03 September 2007

The New Music (Business)

An interesting and revealing article in Sunday's New York Times about the new co-head of Columbia Records, Rick Rubin. I have written at great length about understanding the business you're really in. The NY Times interview with Rubin reveals some great insights about the changes in the music business from the perspective of uber-fan turned record producer turned executive (while remaining, at heart, still a fan of the music). Here are some that caught my eye:
  • "The music business, as a whole, has lost its faith in content," David Geffen, the legendary music mogul, told me recently. "Only 10 years ago, companies wanted to make records, presumably good records, and see if they sold. But panic has set in, and now it's no longer about making music, it's all about how to sell music. Of course, the music business hasn't been about making music for decades now. Its primary focus had been on manufacturing and distributing aluminum disks coated with plastic, regardless of what was on them. The major rift between producers and consumers that Napster demonstrated - and that the music industry failed to realize - was that the industry was focused on selling a product which, to the consumers, was essentially a waste by-product of what they actually wanted.
  • "Everything I do," Rubin told me earlier, "whether it's producing, or signing an artist, always starts with the songs. When I'm listening, I'm looking for a balance that you could see in anything. Whether it's a great painting or a building or a sunset. There's just a natural human element to a great song that feels immediately satisfying." ... "The most important thing we have to do now is get the art right. So many of the decisions at these companies have not been about the music. They sign artists for the wrong reasons — because they think somebody else wants them or if they need to have a record out by a certain date. That old way of doing things is obsolete, but luckily, fear is making the record companies less arrogant. They're more open to ideas. So, what's important now is to find music that's timeless. I still believe that if an artist gains the belief of the listener, then anything is possible." Although this view may defy conventional, albeit cynical, wisdom among many industry executives, it is born out by the amazing success of Paul Potts in Britain's Got Talent.
  • "The Big Red focus groups were both depressing and informative... The kids all said that a) no one listens to the radio anymore, b) they mostly steal music, but they don't consider it stealing, and c) they get most of their music from iTunes on their iPod. They told us that MySpace is over, it's just not cool anymore; Facebook is still cool, but that might not last much longer; and the biggest thing in their life is word of mouth. That's how they hear about music, bands, everything." Of course, the importance of word of mouth, and it's electronic counterpart, word of mouse, is a direct effect of our UCaPP world.
  • Seemingly overnight, the entire industry is collapsing. Sales figures on top-selling CDs are about 30 percent lower than they were a year ago, and the usual remedies aren't available. Since radio is no longer a place to push a single, record companies have turned to television and movies. ... songs that are heard on popular shows like "Grey's Anatomy" become instantly desirable. When the Columbia artist Brandi Carlile's song "The Story" was featured on the ABC show, it posted a 15 percent jump in sales and was downloaded 19,000 times in one week. Before being heard on the show, the song had been available for nearly two months without any notable interest. This makes sense. Since music has, for the most part, become environmental - devices like iPods enabling its users to create the soundtrack for their personal environment - advertising and promoting music should likely follow suit and become environmental.
  • "Until very recently," Rubin told me over lunch at Hugo's, a health-conscious restaurant in Hollywood, "there were a handful of channels in the music business that the gatekeepers controlled. They were radio, Tower Records, MTV, certain mainstream press like Rolling Stone. That's how people found out about new things. Every record company in the industry was built to work that model. There was a time when if you had something that wasn't so good, through muscle and lack of other choices, you could push that not very good product through those channels. And that's how the music business functioned for 50 years. Well, the world has changed. And the industry has not."
Rubin is pushing music sales to television and movies to promote artists' new releases. He is strongly in favour of word of mouth and word of mouse publicity. And, he is advocating for a flat-fee subscription model for music, and the music will come anywhere you'd like. In this new world, there will be a virtual library that will be accessible from your car, from your cellphone, from your computer, from your television. Anywhere. The iPod will be obsolete, but there would be a Walkman-like device you could plug into speakers at home. You'll say, 'Today I want to listen to ... Simon and Garfunkel,' and there they are. The service can have demos, bootlegs, concerts, whatever context the artist wants to put out. And once that model is put into place, the industry will grow 10 times the size it is now."

In keeping with the word of mouth promotion, Rubin's excitement with Britain's Got Talent winner, Paul Potts (now signed with Columbia) comes through in the article. Naturally, I had never heard of this amazing, undiscovered opera singer, but several millions of YouTube viewers now have. Here's his first, remarkable audition for the show, and his final, winning performance. What is surprising and telling about the Potts phenomenon, is how his chosen genre - opera - would be dismissed or marginalized by conventional pop record producers - witness the BGT judges' initial reactions in his audition video. But, as Rubin notes, "There's just a natural human element to a great song that feels immediately satisfying." ... "The most important thing we have to do now is get the art right."

The entire article is worth reading for Rubin's refreshing insights on how the music industry can retrieve its roots.

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M.G.F. said...

I read this article recently. I find Rubin fascinating, as this mysterious "guru" of music. I admire his work. The only problem I had was this idea of making money in music. I'm not trying to create a Utopian world. I just think that music should be viewed as an art. People play music better when they are playing to have people enjoy their art, not just to see how much money they can make. That's the American way though. Great post, love your blog.


Mark said...

Throughout history, artists - including and especially musicians - have earned their living through their art. In the classical and romantic eras in Europe, it was through patronage of the nobility. To a certain extent in some contemporary countries, artists make income through arts-funding organizations, both governmental and non-governmental. It is a shame that many people attempt to create moral equivalents between, say, the arts and medical procedures, and eliminate funding in one to support the other. Or, how about the choice between arts and humanities as compared to hard science? Both are required for a healthy, well-functioning society, despite the fact that short-sighted policy makers overwhelmingly divert funds to the latter, at the expense of the former.

In a way, if such a patronage system could be adopted to contemporary circumstances, artists being compensated for their cultural productions, including music, would do away with this so-called piracy nonsense and the malware that various and sundry TPM/DRM mechanisms impose.

Pop Cultural Anthropologist said...

Thanks for referring to the said article. I was blown away by Rubin's comment that radio has no influence on kids anymore. I guess the only radio that exists is car radio. Kids are too young to drive.
The Internet revitalized (and expanded) my interest in music 7 years ago. Radio no longer has the same influence it used to have on me. So I guess its true.

I think Rubin tends to be the "pefectionist" producer, and so his artists always sound "overproduced". Take the Black Crowes or Kula Shaker's "Sound of Drums". I guess he loves his art so much. So it is only a minor flaw.

Another concept that I never thought about that was mentioned: "Audio on Demand". We hear so much about "Video on Demand".

Other record producers must be shivering in their boots right now. I guess the balance of power has shifted to the artists. I absolutely second m.g.f's comment about your post and your blog. I learn a lot by reading it.