THE LEFSETZ LETTER: The Neverending Story


Heard anybody talk about "Black Ice" recently? How about "Long Road Out Of Eden"?

Those albums were made for the paycheck, not the music. Upon delivery, the parties involved got a huge sum from Wal-Mart, a guaranteed payment for a certain number of albums that the retailer gave up the right to return.

This is not the way it always was.

Used to be the single was the linchpin of your career. You needed a steady stream of product, to remain in the public eye, so you could work live and continue to record. Those who only reached the heights a single time were labeled "one hit wonders", and the literature and
VH1 are littered with updates about these individuals. Working day jobs, no different from you and me.


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.

Then came the Beatles. Instead of being a collection of tripe, the album became a statement, and generated a ton of revenue. We suddenly had ALBUM ARTISTS whose music was featured on the FM band. These acts didn't need hit singles, their entire oeuvre was a hit. Radio
stations went tracks deep, sometimes played the entire record.
Furthermore, the cycle was brief. Compressed into one year. You put out an album, radio played a few cuts, you went on tour, and then went back into the studio and cut another album. You were absent from the scene for a very brief period of time, you remained in the public consciousness, at least the mind of your fans. You had a career arc, your music meant something.

But then radio slowed the process down. Radio research said listeners wanted the familiar, they wanted hits, they wanted no tuneouts. And labels realized if they moved slowly, in lockstep with the stations, they could sell the same album to many more people. Rather than spend all that money to reach the same hard core fans, take the product you paid for to new people, the profitability of each subsequent copy increasing dramatically.

Then, in the last ten years, radio refused to commit to even the new product of "stars". If a new track didn't hit immediately, the
station would drop it. Killing the albums dependent upon radio play.
Radio and record labels were no longer joined at the hip. Radio made no apologies about focusing on advertisers and profits, ergo 20 plus minutes of commercials an hour. By this point, only Top Forty radio could truly break a record wide. But with Top Forty becoming a lowest common denominator wasteland, listeners tuned out in droves. About the same time MTV stopped playing videos. So you were left with no outlet to expose your wares. Yet mainstream acts continue to play the same game, like it's the last century.

1. Decide on your game plan. Is it about reaching your core audience, or the masses?

Widespread Panic shouldn't play to those not already committed, it's not about garnering a whole new fan base, but satiating that which already exists.

Meanwhile, Kelly Clarkson has a very limited core audience. So, in order to make her numbers, she's got to have a hit and spread her story far and wide.

2. If you're satiating the core, you've got to maintain the relationship. Not only blog updates, but live releases too. It's
about a steady stream of access. Whether you're on the road or not.
If you let up, your core becomes disappointed and frustrated and moves on to something else and then you have to convince them all over again. Interesting point about U2. Supposedly they have another album in the can. The core audience is ready for it now. Why wait? The only reason is to increase the payday, it can't be about fostering the fan bond. If U2 were smart, it would release a single a week, at
least one a month, once they start their tour, to maintain the buzz.
Because believe me, it's not 1972 anymore, when the Stones barnstormed across America. ANY band touring the States is not that big a story anymore. You've got to continue to make it an interesting story, assuming you want to keep people's attention.

3. If you're trying to reach listeners outside your core, not only must you create a hit, you must spread the word far and wide. Let's use Jessica Simpson as an example. She hasn't generated a hit in a long time, nothing a casual listener can hook into and get excited about. Sure, her core likes her new country album, but she's got such a tiny core that it won't sustain her.

So you need the music, and an ongoing story. You need to be on "American Idol". You need to make friends with Perez Hilton (Did you
see all the acts that kissed his ass on his birthday last weekend?
Everyone from the Jonas Brothers to Christina Aguilera.) That's how low you've got to stoop if you want to play the mass game. You're not in control of your own destiny. You can't write your own material unless it's a hit…thank you, Kelly Clarkson.

And there's a cost for playing the game, your credibility. And the less credibility you have, the more dependent you are on momentary hits and train-wrecks. You're living from moment to moment. And that's tough.

4. Career acts must accurately assess the landscape. A check might do something for your pocketbook, but it will do nothing for your career. It's like "Long Road Out Of Eden" never came out. There's no radio to bang the title track, the way both FM and AM spun "Hotel California" endlessly. No track on AC/DC's "Black Ice" got enough spins to become a classic, people just want to go to the show and hear "Back In Black".

5. Top Forty acts are beholden to the machine. Career acts are beholden to their fans. The machine is voracious, it eats up info and spits it out every day. Almost nothing lasts. But relationships last. But relationships take a long time to build.

This is where all those online business tips come into play.

A personalized note from the guitar player. A Twitter feed. All that stuff that's meaningless to TMZ and the "New York Times" is gold to a fan. Just like getting career acts mainstream press doesn't pay significant dividends. The review in the paper better be for a Top Forty act, because fans of career bands are getting their information elsewhere.

6. So, the system moves slow and society moves fast. No wonder we've got a problem! Radio wants to spoon-feed, labels want to milk albums, and the audience is constantly saying NEXT! How can you satisfy those who want more? This is the path to riches.

7. Beware of crossing lines, this is where you get in trouble.

Bruce Springsteen is a career act. His fans pay attention, they know his story. They're pissed that he made a deal with Wal-Mart, and his Super Bowl appearance didn't move the vast majority of viewers, because they just don't care about Bruce. If Bruce wanted to play the mainstream game, he should have thrown the really long ball. He should have licensed one of his classics to a corporation for endless banging in a commercial on television. Or one of his new numbers, that was good.

Same deal with Mellencamp. You can't make a deal with Chevy and then complain about the system. You can't have it both ways. Either you've got to be an old bluesman, married to your instrument, willing to work a day job to get by, or you've got to go all in, whoring yourself out to the man, knowing there's a long term cost. Nothing in between works, because there are two audiences, two strategies.

So, almost no one knows the new Eagles and AC/DC got a lot of ink, but very little airplay.

Both of these bands got a paycheck.

But iTunes doesn't cut these kinds of advances. And Wal-Mart is shrinking CD floorspace every day. This is a limited model.

You've got to focus on the long term money. Or go the opposite way and try to make it all now, like Miley Cyrus.

But don't lie in between, that's nowhere.