THE LEFSETZ LETTER: Missing The Point

There’s a long article in today’s "Los Angeles Times" debating the merit of a music man or a suit running a record company. Not really that interesting a question, but hell, it’s August and Ron Fair got a promotion and has some records to sell. Oh, Jimmy Iovine weighs in. And Andy Gould. And even Peter Paterno. But it’s Mr. Fair himself who delineates the true issue, why the majors will continue to experience declining market share. He single-handedly robs this article of its essence to reveal the rotting underbelly of the major label paradigm. That it’s about MAINSTREAM POP!

Once again, content isn’t king, DISTRIBUTION is king. Indies have the largest market share in the physical space, it’s just that this fact tends to be hidden, since so many of them align with the majors for distribution so they can get PAID! Unless you have a continuous stream of product, you’re never going to get a check from brick and mortar. Only a major has enough desirable albums to keep getting paid, and even THEY get burned on a regular basis, when chains like Tower Records don’t pay their bills.


Bob Lefsetz, Santa Monica-based industry legend, is the author of the e-mail newsletter, "The Lefsetz Letter". Famous for being beholden to no one, and speaking the truth, Lefsetz addresses the issues that are at the core of the music business: downloading, copy protection, pricing and the music itself.

His intense brilliance captivates readers from Steven Tyler to Rick Nielsen to Bryan Adams to Quincy Jones to music business honchos like Michael Rapino, Randy Phillips, Don Ienner, Cliff Burnstein, Irving Azoff and Tom Freston.

Never boring, always entertaining, Mr. Lefsetz's insights are fueled by his stint as an entertainment business attorney, majordomo of Sanctuary Music's American division and consultancies to major labels.

Bob has been a weekly contributor to CelebrityAccess and Encore since 2001, and we plan many more years of partnership with him. While we here at CelebrityAccess and Encore do not necessarily agree with all of Bob's opinions, we are proud to help share them with you.

But what if you could distribute the stuff yourself? What if you could do it WITHOUT the major label? Then you’d be living in 2006. You’d be utilizing the Internet.

The story isn’t how Ron Fair remakes Macy Gray, or shoves evanescent crap like the Pussycat Dolls down our throats, but how entrepreneurs, MUSIC LOVERS, are utilizing modern communications tools to break acts. Maybe not into the STRATOSPHERE, but where they can actually have careers.

Let me give you Ron Fair’s philosophy:

"’To succeed today you have to get the biggest exposure possible, and that means pop,’ said Fair, 50. ‘Pop music dominates radio, it dominates television, it dominates commercials and the Internet.’"

I ask you, was this music business built on POP? No, it was built by Mo Ostin and his disciples via credible acts that resonated with the public on the INSIDE, not the OUTSIDE, to the point where people are still showing up sometimes in the TENS OF THOUSANDS to get a hit of this material performed live. THIRTY YEARS LATER! it was the MEANING that resonated, not the sheen.

Pop started its reign when MTV entered the game. It was about lowest common denominator beamed to millions. The playlist got tighter, the emphasis became upon the track, radio consolidated and played almost no material and the public REVOLTED! If sales were going through the roof, maybe I’d listen to Mr. Fair. But last time I checked the major labels were all laying off people and crying poor. Reporting unending declines in sales. You see the public was angry. Once they could get the track, and all they wanted was the track, they just stole it. Now they might pay ninety nine cents at the iTunes Music Store, but it’s not like purchasing an album. Shit, EVERYBODY KNOWS THE ALBUM SUCKS!

When the majors owned the collective mindshare, when you could only HEAR music on the radio and see it on MTV, people had no choice. Oh, they’ve got choice now. And Ron Fair and the majors have just retreated to higher ground, like a royal family ensconcing itself in its one remaining castle, not wanting to give THAT up.

"’There’s so much competition for people’s consciousness now that a band has to grab anything that gives them exposure,’ Fair said. ‘There’s no such thing as selling out, now. There’s just getting heard.’"

Give me a fucking break. Isn’t this the EXACT philosophy that got the majors in trouble to begin with? Overhyping one hit wonders that were so oversold that people wanted NOTHING TO DO WITH THEM when they were done? If you think the road to success is doing everything your label tells you to, appearing on every TV show, every radio show, doing commercials, I hope you’re getting a big check, because the banging of the large gong signaling the end of your career is JUST around the corner. Hell, isn’t this the Pearl Jam paradigm? Refuse to be on TV, refuse to do commercials, refuse to sell out and TEN YEARS LATER you can still go gold, but better yet, SELL OUT ARENAS??? Not many bands followed the Pearl Jam philosophy, and that’s why almost none of them can now work.

Anybody who believes selling out doesn’t hurt you just doesn’t understand the human condition. We can’t IDENTIFY WITH, can’t BELIEVE IN, anything that’s tarnished by commercialism. Which is why Bruce Springsteen is still an icon thirty years later and the Black Eyed Peas are ALREADY a joke. Hell, NO ONE EVER TOOK THEM SERIOUSLY! Not since Fergie joined. It’s about COMMERCE, not MUSIC! And this worked for the majors when they OWNED the marketplace, but that’s no longer the case.

"The other prong of Fair’s strategy counts on extending a band’s identity beyond songs. Under Iovine’s guidance, Fair has been instrumental in transforming Los Angeles-based burlesque group the Pussycat Dolls into a marketing juggernaut, affixing their names and images to lines of makeup, perfumes, children’s toys and lingerie. A reality television show will begin shooting in October.

If the plan is successful, not only will it provide Geffen with new lines of revenue, it will offer the Pussycat Dolls new promotional platforms. Few other musical acts can advertise themselves from makeup counters."

And if you’re selling your music at makeup counters, an INHERENTLY phony location, you’re about as meaningful as the lipstick being consumed. You’re on the way to being done.

What we see here is the last refuge of the major label. Using its capital and relationships to do broad stroke, scorched earth marketing. Hoping, after reaching everyone in this country of 300 million with its marketing message multiple times, to sell a million records.

Oh, it used to be so easy. When radio was still the national religion. When there was no P2P. No other way to discover music. But to believe those days are still here is to have a burning desire to acquire a breakdance mat.

It’s like TV. The majors are networks. With the largest shares. Whereas the cable stations have tiny slices, oftentimes more profitable, and lumped all together DWARF the networks, by a margin of two to one.

If you want to know about the future of the music business, I advise you read the following article, not the one from the L.A. "Times":

Non LA Times article

Artists are using MySpace. And music blogs. And podcasts. To reach and resonate with music lovers ADDICTED to the sound. People who believe music is a soul-fulfilling essence, not just sugared cereal on the shelf. If you think it’s about high concept branded acts then you’re missing the point. Those will continue to exist. Marketed for ever more dollars to reach an ever shrinking piece of the public pie. Sure, winners can make a ton of money, but how many can win? Shit, even DONNIE IENNER couldn’t win in this world and got fired, and he helped CREATE IT!

It’s just like digital cameras. Oh, we heard that film would be eclipsed for fifteen years. But it never seemed to happen. Then, essentially overnight, the tables turned. Konica Minolta exited the business and Nikon focused solely on digital. Same thing is gonna happen in the music world. While the oldsters are going on about MediaBase and SoundScan numbers, kids half their age are reinventing this business and will steal it from the old farts just like Microsoft stole computerdom from IBM. Oh, you say, Bill Gates pulled a fast one, he retained rights to the operating system. If the IBM guys had been SAVVY… But that’s just the point. The major label guys ARE NOT savvy. They’re just working in their ever-narrowing space. Bitching about change. Instead of realizing you’ve got to give up more to the act. Not only split profits, but you must stimulate and nurture CREATIVITY rather than telling artists what to do. And hope that the essence resonates with the public. And know that it’s going to be a cottage industry future, not a zillion bands going diamond. Shit, when was the last time there was a diamond record? The major labels are chasing an IMPOSSIBILITY! If they wanted to dominate in the future, they’d find a way to make money on 10,000 albums, AND WANT TO BE IN THIS BUSINESS. But they can’t and they don’t, which is why they’re ceding the landscape to those who do.