my fancy hotel room and a sudden that-guy-has-a-sign-with-my-name-on-it priggishness, I called after them, "Yeah, well, just see it doesn't happen again!" as they walked off. Why do I do these things? Don't know. I guess I felt at home, which is really a bad thing if you're trying to be an objective journalist.

Which brings me to a salient point: at the end of the night, one of the big-wigs at Microsoft told me, "Hey man, if we do good, let us know! If we screw up, call us on it!" I love this man (though I didn't get his name) because I was thinking the same thing in the back of my head the whole day: wow, these people seem to be happy with me right now, but what's going to happen when I lay it on the line?

So we're sitting in this room, waiting. Soon, a top-of-the-hill-aged gentleman walks in and begins exchanging pleasantries with us. He seemed top notch to me, save one thing: his apparel. Now let me remind you that through all of this I was looking for something, ANYTHING to criticize. Why? BECAUSE THEY FLEW ME OUT AND PUT ME UP IN A SWANKY HOTEL, that's why. When's the last time somebody 'flew you out' and put you up in a swanky hotel and didn't try to snow you over in some way? Being sleep-deprived and full of sweets, my mind pored over the man looking for faults. The suspicious part of me – later rebuked by my fellow bloggers as being paranoid – told me that this guy was trying to dress how he thought indie 'slacker types' would dress.

Then he started to talk about music. At this point, I couldn't help but feel him. He seemed excited about the Zune Media Player and its accompanying campaign, passing around the latest version so we could test it for ourselves. And tell you what, it is pretty nifty! You can store photos and video in addition to an arse-load of music, and — best of all — you can send playlists to other friends, so long as they have a ZunePod. That's shitty, but at this point, we all need to accept the fact that everything isn't going to work with everything else. What can you do? As we were dinking around with the sleek and admittedly iPod-esque Zunes, the man continued to talk about his history and background. Hey, he sounded like a very enthusiastic guy where music is concerned, and he definitely believed in "Project: Zune." Of course, he is paid to be enthusiastic, so... we'll call it a draw.

Then he got into promotion strategies for "indie" bands and suspicion crept into my belly once again. He wasn't the only one who made me squirm, either. The entire Zune team made one fatal error: they talked about two "indie" bands and how much they were going to promote them — which was fine — but they also let it become fairly obvious early on that these two, and ONLY these two bands, were on the list. Or at least they were the only two anyone was going to mention. What about other "indie" bands? What about Cyann & Ben? What about fucking Mark Mallman? What about... shit, I dunno, Eric Alexandrakis?

I mean, really think about this for a second: you're hard at work putting together a promotion push for "indie" artists with your new Zune that will set it apart from other products made by companies that apparently "don't look out for the little guy." You invite some bloggers that obviously don't give a pineapple frappe about mainstream music. Then you proceed to tell them you're "big into" promoting independent artists, and you mention TWO bands that you're going to work with? Two? Only TWO? And both of them are on Sub Pop? Shit guys, this is like the old Grandpa-all-of-a-sudden-listens-to-Pavement trick. Did they really think we wouldn't notice that they seem to have built their entire "indie" marketing campaign around two Sub Pop bands? They would slip those two — and remember, only those two — bands into their presentations like they were part of a long, long list... but I only heard those two bands the whole trip, which were: CSS and Band of Horses. Hey, don't look at me. I'm just calling them on it.

The next guy that came in was also from the UK and also dressed rather casually. He was more of a smooth talker, which again had my radar scanning the room. But this guy's music background was too pristine to ignore. He used to oversee Ministry of Sound, after all. So he told us more about the product as we continued to diddle. He also mentioned — you guessed it! — CSS. But he was pretty sincere and it was impossible, like the first guy, to renege him the benefit of the doubt. Now, when you think about who he works for, maybe the pendulum swings the other way... and come to think of it, the fact that Microsoft was responsible did slip to the background amid talks of music, independent or otherwise.

The next and last leg of our journey took us to a demo room where we were to experience the Zune ourselves, or at least view its features on a large projector screen. And again, the features of the Zune are quite tantalizing, though I doubt I'll be able to afford one for a few years. When you look through a list of songs on a Zune, you don't just see a bunch of bland track titles, you see the album cover, too. This alone is a huge deal to me because, hey, I likes me a good cover. Don't you wish you could turn on your iPod and see the cover of The Chameleons' Script of the Bridge? Of course you do!

The sharing feature is a little discouraging because once you send a playlist to a friend, they can only play it three times before it's deleted and jettisoned from your plater (but, ahem, hopefully the hacker community is keeping its finger on the pulse here). The fact that you can share at all, though, says a lot about the Zune and about Microsoft. It's a very uncharacteristic move. I'm not an expert when it comes to this sort of thing, but I genuinely appreciate the sharing feature in light of all the "digital rights" hoo-haw floating around (mostly on our TMT site). The ad wizards at M-Soft said, "Fuck that noise, we want them to share," and I respect the shit out of that. Seriously, this is not lame indie sarcasm, I really do think this feature will push things ahead where personal media players are concerned.

One of the other features that caught my eye were these mini-promotional cartoons. I knew right away that these were carefully crafted to appeal — mmmcough-pander-cough-cough — to a new generation of listeners, but it also proved just how far things have come. I mean, who ever thought a huge corporation would depict punk-rock stereotypes in its promo cartoons? Wait, maybe this is a step back; I can't tell anymore. What I can say is that despite these seemingly despicable efforts to bond with the underdog, the whole Zune project as a whole really struck me as an authentic attempt to not just appeal to the little guys, but to show them that Zune has them in mind. They even appealed to our second-place preferences by admitting that Zune isn't designed to supplant the iPod as the dominant media device. Rather, Microsoft intends to rank a sturdy second and, to a point, see where the party takes it.

After rolling this concept around in my mind for a few weeks now, I must say I appreciated that in a weird way. Did these people listen to our complaints? Did they really give a shit about what we had to say? I don't know. But I can say they went a long way to assure that we would be informed of their upcoming plans, to an extent. The rich (ha!) writers from mags like Variety may have scarfed down the wraps before we could get our grubby hands on them, but the enthusiasm intrinsic in the Zune project came through loud and clear. I don't know if that was Microsoft's intent and, in fact, I still don't know exactly what they wanted from me, but I do know that they treated me well and respectfully. I'm not going to pretend that I understand business, so for me to feel these people out is pretty much pointless (though I suppose I've spent this entire bloody article doing just that). It's their job, after all, to talk with strangers and be friendly as Flanders, so how can I fault them for being, or at least appearing, stoked to be doing what they're doing?

The answer is: I can't. But that doesn't mean I can't tell the story of my confusing weekend of previews, expensive suites and rides in Lincoln Towne cars and let you all decipher what you believe for yourself. Hey, I'm just putting the info out there; whether you believe in Zune is your problem, though I personally think it's going to be a worthwhile alternative to the constraints of myPods and Napster knock-offs. Until the next time a large corporation shuttles me in and out of a big city like a part-time Vegas stripper, this is Gumshoe signing off and still feeling weird about this whole article...