Saturday, December 8, 2018

Myopia | Lefsetz Letter

The music business should be much bigger than it is. But the old guard running on fumes is running on self-interest and there’s no vision. Usually we rely on artists for vision, but as a result of income inequality the best an the brightest don’t go into music and the “artists” we do have are brands, the penumbra is more important than the essence. The clothing brand, the fortified water, if you can make a buck, they say yes. Which is kind of interesting, because that’s how we got into this snit, because it used to be you could make big bucks in the music industry, whereas today you can’t. Sure, you can make millions, but techies and bankers make much more. Then again, they tend to be skilled. The great thing about music is there is no barrier to entry, but that does not mean we need lowest common denominator.

1. The Charts

It’s ridiculous. The labels utilize them for bragging rights, it’s an insiders’ game, but the public is exposed to the chart every week in the media. This is not the pure dollar chart of film, that’s the streaming numbers. Rather this is a manipulated chart of streams and sales, but it’s even worse, now you get to number one by add-ons, tickets, merch, to the point where the chart is completely meaningless. Truly. It’s a disservice to our business, because for many people that’s the touchpoint they experience.

2. Streaming Top 50

If streaming is the new radio, isn’t there a responsibility to expose the public to new artists?

Oh, they call that the playlist. Where you have to wade through excrement to get to the good stuff.

We need a new chart that will illuminate that which is happening even if it’s not streaming tonnage. Don’t tell me about the viral chart, the backwaters, I’m talking front page. The streaming service has a responsibility to break artists.

3. Streaming Top 50-2

It’s all hip-hop, and fifty percent of the public hates hip-hop. So they’re left out?

4. Tour numbers

This is what the public should be seeing. But they don’t. Except for year-end totals. If you see something is happening in Denver or across our country, you’re inclined to check it out.

5. Tower of Babel

People want to belong, they want to converse about music. But with so many niche acts, however large, this cannot happen.

6. The acts themselves.

No one is shooting for the moon, no one is saying no. I’ll say it another time, Adele is so big because she said no. At first she played small buildings, paperless. She turned down sponsorships. And she’s still white hot. Sam Smith played arenas on his first tour and suddenly he’s ice cold. It’s about building a fan base that will support you.

7. Acts 2

The business people run the business, not the acts. I know, I know, we keep paying fealty to the acts, but believe me, no one’s so hot that they can’t be replaced. Taylor Swift was big before she went pop. Then she lost the plot, she was suddenly me-too. Foo Fighters are working class at best. All the acts listen to their handlers. And the handlers want to get paid! So they tell the act to do things against their interest, the manager can always get another act, as for the act itself…good luck reinventing yourself.

So what we need is a handful of acts that have universal mindshare based on their music. Kanye has turned into a cartoon. It’s more about sneakers than tracks. The music needs to stand on its own legs. But we are not encouraging those acts, because we’re too involved in milking the past and brand extensions of those with any mindshare. So the music business thinks it’s winning, when the truth is it’s losing, it keeps edging further and further from top of mind. At best, the music is grease, background for a videogame. It used to be primary, but to be primary the track has to be exceptional and everybody has to get behind promoting it.

The Grammys are completely irrelevant. Because of the Balkanization of the business. No one is a fan of all these acts. Expect ratings to be horrific. The Grammy organization is on its way to cult status, especially after CBS fails to renew its TV contract. There are too many categories with too many awards. But a bright spot is Brandi Carlile. This is the future of the business. She’s been around for years, was on a major label and then not.

But then she recorded “The Joke.”

It only takes one track, but it’s really hard to write and record one. But somehow, despite being a non-player in the traditional infrastructure, the TV, the press, the stuff labels do that is ignored, Brandi succeeded via word of mouth, like Chris Stapleton before her. Meanwhile, everybody in Nashville keeps lauding Stapleton but on the coasts we’re into edgy crap that most people can’t relate to. But Brandi can sing and wrote a song with a message that she executed extremely well.

This used to be the formula. We were looking for home runs.

Now a bunt suffices. Most of the acts selling few tickets don’t deserve to sell more, the music isn’t good enough.

As for what we call home runs… It’s positively niche.

If Brandi wins, it’ll be like Bonnie Raitt thirty years ago. People who had no interest will glom on to the music. But they’re not glomming on to most of what we’re purveying, ever wonder why?

We’re setting our sights too low.

No one is willing to sacrifice.

It’s still a street business in a tech era.

We need more acts that can appeal to more people. It’s just that simple. And when we’ve got them, the music business will matter once again. Right now it’s cruising along, raining down bucks, but it does not matter.

Not that anybody in the business will acknowledge that.


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