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Interview: Gabriel Gornell on the Amy Winehouse Tribute Event Back to Amy

Gabriel Gornell photo by Molly Gornell

Gabriel Gornell is an individual with many fingers in the world of entertainment and streaming. With his distribution company, LocoDistro (Locomotive Distribution, Inc.), Gornell understands how audiences are viewing and consuming entertainment today, with his focus on providing and presenting entertainment in a unique way for our unpredictable times. LocoDistro is leading the future of music business strategy, marketing, and distribution in terms of branding and innovation. Some of the many acts Gornell and his team have worked with in this form include Perry Farrell, Chris Isaak, Tim McGraw, Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, and The Rolling Stones among many others. Gornell with his background in advertising is a fan of entertainment himself and here in this interview, he shares his love for the films of Alan Parker, working with Spike Lee, getting Carrie Fisher to present an award to George Lucas, and overseeing the Amy Winehouse tribute event Back to Amy, a live stream event to run on July 23rd, the 10th anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s passing, which sets out to raise Mental Health Awareness and help remove the stigma associated with mental health challenges.


Jason: Can you begin by talking a little about what holistic distribution means?

Gabriel Gornell: I’m an independent producer and distributor. I focus on creating and packaging music-based content in regards to reaching audiences and fans with music through what I call “holistic distribution” which some people refer to as “360º distribution.” It’s about taking an IP or music concept or even an artist as its own entity or brand. It’s about trying to figure out how to take that concept or artist to reach audiences holistically. It’s about figuring out how the touch points of promotional components such as social media, in-person events, ticketed live-stream events, television, can work together.

Jason: Is it because the industry is changing so rapidly in terms of how music lovers are finding and listening to content?

Gabriel Gornell: DSP programs, which are programs to stream music such as Spotify or Deezer, can fulfill the dots to connect the artist to the fans. That’s creating a holistic singular experience. Spotify has a really interesting program called “Fans First” which is a direct mail component that emails the followers of an artist when a new song is published. Distribution has changed a lot in the last 50 years. It’s changed in the past ten years even. We used to go to Sam Goody to buy a record but it’s a lot different today, yet so many companies play by the same rules. A lot of that is because of old-school agents and managers who are analogue managers living in a digital world. I try to think of all the components such as introducing new artists, production, promotion, tours holistically and how do these components function in today’s world.

Jason: Despite the changes, the concert going aspect remains the same in that even with streamers and social media, fans still want that in-person experience. Can you explain how concerts will always have a place in music?

Gabriel Gornell: There are so many stakeholders in entertainment, especially in music. You have the artist and they’re working hard creating and performing music and they’ve got a staff. It’s a business that actually employs families and they have a vested interest in various successes. For example, one of those is the touring side of business. So touring is not just about the artist—they have a staff of people on the road such as lighting folks, wardrobe folks…and all these people rely on the success of that tour which is just one of the spokes on the wheel. Then there are different players on that side of the business with a vested interest such as venue owners who have their own financial responsibilities to people such as food and beverage people. There are so many elements connected. The streaming services play a role too as they help market an artist to the concert-going public. An artist reaching a million streams just means they’ll be in a better position to sell more tickets to their shows. When we thinking about holistic distribution, what we’re trying to do is connect those dots between what’s considered to be separate businesses. There’s truth to the phrase “a rising tide raises all ships.”

Jason: You didn’t start in music distribution though. You began in advertising?

Gabriel Gornell: I’m from New York and the dream for me was film and television and that’s what I wanted to pursue but New York was also the hub of the advertising industry and that’s where I got my start. The dream of course was not to be making 30 second spots selling sneakers, the dream was to be making movies and television. But the first half of my career was working in advertising agencies. That brand-building in advertising led me to approach distribution the way I do. Over time I made the shift to entertainment by way of commercial work and New York television. A&E has a big presence in New York as does the Discovery Network and Viacom along with the news networks so I made the shift into unscripted programs. Music is my passion so I found myself working on shows I wouldn’t necessarily watch and at one point I thought if I was putting this much work into a TV show I should really focus on my passion and what I love so I made the decision a few years ago to only take on shows that have a strong connection to music.

Jason: What’s the biggest change you noticed when it comes to artists being promoted on television?

Gabriel Gornell: I still believe that in terms of TV and film, music is still an underserved category. The way we get our music has changed but the passion for listening to music hasn’t. How people are introduced to new artists and genres has changed—now we have wildly new concepts like play-listing, yet traditional TV networks don’t program music they way they used to. We’re going through a trend with DSPs and Coda Collection, which is a sub-division of Amazon Prime and Qello via Stingray, a Canadian company is doing some interesting things in terms of showcasing rock documentaries. But the days of the MTV music video networks are long gone and I don’t see that coming back.

Jason: Can you tell us about Back to Amy, the Amy Winehouse tribute project you’ve been involved with?

Gabriel Gornell: Back to Amy is an interesting project celebrating Amy Winehouse on the tenth anniversary of her passing. It’s hard to believe that this July will be ten years since we lost Amy and one of the things we’re doing is working with an incredible streaming IPTV partner called Mandolin, which is based out of Nashville. I really appreciate the approach these guys utilize not only in terms of tech streaming but also in the marketing and how they interface with customers. Stingray’s Qello is working on getting the project available through Smart TVs so again, it’s a case of connecting the dots. This even isn’t limited to the laptop, it’s going to have a wider reach and we can provide this experience to different audiences who have different consumption habits. That’s another example of holistic distribution.

Jason: You actually have the Amy Winehouse Foundation and the Music Academy involved in this project?

Gabriel Gornell: We want the event to be a joyous one even though we understand she had challenges in her life. We’re going to focus on the bright and the happy and the uplifting by collaborating with the Amy Winehouse Foundation and with the support of Amy’s mom, Janice Winehouse. We’re fortunate to have her blessing and we’re collaborating with the Recoding Academy’s MusiCares foundation. Because of the obvious challenges Amy faced we’re putting $10 from every ticket sold towards mental health awareness. The proceeds are actually being split equally between MusiCares and the Amy Winehouse Foundation. It’s an earnest connection between celebrating Amy on the tenth year anniversary of her passing and trying to remove the stigma surrounding mental health challenges. Both foundations are extremely happy to be a part of this

Jason: What music acts do you have lined up for the event?

Gabriel Gornell: We’re collaborating with the Recording Academy’s PR in celebrating the art of Amy Winehouse and raising awareness for mental health. It’s a lot of work and a lot of co-ordination to put off an event like this in terms of talking to different partners. On a more human level, for this project we identify a group of emerging artists we feel have the heart and voice worthy of an Amy Celebration as headliners who will perform at the event. We wanted to give back a little while supporting the industry and supporting tomorrow’s voices. We have a group of really interesting young artists that is diverse and inclusive, we’re giving them what we call “rising star” programs and the opportunity to perform during this celebration which will introduce them to wider audiences while celebrating what Amy’s contributed musically and culturally.

Jason: Amy was a unique and bold talent, the kind of talent that blew away the listener and the  industry itself. There was darkness but there was also optimism in her music. Do you think that mix of dark and light resonates with audiences, especially during our wild, unpredictable times?

Gabriel Gornell: Entertainment makes us feel good and it’s been a tough previous four years even before Covid. It’s been a worldwide challenge for everyone. We need a little hope and comfort and leadership which hopefully is beginning. In addition to entertainment being a means of escapism it can also move the needle towards actual betterment. People are going to enjoy this show and the music but it’s also for something good. I had the pleasure of collaborating with Chuck D and Perry Farrell last year when Public Enemy released a track called “State of the Union (STFU)” and that was a very cool and effective project with zero filtering as you can imagine from these two artists and anyone that was exposed to it got the message in their boldness. Artists like Tom Morello and Rage Against the Machine are very ‘say-it-like-it-is’ and that needs to happen in entertainment along with the feel-good approach of ‘this is a show that’s going to be entertaining and you can get on board with it.’

Jason: On the topic of artists with a unique body of work, I understand that director Alan Parker was a major inspiration to you. What is it about his work that you respond to so strongly?

Gabriel Gornell stands outside over an ironing board on a sunny day
Gabriel Gornell pays tribute to Alan Parker’s The Commitments. Photo by Mary Gornell

Gabriel Gornell: I would consider Alan Parker to be my favorite director. He made so many music-centric films over the years from Pink Floyd: The Wall to The Commitments and I loved them all. But what I loved most about his work, and it’s sad that we lost him recently, is his ability to create tension and to tell stories through visuals and not always relying on telegraph dialogue. He was such a visual storyteller and I just found his work always stunning and he created moods and moved the story forward and answered questions and I just love everything that he’s done. I think my favorite Alan Parker movie is believe-it-or-not Angel Heart with Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet and Robert De Niro. It’s this ’80s noir-ish category which was a thing in the ’80s. Alan Parker has motivated so much of what I do in the way he effortlessly went from music-themed stuff to dramatic content and I’m just forever inspired by the stuff that he’s done.

Jason: How did your work with Spike Lee on Bamboozled come about?

Gabriel Gornell: That was a long time ago. I worked with him on a few projects. At the time of Bamboozled I was on the visual effects team. It was an interesting project that came around during the period when ’90s indie films were pushing boundaries. That entire picture was shot on Mini DV and it enabled that picture to happen not just because of the cost efficiencies but to allow the film to be so mobile and capture a scene without soundstages and days of prep. It was guerrilla filmmaking and I was just trying to help Spike’s vision. It was an incredible experience watching him work. There’s a digital effects house in New York City called Mechanism and they brought me on as producer to work on 60 shots and it was a super cool project. That was during my transfer from advertising into entertainment. I took a few vacation days and nights from my advertising agency to get on it just to work with the great Spike Lee (laughs). That was the first of three projects I did with Spike. my last one was we were executive producers of a hip-hop horror movie called You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Kills You (2012) where we were trying to create a new genre of hip-hop and slasher films. That was a lot of fun. I just think the world of him.

Jason: Finally, I have to ask you about the time you had Carrie Fisher present an award to George Lucas while she was still able bring the house down with her unique wit.

Gabriel Gornell: That experience with Carrie Fisher is going to be forever one of my fondest memories. The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences brought me on to oversee the 39th Annual Daytime Emmy telecast in 2012 and I was challenged with re-inventing the daytime Emmy brand which was expanding from soap operas. At one time there used to be 30 soaps on and now there are about only four, so it’s not the TV landscape it used to be. Daytime TV is now morning shows, talk shows, children’s programs, and cooking shows. Because children’s TV is so super cool I thought I’d include that in the actual show because usually those awards are given at a non-televised event. With that, this particular year George Lucas was nominated for The Clone Wars animated series that he developed and I thought there was a really good chance he’d win the Emmy. He was excited to be nominated and told us he was coming and I couldn’t believe I was having conversations with this icon. And then I thought wouldn’t it be cool if I asked Carrie Fisher to  present the category—to have Princess Leia and George Lucas in the same room together and imagine if he actually won? I was a producer rolling the dice there because I didn’t know he was actually going to win. The producers don’t know the winners beforehand. I thought Clone Wars was special however. Well Carrie did it and she was so funny. When she came out and read the category, Ozzy Osbourne was sitting in the front row because his wife Sharon was nominated for CBS’s The Talk and Carrie tells the audience this story about how she and Ozzy used to share the same drug dealer (laughs). She ad-libbed that joke because she was brilliant and ultimately George did win the Emmy so Leia did hand it to George. It was an incredible experience and I’ll forever cherish that memory. It’s one of the fondest I’ll have of being in this crazy business.

A poster for the Back to Amy event features a woman in a colorful shirt standing in a hallway

Back To Amy streams Friday, July 23rd, 2021 Show Time: 7:30pm CT / 8:30pm ET. Visit https://boxoffice.mandolin.com/collections/back-to-amy for tickets. $10 from every ticket donated to the Recording Academy’s MusiCares and the Amy Winehouse Foundation

Written by Jason Sheppard

Entertainment reporter living at the end of very cold Canada. Proud owner of a diploma in journalism and just about every CD by John Williams ever released. Favorite directors are Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino, Fellini, Lynch and Fincher. Twin Peaks, Sopranos and Six Feet Under are the greatest TV dramas ever crafted and I love 90s sitcoms such as Spin City, Sports Night, Newsradio, Seinfeld and even that one with Deadpool working in the pizza place. Click linkies below to follow me.

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