Music Industry Watchdog Bob Lefsetz on the Future of the Biz and 5 Mistakes New Acts Should Avoid

Issue 6 FEA Bob Lefsetz Illustration - P 2012
Kelsey Dake

Issue 6 FEA Bob Lefsetz Illustration - P 2012

One of the business’ most prolific and agenda-driving bloggers pulls no punches when discussing what makes it tick and what’s a giant fail.

This special edition Q&A, featuring questions from various members of Lefsetz' diverse readership, first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

With his lengthy, impassioned and often curmudgeonly rants on the music business, blasted as many as 20 times a week to tens of thousands of subscribers, Santa Monica-based blogger and analyst Bob Lefsetz, 58, has high-powered sources, the ear of the industry and a mouth he’s not afraid to use. Since 1986, when the former management-firm exec launched a print newsletter (it went digital in 1999), his readers — who range from global stars to label presidents to lowly interns — have seen him cut down greedy execs and flailing artists with headlines such as “Wall Street Killed the Concert Business” and “These Bands Have No Fans.” Sometimes they wince, often they cheer, but all read The Lefsetz Letter and write in, fueling mostly business-minded debates. Recognizing his fame (Howard Stern is a fan) and influence, THR solicited questions from industry players and interested laymen.

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Will there be a music business in 10 years? If yes, what will it look like? — Student

Of course! Artists will have more power, but there will still be businessmen guiding their careers — youngsters who put the music first and money second. The major labels will continue to decline, and Live Nation will continue to grow, but to see a model of the future, look at Coran Capshaw’s Red Light empire. He controls management, has a label and is a promoter. He gets very little press but has his pulse on the future.

With terrestrial radio’s influence waning, what will take over as the surest way for a hit song to find an audience? Will it be satellite? Pandora? A handful of influential blogs? — Radio personality

The next big thing is the trusted filter, something that tells people what to listen to. Terrestrial radio sucks, Pandora gives too many tune-outs, and blogs are frequently untrustworthy. The filter won’t be algorithm-based; taste will be everything, a la the DJs of yore. More people will listen to more music, and the audience will build superstars.

What are the five mistakes a new act should avoid when starting out? — Unemployed marketing executive

1. Believing that publicity/marketing is more important than music.

2. Believing a record deal will solve all their problems and ensure success.

3. Believing that because their parents and friends like them, everybody else will.

4. Believing success usually happens overnight.

5. Believing anything that happened in the past still applies. MTV no longer plays music, the younger demo doesn’t care much about radio, albums are a historical format with little relevance in today’s marketplace, everything’s up for grabs, and you can have it your way. If you’re good, people will find you. If you get success quick, it probably won’t last.

Why do record companies still give music producers label deals, executive jobs and presidencies when it always ends up being a washout? — Former major-label A&R executive

It’s about owning the talent. The newest deals are exclusives, so you get the producer talent as well as any vanity-label signings. Conventional wisdom is David Foster’s 143 label failed, but isn’t it interesting that Warner ended up with Josh Groban and Michael Buble? But don’t give people jobs beyond their purview. A great producer is not necessarily a great A&R person.

You say the revolution is behind us and it’s about solidifying the future, who are the executives or companies best positioned to be successful in the music industry of the future? — Manager

1. Ian Rogers. His company Topspin allows acts to monetize their efforts. Everything from special packages to tickets, you can now do it on your own.

2. Marc Geiger. He may not be as smart as he thinks he is, but he's still way smarter than almost everybody else. He understands the new game, he realizes it's not about protecting the old as much as exploring the new. He also doesn't need to monetize every transaction, he understands investing in the future.

3. Live Nation. Because of its investment in Ticketmaster. It's all about data and LN has doubled down here. Sit with Nathan Hubbard and hear what he has to say and you'll be wowed. But the secret weapon is Eric Garland, of BigChampagne. Neither Nathan or Eric is married to the past. They're part of the next generation, which is wresting control of this business from the fat cat baby boomers.

4. Don Strasburg. Best young promoter I know. He's all about making his shows events. And he knows about every trend first. Acts that last break on the road now, not radio. Those radio acts come and go. But Gary Clark, Jr. is building on the road and that's where dubstep took hold.

5. Richard Russell at XL. He knows that a quality recording trumps everything. Just look at Adele!

If offered a position running a major label, would you accept? — Musician

First and foremost, I’m a writer, then a listener. I don’t think the major labels are the future. A major-label president is a traffic cop. All the great work in this business has been done by those who are hands-on. It’s about the acts and the producers — the records. But I’ll let you in on a secret: There are tons of talented businesspeople and very few talented acts. It would be frustrating wasting my time on so much crap.

Record companies can buy ads and trump up publicity, but don’t equate that with monetary or artistic success. Now, more than ever, acts don’t need accolades; their fan base is enough. Anybody who paves the way for the act, who allows them to do what they want and have success, will be able to leverage this relationship into money. Historically, that’s a manager. Isn’t it interesting that everyone agrees the most powerful person in the music business is Irving Azoff, who’s primarily a manager and secondarily a promoter?

I’m always looking for great talent to tell my readers about. That’s a more powerful position than one at any record label. I don’t need the fat paycheck, and I think people who say I’ve never taken an act from zero to hero at a label are just looking for a way to explain away any impact I do have. I’ve been inside the belly of the beast. You could never pay me enough to be a radio promotion person, and though I like lunch as much as the next person, the problem with an expense account is, you have to waste time with all the hucksters. I’d rather sit at home and listen to great records. I’ve got zillions of readers hipping me to what’s good; I don’t need the machine. So, to answer your question … PROBABLY NOT!