'Weird Al' Yankovic's Triumphant Return: A Manager's Perspective (Guest Column)
Jay Levey, who's represented the comedian for more than 30 years, on hitting a home run with "Mandatory Fun."
When the editors of Billboard asked me to answer a few questions about "Weird Al" Yankovic's recent chart-topping, earth-shattering, game-changing, monumentally epic success — from the unbiased perspective of his manager — I battled my overpowering inclination for restraint and decided to appease them, thinking I would at least end up with a free subscription. So here goes ...
On the rollout of Mandatory Fun ...
Just as he did with the birth of MTV and the new platform that provided, Al has evolved alongside the Internet and has tracked its ascending potential. With an intuitive and immersive comprehension of the digital world, he devised his strategy: eight world premiere videos in eight days. Partner with eight different web portals. Some of those partners needed to feed their content beast and they welcomed his contribution. With shrinking video budgets on the label side, they provided funding and in-house production in return for limited exclusivity. That got half of the videos made. For the other half, identify the most gifted animators and auteurs who might embrace the opportunity to play in our sandbox. We farmed out their finished pieces to other portals that provided a launching pad for their premieres. Now add an intensive, meticulous use of social media, with all messaging coming straight from Al to maintain control and purity of voice. And then to all this add a fundamental appreciation of what his fans bring (while it's every artist's contention that their fans are special, Al really does have the greatest fans), and you end up with a massive cross-current of wide-ranging communities and a viral explosion that just might redefine the harnessing of the Web.
On how "Weird Al" maintains and expands his audience to this day ...
The story of Al's longevity as an artist begins and ends with his work. Look — I mean really look — at the quality of his wordplay, cleverness, intelligence, innovative rhyming and musicality. Combine that with a devoted and tireless work ethic where he genuinely seeks to improve his craft every time out. He writes and produces all of his music. He writes, directs and edits most of his own videos and for the ones he doesn't, he conceptualizes and closely collaborates, guiding the final vision. He (and his band from the beginning) puts on one of the best live shows on the planet. And he uses his high school valedictorian chops as a relentlessly diligent student of pop culture, always keeping smart and current tabs on the zeitgeist.
And then there's this story:
We're sitting in a pizzeria 30 years ago. "Eat It" has just been released and has ignited the airwaves. Suddenly he is recognized everywhere. A small boy, maybe 8 years-old, is walking past our table, notices my pizza partner, and in an easy, friendly voice says "Hi Al," and continues on his way. No gushing. No nervousness. No autographs. Just "Hi Al." It's always been like that — underneath his shy, eccentric exterior people immediately sense that Al knows he's just one of them, which translates to an indelible connection. Now extend that kind of connection that people have with him personally to that same kind of connection with his music, and everyone's molecules somehow get rearranged.
On what's next...
The most amazing part of that question is the very asking of it 32 years into his career. I can't say what's next, only that he has no plans of stopping. While some may be waiting with anticipation to see how he plans to continue to reinvent the music business, the Internet and who knows what else, Al feels like he's just continuing to do what he always does — trying to entertain and be just a little better than the last time. And through all of it, he will continue to be the eternal kid in us all, reading MAD magazine and listening with reverence to his favorite records in his bedroom, not ever quite believing he gets to be Weird Al every day.
This article first appeared on Billboard.com.
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