Trying To Get To You

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

On Rick Rubin And Saving The Record Business

There is a long cover piece on Rick Rubin in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine. Unfortunately, the headline, “Can Rick Rubin Save The Music Business,” is symptomatic of the article missing the point. The music business does not need to be saved – the music business, comprised of everything from records, downloads, publishing, live performance, merchandising, performance rights organizations, internet portals and much more, is thriving (depending on who you’re with). It is the record business, with severely declining sales, layoffs and a perception of diminished possibilities that is in a fight for survial. What the article should be titled instead is: “Can Rick Rubin Save The Record Business As We Know It?”

Rubin is an excellent music man, and I’d confidently bet that he improves the quality of Columbia’s artist roster and releases. Beyond that, I really don’t know. His American Recordings imprint has broken only one act in the past decade – System Of A Down, and with Rubin continuing to take on outside production projects and not coming into an office daily (the devil is in the details, especially at a label as big as Columbia), it is difficult to really gauge what his impact will be outside of the artist roster.

In the article David Geffen is quoted, "The music business, as a whole, has lost its faith in content. 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. And there's no clear answer about how to fix that problem. But I still believe that the top priority at any record company has to be coming up with great music. And for that reason, Sony was very smart to hire Rick." Geffen is correct in the importance of great music to a music company, but he (and most of the business) misses what I believe to be the biggest challenge in the new landscape of the record business: the absolutely broken relationship between the business and the (now super-empowered) consumer.

When the record business was an oligarchy, controlling production, promotion and distribution of mainstream music, the relationship between the business and the consumer didn’t matter – the industry had the consumer over a barrel. But with the rise of the Internet and the ability to acquire music for free, the consumer now holds the cards. In response, the industry has tried to sue and innovate its way out of the problem. It hasn’t worked and in my opinion, it will never work. The lawsuits have not deterred the huge number of people from getting their music for free and the suing of its own customers have only served to cement the industry's already awful reputation while its innovations have consistently been at least one step behind technology. It has made the issue of downloading a moral one, subsequently calling the huge majority of its customers thieves, and placing the responsibility of the business faltering on them, conveniently ignoring their own responsibilities in the matter and ignoring the fact that no one is interested in lessons in morality from the record business. Such tactics continually violate the fundamental rule of successful business: The Customer Is Always Right (even when they’re not). And whether the industry’s assertions are right or not does not matter. It has not gotten and will not get the record industry results the results it is looking for.

In my opinion, the record industry must do the following to even have the possibility of moving forward successfully in the Internet era:

1. Publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for the fact that what they’ve done has not worked – and admit that their strategy has come from trying to protect their control over distribution, promotion and sales rather than serve the music buying public.
2. Recommit to providing consumers with music from a context of quality - quality music with quality of convenience, quality of choice and a quality price point (having the only place online to buy major label music being iTunes, which only sells only 128k AAC files at 99 cents per song, is none of the above.)
3. Quit making music consumers your adversaries. That means drop every single lawsuit against individual filesharers. Yes, consumers need to be made aware of the impact that downloading music illegally has on music, artists and the industry, but take the morality out of it, and leave consumers empowered to make a choice, whatever it is. Because the reality is already that consumers already are making a choice everyday, except they aren't really aware of the impact that their choice has. Dropping the lawsuits provides the space for consumers to actually listen to what the industry's valid points are, rather than dismissing them out of hand.

Doing the following does not guarantee anything. But what it does do is dramatically transform the relationship between the industry and the consumer - in perception and reality, and creates the possibility of, for the first time, creating a relationship between the consumer and the music business, one where each can listen and positively respond to what the other has to say, without making one an out of touch industry of greed and the other an ungrateful thief that needs to be punished.


Unknown said...

Good one, interesting read to say the least.. thanks



Anonymous said...

Wait, are you talking about Iraq?

Ben Lazar said...

The similarities are remarkable.

Anonymous said...

Streetwise and an army of new metal and heavy music freaks just discovering the internet were a stronger catalyst to System's success imho. I don't know the whole story but certainly being signed to a label, any label, was not the whole story with SOD. Oh and let's not forget that they're a great band which doesn't hurt. And I ain't even into contemporary hard stuff. I think it's just that Rick might look cool at the helm of the ship as the top of the mast submreges and trust me, I hope that I am wrong.

jayhonk said...

That's it!? This article that started so well ends with those 3 points!? That's hardly a prescription for saving the record industry. What about #4 Figure out a business model that makes a profit.