Saturday, May 29, 2010


Like many people, I am on Bob Lefsetz’s email list. I get one or two emails a day from him. Most of them are rants about the shitty state of the music business. Which is fine, if unsurprising and redundant. Like Howard Beale says in Network, “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad.” Still, it’s fun to read Lefsetz’s splenetic spluttering. Sometimes he gets righteous about things like ticket prices and bullshit “VIP packages” that really are worth complaining about.

But his worldview is skewed and myopic, so much so that it makes even his valid points hard to support sometimes. I'll explain.

I’m guessing Bob Lefsetz is about sixty years old. And for that reason above all others, his worldview is obsolete and irrelevant. He suffers from the delusion that all Americans his age suffer from: that the way he’s always known it to be is the way it should be and the way it could continue to be, in perpetuity, if people could just be brought around to his way of thinking. But in fact, the music industry as people Bob Lefsetz’s age knew it is such a massive historical anomaly that to see it as anything else is farcical.

Let me break it down: Recording technology has existed for less than 150 years. Cylinders were introduced in about 1880, and by 1910 records had taken over. Tape recording was popularized in the 1940s. Various other inventions like the transistor radio, 33 1/3 and 45 rpm records and home stereos to play them on, etc., etc., caused popular music to go through a boom cycle. But this was also related to the economic and demographic changes that arose in the wake of World War II. The children of returning soldiers—you know, the Baby Boomers—had indulgent parents who gave them allowances to buy shit, and eventually they got jobs and bought more shit, and consequently they exerted a disproportionate influence over popular culture. And because this was the only world they’d ever known, they figured it was the way things were supposed to be, and the way things always would be. When they became record industry executives, they continued to believe that things would always be the way they’d been.

But the only reason things ever were like that—the only reason records ever sold in the “golden age”—was because the technology to freely duplicate them didn’t exist yet. If file sharing technology had been around in 1964, those same Baby Boomers would have downloaded the living fuck out of the Beatles’ albums. And the Rolling Stones’ albums. And every other canonical, classic rock artist who folks like Bob Lefsetz hold up as paradigmatic and worthy of emulation.

This is an idea that is literally unimaginable to Bob Lefsetz. Because he doesn't just believe technology has changed the market, he believes people have changed. This week, he wrote:
This business will not be vital again until there's a stable of stars, hopefully a plethora that people follow and want to see…Everybody else lives and dies on the hit single. If Christina Aguilera had fans, she'd be able to sell tickets without airplay. But she needs hits to get bodies into seats. In the old days, bands could tour without hits whatsoever. But that was back when music drove the culture, when you knew the players like sports team members, when you had to go to the show, when you were addicted to the radio.

Pretty much everything in that paragraph is wrong. First, the business will never be “vital” again. The monopoly on the means of distribution has been broken, and it cannot be rebuilt. There are no hit singles because the record industry doesn’t manufacture singles anymore. And Christina Aguilera? She’s a part of the old-school, obsolete, Lefsetzian worldview and business model. She was built by a machine designed to create pop stars, no different than a movie star of the 1930s created and maintained by a finely tuned publicity machine. It is literally impossible for an artist like Christina Aguilera to have fans that will manifest the kind of devotion that Phish, or Cannibal Corpse, can conjure up, because Aguilera has spent her entire career deliberately keeping fans at arm’s length. She speaks through carefully sculpted quotes in US Weekly or heavily edited interviews for MTV and VH1, not through Twitter or a blog. Bands that do that, bands that seem to have arisen from the same muck as their fans, are the bands Lefsetz says could tour without hits…but only “in the old days.” When he thinks about bands touring without radio support, he’s probably thinking of Grand Funk Railroad. He has no idea that it’s going on all around him.

Oh, and that whole thing about knowing the bandmembers like members of sports teams? Bullshit. Sure, people knew John, Paul, George, and Ringo. They knew Mick and Keith and Charlie. But who knew all the names of Ted Nugent's backing band when he was packing arenas? Who knew the names of the members of the Silver Bullet Band when Bob Seger was huge? Nobody.

Later he writes:
The radio. And then MTV. They centralized focus. They delivered a platform for star-building. Someone left of center could get exposure and make it. Like Culture Club. MTV broke Boy George big, radio followed. But FM radio built Hendrix and Cream, the music was so exciting you listened every night. Because everyone was different, everyone was testing limits, everybody wasn't the same. And if you don't think everybody's the same today, try listening to Top Forty radio.

This is the problem in a nutshell. Lefsetz still believes in a Top Forty. He still believes in top-down culture, in societal unification through pop music. He rants and raves that everyone around now is a “niche” act. That’s the worst thing you can be in Lefsetz-land—a “niche” act. He can’t imagine a universe in which people don’t care, don't think it's important, whether or not their neighbor is listening to the same albums, watching the same TV shows, reading the same books that they’re reading. He probably read Bowling Alone and nodded through his tears. And because of this belief system, which he's too old to shake loose, he has no idea how obsessed people younger than him are with music. The 17-year-old girl who wrote the letter to Alternative Press that I reprinted two posts ago? She doesn't exist in Bob Lefsetz's universe, because she's not buying records and he's never gonna go to Warped Tour and see her and all her screaming friends. Hell, we're talking about a guy here who didn't even write about Malcolm McLaren's death. I bet he'd never heard of the guy.

The idea of a monoculture was always bullshit anyway. Back in the hallowed Sixties and early Seventies, when Lefsetz’s cultural preconceptions were being cast in stone, there was one music magazine of any consequence—Rolling Stone. Maybe Creem. Anything Rolling Stone didn’t cover didn’t get covered. Now, people get their information directly from bands—at least if the bands are smart, they do.

The record industry was a bubble. It took a long time to burst, because it was entirely technology-dependent. But now it's burst, and all the ancillary industries around it—like music journalism—are deflating too. The only thing that's not going away is music itself.

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