Brian Boyer: #RecordDet Interview

Brian Boyer, longtime adviser and Detroit music fan, sits down with Detroit Sound Conservancy for an interview at United Sound Systems in Detroit.

Carleton Gholz: Welcome to United Sound Systems. My name is Carleton Gholz. I am the president of the Detroit Sound Conservancy, executive director of the Detroit Sound Conservancy. And we are here in the bowels of United Sound System in the basement on December 19th, 2015. I should note that it’s my mother’s birthday today. So happy birthday to my mother. And we have here with us this morning a long time advisor, early advisor to the project. The Detroit Sound Conservancy project. I’ve been in conversation with this man since the jump, about these and other issues going back to zines I did 15 years ago and other projects, websites, et cetera.  Advisor Brian Boyer

Brian Boyer: Hi. 

 Brian, we’re joined here in the studio,with Leo Early and LaVell Williams both advisors to the project. Brian, who are you and what is your relationship to Detroit music?  

Boyer: Well yeah, who am I? I’m a, job-wise, I’m the visuals editor at National Public Radio. So my team makes pictures at a radio organization among other things, which is odd. But yeah, my background is, I started in technology and then got kind of sick of making money for rich people. And decided I needed to do something a little more soulful with my day to day and, decided to take up a career in journalism, which I’ve been at for now the second half of my career. So about, I guess about eight years into journalism now and it’s pretty fun ride, feel like I’ve found my people. 

Gholz: And your relationship to Detroit music? 

Boyer: Oh, right. Detroit I grew up, I grew up in Detroit. Well, technically I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit,  I love music and I love Detroit.  

Gholz: Favorite Detroit record or maybe earliest Detroit record you remember hearing or maybe purchasing or when did you sort of become aware of Detroit music as sort of the, the spirit of the question here?  

Boyer: Yeah, I mean, my father’s he was from Pontiac and the Pontiac Central High. And,so yeah, we were pretty,  there was a lot of Motown in the house growing up, so I remember, i saw the Four Tops  when I was eight years old, something like that. A Meadowbrook show, back in the day. So there was always the Four Tops, Temptations, Aretha. In the suburb I lived in we’d see Aretha at the grocery store, being rude. [laughs]

Gholz: Opinions are his own, this morning. I should note.

Boyer: Hey, I love Aretha! 

Gholz: Ms. Franklin, if you’d like to call us anytime, absolutely anytime, we’ll return your phone calls. 

Yeah, so once I sorta graduated from the alternative rock and heavy metal of my youth, coming and finding Detroit techno via its German descendants and coming back really kind of brought me back into thinking about Detroit music. 

Gholz: Well that’s the next question would be, so I’ll take that broadly as a Motown-y sort of answer to that question, which is fine. Yeah. So we’re, you know, favorite live show in the city. It doesn’t have to be Detroit act, but, you know, you could talk about a Detroit venue, an early show you saw something really good.  

Boyer: Yeah, stand out shows, I saw Mr. Jeff Buckley play at Saint Andrews hall. That was a tremendous fluke of just dumb teenage luck.

Gholz: Yep. 

Boyer: Very pleased to have caught a set by Derrick May at Motor. 

Gholz: There you go. 

Boyer: That was a hell of a night. I mean, I remember being, the trance and all that,  that kind of music was the thing we were listening to, is not in Detroit, but seeing,  being in Ibiza and seeing Jeff Mills spin. 

Gholz: There you go. 

Boyer: Which, from what I gather, I don’t think he was playing in Detroit all that much at that point. 

Boyer: Circa 2000 . 

Gholz: No, he wasn’t giving Ibiza, absolutely, they were giving him love.  


Gholz: Motown has known the world over and you, as you already said, it’s sort of if you grew up in this area, it’s just sort of in the water. It’s the good part of the water, not the toxic lead poisoning of the water. Yeah. And what kind of, what other aspects of Detroit music do you think you wish got a little bit more coverage, you know, other than Motown, anything particular to you? 

Boyer: I mean, you know, the thing I tell folks, and maybe, you know, I haven’t lived here since I was in high school, so maybe I’ve got a bit of an outsider’s and naivete. But when I tell folks about Detroit music, I tell them that, coming to see a techno show in the early 2000s or coming to see a rock show, whatever, that I just love the scene so much.  

I was going clubbing in Miami and we’re all like preening and putting on our shiny shirts and still not getting in the club cause we weren’t wearing miniskirts and then coming back to Detroit and see show and everyone’s standing around in a hoodie enjoying the music.

Boyer: I love it. I love the vibe of it. You know, like we, you know, we were going, you know, I was going clubbing in Miami and we’re all like preening and putting on our shiny shirts and still not getting in the club cause we weren’t, you know, we weren’t wearing miniskirts and then coming back to Detroit and see show and everyone’s standing around in a hoodie enjoying the music. You know, the sort of lack of a I don’t know, what’s the word, what’s the word I’m looking for?

Gholz: Pretension. 

Boyer: Lack of pretense. 

Gholz: Yes.

Boyer: And just, you know, the fact that, I mean, I don’t know that it doesn’t seem to me like you play a rock show in Detroit because you want to get picked up by a record label. You play a record on Detroit because you love playing a rock show.  Maybe I just made that up, But that’s how it’s felt to me.  

Gholz: I think that’s a vibe that’s a feel. So talk to us briefly about NPR and you know, the kind of work you do there broadly especially, you know, obviously we do a lot of work in social media. You know, the Sound Conservancy began really as you know, a Twitter feed and then an Instagram account and a Facebook page, even as we were just deciding even what it was, right? So that became sort of a basic part of our outreach to decide what the hell we were going to do with ourselves. And, so maybe you could just talk a little bit about what you’re doing now and, yeah.  

Boyer: Yeah. I mean our crew does, I think I said pictures, but we do pictures, we do charts, we do maps, we do bespoke online storytelling, fancy treatments for things. And everything in between. You know, the output maybe is less important than sort of the, mission, which I think we have a lot of, we share a lot of, us and the Conservancy in that, you know, our job is to make people care. Our job is to create more empathy in the world. And the tools that we use you know, photography, visual storytelling, that sort of thing. We should really line up with the other kinds of storytelling that NPR does. In that, you know, the power of someone’s voice, the power of photograph, is different and weirder than text.  

We’re trying to celebrate creating empathy, celebrate making people care. And that’s a hard thing to do these days. 

Boyer: It fires some lizard brain stuff. We humans invented writing, but we’ve been talking for a long time, right? And I’m looking at things for a long time and so that’s, sort of everything we do and everything we think about, how we measure success, how we think about like, what do we celebrate? What do we say “Hey, good job” for we’re trying to celebrate creating empathy, celebrate making people care. And that’s a hard thing to do these days. I mean, you know, everyone’s, especially in the news industry everyone wants the clicks. Give me more and more of those sweet, sweet clicks. But what the hell is the value of the click? It is nominal, right? I mean, the, Washington Post recently celebrated, they had a huge banner all over their websites saying that “America’s new newspaper of record,” because they just recently, a couple of weeks ago, surpassed the New York Times in total online audience.  

Boyer: And how’d they get there? Through crap. Like they have great reporters at the Post. And very dear friends that work there. But the way you get clicks it makes, is by provoking people to click. Right? And there’s a real difference in pure reach, when you look at something, like a page view, right? So it’s like that’s a little, for folks who aren’t talking, used to talking to these terms, that’s like your little odometer for the webpage. Right? It’s different, all that really measures is that you successfully provoked something to click something, clicks provoke someone to click something. And it does not measure did your work have impact? That does not measure, did your story help a bill get passed by Congress?  

Boyer: That doesn’t measure, did that story make someone care about someone they’ve never met before, an issue that they didn’t know about before? So that’s really been the focus of our team has been thinking about, thinking hard about what we celebrate and what our job is every day. 

Gholz: And do you have a concrete example of something recent that would illustrate, our fans can go and find you fairly easily here, but specific that you’re recently proud of.

Boyer: Yeah, there’s a couple of pieces of visual stories that we’ve done in the last year that I love. One’s called, “The Unthinkable.” It’s a story about the civil war in Yemen and the lives of folks who were in the middle of it. And that’s about as eat your broccoli as a news story gets.  


Boyer: But you know, there’s another piece. We did maybe about a year ago now

Gholz: Just really quickly, if I remember that piece correctly. It was I think I got on Twitter right. And I clicked, you click it and you go into it and you get sort of a click through series of, and I’m sorry if I’m describing this insultingly, but a series click-through of images with brief text. 

Boyer: Yeah. 

Gholz: Maybe a little bit longer than a tweet, 

Boyer: right. *

Gholz: Provided by the journalist in the photo that really links you to the photo. And by the time you’re done with the I don’t know, five, six, seven images or whatever you really get a sense of, I actually do know something more, is that what I’m hearing?

Boyer: Yeah. I mean it’s a, for lack of a better name, we’ve been calling these things sequential visual stories. You might also just call them a slideshow, right? There and they’re there.  

Boyer: But the idea of being the spine of the piece is not text, the spine, the backbone of the piece, the pieces hung off of the photographs and the photo, the pictures are driving the pictures and the text are working in concert. But the pictures are really driving the narrative and pushing you through. And we’ll get a little in the weeds. What’s interesting about telling stories like this, and there’s a lot of folks who are telling stories like this. And if you look at the new Snapchat Discover, which is the hip new thing that everybody’s getting on, 

Gholz: The Detroit Sound Conservancy has a Snapchat, but we have not learned how to use it yet.  

Boyer: Yeah. But I mean, the Snapchat discover it’s actually really similar format, right? So Twitter moments is a similar format like this. There’s a lot of folks are starting to tell stories this way and they’re doing it because, I’m assuming, because they’re seeing what we’re seeing, which is when you tell a story that way people finish it, right? It’s not just about getting them in the front door. What I’m looking at is the proportion of people who got in the front door, how many of them finished reading it. And that Yemen piece, something like 60 or 70,000 people saw it. Which is okay, not a barn burner. But that’s pretty good reach for an NPR piece. And, but the important thing is about 65% of people who saw it finished it.  

Gholz: Yeah. 

Boyer: And that’s, we got a large number of 40,000 people or something like that to actually read a piece of long form journalism about folks in a country that most people probably couldn’t even locate on a map about war, about a really confusing civil war, not even an obvious one. So we’ve been trying, spending the last couple of years  trying to optimize our work for how do we get people to just read the damn thing and ideally tell their friends about it. You know. 

Gholz: I want to get, I want to sort of, come back around on this and just also before I end, I just want to thank you for your input over the years on these kinds of issues and just helping me think it through and doing really basic stuff through the years. Like breaking down the internet for me at certain pivotal moments in the last 20 years where things changed, you know, whether it was a modem situation or what is wifi tagging on the street or whatever, you’ve been able to make it simple and plain for me in a way that, has made me be able to do whatever we do, we’re doing here. We’re still a young organization. We’re three or four, we’ll be celebrating four years this year and we just got our first spot. You just saw the vault, which is just super great. So just anything you’d want to say about the Sound Conservancy, why you’re involved in it and then maybe just finish off with, advice, a piece of advice that we’d go with. But first of all, just why do you care about the Sound Conservancy? You’re obviously, you don’t live here anymore. Obviously you care about the music, but just maybe just something about that.  

Boyer: Well I mean this history is important, right? And if nobody else is doing a good job taking care of this stuff, that’s a damn shame. And, so, I mean, I’m a bit of a, we’re both a bit of collectors. We like artifacts. We like, preserving things. But, no, I just, I love what y’all are doing and I mean, it’s been a, it ain’t been an easy ride for y’all. And but you’re doing God’s work and

Gholz: That’s the t-shirt, we should do. “Doing God’s work.” 

Boyer: I’ll take that as a segue. The advice would be put that shit on your t- shirt. You know, like, don’t get me wrong. I love my Detroit Sound Conservancy t-shirt.  


Boyer: And the name is functional and it says it declares what you are, but it doesn’t declare why you are, right?  It declares what you do. Right. And, that’s cool. Right? But our team’s mission at NPR or our team’s mission is we make people care. And I make a point of telling that to the team internally, I make a point of telling that to our bosses, to our colleagues, and we make a point of telling it to the public, right? We make a point of that, and that’s not me being cynical about our branding or whatever, it’s having a clear and obvious mission, it’s not good enough to just have a clear and obvious mission internally.  

Boyer: Right? We’re all in this together, right? Both of our organizations are more like churches than businesses. Right? And we’re raising money, but we’re doing it because we believe in the public service and the value of the work to society, right? And to get people on board with that you gotta sell them on something and you can sell them and say, “Hey, this is a cool t-shirt. You should buy it.” Or ” Hey, give us money in exchange for these benefits.” This is the membership packet from National Public Radio two for one deals at like every mom and pop restaurant in the city. Right? That’s like, that’s a benefit, right? But really what people want to do is they want to join your club because they believe what you believe, right? So you got to sell what you believe. People don’t buy, to borrow a phrase from this guy Sinek who wrote a good book that’s called Start With Why, but it’s something along the lines of people don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it. Right. And I think that’s a,  

Boyer: What’s the word I’m looking for? It ain’t cynical and brand-y and shitty to say something like that. It’s just that’s good business.  

Gholz: Brian Boyer. If you knew him as well as I did, you would be impressed by the fact that we were taken to church by Brian Boyer this morning. Brian, thank you for taking us to church on RecordDET, and this December 19th, this cool but sunny winter day here at United Sound System. Thanks for coming by. 

Boyer: Absolutely. It’s great to be here. 

Gholz: Thank you. 

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