Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Music Business Changed - by Bob Lefsetz

Below is a reprint of a recent blog by Bob Lefsetz, music industry analyst and 25-year publisher of "The Lefsetz Letter". Bob raises some very interesting points that are relevant to our international artists as well as all of us who participate on some level with music. You can subscribe to The Lefsetz Letter at

John Mellencamp wanted a record deal. It was the only way to bust out of Indiana. He went to New York, signed a bad deal, changed his name and still didn't break through. But he got a toehold. He was in the game. To the point where he kept on making records until Pat Benatar covered "I Need A Lover", which caused FM stations to spin the original and give Mellencamp notoriety and cred. Then Mellencamp dug down deep and recorded "American Fool" and had a hit with a riff, "Hurts So Good", and an MTV staple, "Jack & Diane". "Hurts So Good" was not a breakthrough, but a perfect synthesis of what came before. But "Jack & Diane" had a heartland intimacy separate from Springsteen's New York/New Jersey tales of the Magic Rat and it resonated, John Mellencamp was a star.

He released an even better album, "Scarecrow", he regained his name, he was living the life of a rock star, which used to mean if I'm successful enough, if I generate enough money, I can do whatever I want. I can record whatever I want, give the middle finger to the label, I function in a rare air above businessmen and politicians, the public reveres me for my integrity and cash rains down. But then MTV became more about image than music and Mellencamp could no longer have a hit. And then came the Internet. MTV aired no videos, FM played classic rock staples or alternative or harder-edged rock, and Mellencamp could tour on his laurels to those who remembered when, but he could get no radio traction, he could sell no albums, he claimed the system was broken.

You've seen the news right? Wherein Mellencamp likens the Internet to an A-Bomb? ( He claims it destroyed the music business.

No, it CHANGED the music business!

Suddenly, the game Mellencamp played was history. You didn't fly to the coast for a record deal, labels weren't interested in signing anyone who hadn't already sold 10,000 records independently and/or was a pretty, malleable face willing to work with anyone and everyone, singing others' songs in order to make it. Sure, people were stealing music, but even before that, only Top Forty sold any records, and record labels were in the business of selling records.

Eventually bands with a following declined to sign with the major, why give up all those rights if you don't play Top Forty music anyway, why not be in charge of your own destiny?

And with MTV airing few videos and active music fans tuning out radio, even those who got traction had less impact and made fewer dollars.

And Mellencamp keeps recording music, which doesn't sell, despite the fact he puts his heart and soul into it. He keeps doing the same thing to less and less of a reaction, isn't that the definition of insanity? Or an indicator to take a different direction? Or change your philosophy?

But Mellencamp is not the only old wave musician decrying the Internet, Prince said it was completely dead, history. He put out his album as a newspaper cover mount. Sure, he got paid, but have you heard the music, have you even heard anybody talk about it since the hype of its release?

That's what this is all about, the inflammatory Mellencamp remarks...he's trying to get you to pay attention. And it works a bit with the old guard. Then again, you play the record once and... In the old days, radio picked a track and infected your brain, today if you don't instantly hear a track on Mellencamp's record, you're on to the next thing, because there's so much stuff. There wasn't so much stuff in Mellencamp's heyday, the system excluded it, can't we return to the days of the system, when only talented, dedicated people played and won?

Well, it's still the same, only talented, dedicated people win. But it's harder than ever to reach the ubiquity/success Mellencamp once had, if it's even possible at all. You've got to really want to be a musician, stardom may never come.

But you're in control of your own destiny, you don't have to change your name, and your music is freely available everywhere, everyone can sample it. Alas, you've got to be good enough to rise above the fray, and your only hope is that your fans spread the word.

But that's what it's all about now, you and your fans. You build a bond, with no middleman between you, and you go on a journey. Almost always slow, oftentimes very short in length. But that's the game.

And the problem isn't only that the old stars don't like the new game, but the old middlemen don't like it either. The labels hate the new game. As do radio and TV. It's chaos, there's less money to be made.

But the fans love the new game. Suddenly, it's all about the music. They're not beholden to one style, they're not limited by their pocketbook, they can discover what they like and play it as much as they want.

Put any value judgment you want on the new game, but you just can't eliminate it, the old ways are never going to come back. You can try to corral people into listening to your handpicked stuff, but this only works if there are no tune-outs and you can only keep people's attention if you're honest and trustworthy and good, like the classic rock acts of yore. This is tough when the labels hate the music and radio and TV are about commercials.

Pay no attention to the singing nitwits on TV, the faces on "American Idol", Justin Bieber...they're the last vestiges of an old era.

Suddenly, it's all about music. Make good stuff and people will find you. How many? Interesting question. But you got into it for the music, right? You like playing music, right? Because if you got into it for the money, notoriety and fame, you're fucked.