On Rick Rubin and the future of the music business

A couple of days ago, Shyam pointed out to me a well crafted article in the New York Times, romanticising Columbia’s appointing Rick Rubin for producing great music; it appears that he’s the savior for big music labels, that Columbia, in an act of desperation, isn’t playing the big bad music studio anymore, and Rubin is spearheading its revival. It’s one of the finer pieces of article writing I’ve read in a while…

In the article, Rubin goes ahead and suggests that the subscription model is the way to go – that one will pay for subscribing to music, like one does for TV. That’s something that I’d suggested a few months ago…it seems to be the only feasible way out, in an industry where revenues are fast evaporating. Even then, labels will struggle to survive. The way the industry works now is that the labels make the artists popular, and the artists get a little something out of it. They make their money via brand endorsements and doing shows. The problem – the label’s selection process is driven by marketing concerns, so often quality music doesn’t make it beyond the selection process. The Spice Girls is one clear example of a band that was put together after (apparently) the marketing plan had been prepared.

Now two workarounds have emerged for this problem of music label myopia: one is the talent hunts. American Idol (and indeed, Indian Idol) popularise artists who would have otherwise probably never been discovered. Their popularity makes them marketable (though not always a success), and the labels sign them on. The other avenue is digital media. Bands like Phish have put up live recordings of their music online…YouTube and MySpace provide a platform for singers like Terra Naomi: one of the YouTube. The difficulty here again is of editorial selection: the best talent even here might never be discovered if it doesn’t get passed on from person to person. Popularity is again going to influence label selection. As is obvious, the labels are hard pressed to find ways of selecting artists because of overriding marketing concerns.
But Rubin isn’t quite the saviour, says Rob Lefsetz (via PSFK), and the talk about paid subscription was just a plug:

Rubin ends up looking like a spoiled kid, frustrated that he can’t effect change. Shouldn’t that have been part of the deal? That he wouldn’t take the gig without monetized P2P?

But that’s just the point. That WAS in the article. The labels are afraid that although licensed P2P might SAVE them, it might KILL them too. That they might give away the store, kill the recorded music business. They don’t want that blood on their hands, so they won’t change, or will do so slowly…

There IS a crisis. The major labels ARE making music free. They WILL be sold to the highest bidder for a pittance if they don’t solve their problems. But the way out isn’t hiring an iconoclastic, bearded guru, but by changing the INFRASTRUCTURE! Changing how they distribute and CHARGE!

But change can’t happen. Because instead of having student interns, young people have got to WORK at the label. And the labels have fired not only the youth, but everybody who does the day to day work. All they’ve got is executives. So, Columbia has brought in someone hipper.

Fair enough: subscription isn’t the ideal way out and it seems like a plug…but then what is the solution? It’s like me saying that representative democracy isn’t the way out for India because it’s the rule of an uneducated mob, but I don’t have an alternative, do I? The labels are going down, the music business is in free fall, but what, apart from a subscription model will work for them?

The one business I see continuing to thrive amidst this shakeup is of events: I’ve seen that working for the Indian rock scene which gets only independent label support (isn’t much), and almost zero distribution support. If you go to a PlanetM in Delhi, chances are you might find an odd copy of Pentagram’s It’s Ok It’s All Good, but ask them about other Indian Rock Bands, and you’re handed fusion or the Indian classical concerts. CDs get distributed at events. Companies like Nokia, Yamaha and Levis sponsor events like the Great Indian Rock (GIR), and Independence Rock (I-Rock). At GIR this year, Hamsadwani Theatre at Pragati Maidan was packed to capacity, and the organizer said that they had to turn back as many people as they were able to allow in. People pay for live music, and sometimes they buy CDs to “support the scene”. I do.

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1 Comment

  1. The music industry going down the tube is but to be expected. They forgot the “natural” order of things. In the old days when music was becoming the killer biz it is/was, the record labels were a vehicle to deliver the music to the public. The music was larger than the biz. It was the reason why the labels existed in the first place. Then some suited fuck thought “why wait for the chicken to lay the gold egg? lets rip open the stomach and get all the eggs.”

    And ever since then we’ve been goin down. Does anyone remember any Spice girl song? Inspiration and innovation cannot be canned. The manufactured freedom of MTV will not deliver original voices ripping open the guts of civilization to spill the beans on the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful.

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