musicmoney.gifLike most folk, I enjoyed the recent NY Times’ article on Rick Rubin and Columbia Records. And while the portrayal of Rubin as larger-than-life-messiah borders on caricature, the article still advances some sage thinking on Columbia’s woes:

Columbia didn’t want Rubin to punch a clock. It wanted him to save the company. And just maybe the record business… It is Columbia’s belief that Rubin will hear the answers in the music — that he will find the solution to its ever-increasing woes. The mighty music business is in free fall — it has lost control of radio; retail outlets like Tower Records have shut down; MTV rarely broadcasts music videos; and the once lucrative album market has been overshadowed by downloaded singles, which mainly benefits Apple.

The article, though, also skirts an important question, one that leads to a lesson for independent artists and labels: How can Rubin, and Columbia, possibly restore the industry’s grip on our perception of value?

Trying Something Different

In their fawning over Rubin as a producer, the Times missed the most puzzling element of the story. Bob Lefsetz, however, minces no words getting to the point:

… I couldn’t stop scratching my head and wondering what the fuck Rick Rubin was DOING at Columbia. I mean if he really wanted to revolutionize the business, make a difference, would he have taken a job at a MAJOR LABEL?

On one hand, it’s easy to sympathize with Columbia. At least they’re trying something different. (Perhaps the whole “sue the fans” thing hasn’t panned out as expected.) But at the same time, Rubin’s hire suggests a surprising circumstance: Columbia has bought into a persistent myth, a myth they themselves even helped promote.

The myth of the record deal

Success in pop music, financial success anyway, has never really been about the music. The idea that a band succeeds simply by having talent and getting discovered by a record label is a myth practically as old as recording technology.

From the music industry’s perspective, continued acceptance of the myth has had no downside. Bands lined up, indeed spent their careers, hoping their talent would snag them a coveted recording deal, and in the process provided an endless supply of product for the labels. Fans, for their part, believed that because record deals are so exclusive, the labels must truly be filtering the most talented artists.

Fan opinion on the matter has obviously changed in recent years (thanks very much, Kris Kross.) But bands, by and large, haven’t given up the idea that talent plus representation equals success. And with a “music guru” now in charge of business affairs, the execs at Columbia seem, implausibly, to be saying exactly that. As though their main problem this last decade was simply a lack of really talented artists.

A David Geffen quote from the NY Times article illustrates how wildly off the mark this is: [emphasis mine]

Only 10 years ago, companies wanted to make records, presumably good records, and see if they sold.

10 years ago, the Spice Girls and Hanson topped the charts. One needn’t look any further for definitive examples of marketing-over-music, style-over-substance promotion. The antithesis of “presumably good.” And while we also heard OK Computer for the first time in 1997, Capitol deemed the album commercial suicide. Hardly an example of a company “wanting to make a record.”

Had Geffen said “10 years ago, companies wanted to market carefully selected product to a captive audience,” we’d have a far more accurate depiction of the music industry’s history. In fact, by 1997 the major labels had refined the process of maintaining a captive audience, an environment in which they could dictate the value of their product to consumers.

Historical Context

For 3 generations now, record execs and their A/R men have done one thing best: Sell us what we want to hear.

But note, the emphasis has always been on “sell” instead of “what we want.” Rather than serving as filters for the good stuff, the major labels built their empires by understanding consumers, then signing artists they could most easily market to those consumers.

An act’s talent mattered only insomuch as it affected the label’s ability to effectively market that act (<cough>Milli Vanilli<cough>.) That’s not to say talent was irrelevant, of course. But since the labels had ultimate and final say over what we heard, an artist’s talent was but a factor to consider. The much more important consideration remained, for most of the industry’s history, whether the label could dictate to us how we’d perceive the act’s value.

The power to control our perception of value, it turns out, was crucial.

For all their blustering about theft and rights and suffering artists, the major labels are still among the most powerful marketing forces on the planet. Witness Linkin Park’s latest release if you doubt this.

But Napster changed one – and only one – thing: Unfettered access to music meant that listeners suddenly had a say in what constitutes “value.” No longer hindered by the financial burden of purchasing every new release, we picked and chose the acts and songs that we wanted to hear. In effect, we each became our own A/R department.

What does this mean for independent artists?

In most ways, the basic “rules of the game” haven’t changed. The path to success in any creative endeavour has always been (persistent myths notwithstanding,) “create valuable content, convince people of its value, then charge people what they’re willing to pay.”

Rick Rubin probably understands this. And he may even yet save Columbia. But in the meantime, the record industry’s free fall has one ongoing ramification for indies. As long as the major labels strive to dictate value, they’ll remain irrelevant – we no longer need them to do that. And as long as the majors remain irrelevant, indie artists and labels needn’t be distracted by the majors, and more importantly by their once-tempting promise of the almighty recording contract.

Columbia’s lesson for indies, then, in short: Forget about mythical record deals, and focus on creating content of value.

If you haven’t read it, my interview with Andrew Dubber touches on what this means in practice, and his 20 Things You Must Know … series goes into far more detail on how to be relevant and valuable as an indie artist.

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