Rollo & Grady Interview // Bob Lefsetz

Rollo & Grady Interview // Bob Lefsetz
Photo by Jonathan Alcorn

Bob Lefsetz is the author of the wildly successful Lefsetz Letter. It started out as a paid subscription newsletter in 1986 that was soon read by just about everyone in the music business.

Lefsetz has an uncanny ability to bring readers into his world. And, his world revolves around music. I read his “Letter” for almost 2 years before asking him for this interview. There were a few email exchanges before our scheduled meeting and I felt very at ease with him. It wasn’t until I was sitting in traffic on the I-10 en route to Santa Monica that I remembered I was headed to meet the most influential music analyst in the world.

Lefsetz’s detractors think he sounds off without offering solutions, but with regards to music, he is the most passionate and knowledgeable person I have ever met. He walked into the restaurant where we were meetting with his trademark shirt collar popped. He then asked several genuine personal questions about me and why I started Rollo & Grady. He then answered every question I asked.

Lefsetz has been hitting his stride in the last couple of years. If you’re interested in music and where the industry is headed, the Lefsetz Letter is a must read.

R&G: What do you think of the current state of the music industry?

BL: On some level, you can argue that music’s never been as vital as it has in the last couple decades, but there’s no coherence to the scene. Finding out what to listen to and feeling part of the scene is extremely difficult. Music doesn’t drive the culture today. The ‘60s and ‘70s are equivalent to the Renaissance age of painting and sculpture in that we had this amazing time. People painted and sculpted subsequent to the Renaissance, but it didn’t have the same overall impact. Would I love for that Golden Era to come back? Absolutely. Is it going to come back? I highly doubt it. But, what we’ve seen as a result of the internet is that all of the elements that ruined music in many people’s eyes over the last couple of decades are now gone. Now anybody can make a record: buy a Mac, get Garage Band, make a song and put it up on Myspace for free. But, how do we filter through all this stuff and find out what’s great? Anyone who’s been in the business for a couple of decades used to know every record in the Top 40. You may not have actually heard it, but you read enough about it to know what it was. Now, no one knows all the records, so there’s not a very coherent scene. The scene will become more coherent, but we’re never going back to what we once had.

R&G: Do you see music becoming a service, like a utility bill where you pay monthly for unlimited music?

BL: I do, but I believe the era of renting music is not in the imminent future. At some point, people will believe music is available; they’ll pay monthly, and get it whenever they want it. Right now they want to own it.

R&G: The ownership model favors Apple and iTunes.

BL: I believe that Steve Jobs is a brilliant guy, but I don’t think anyone would argue that his main job is selling iPods. He found a way to monetize online music when no one else had. Let’s not make him the bogeyman. If you go to Myspace Music, what they didn’t learn from Apple: the interface is horrific, and you can’t take the music with you. It’s a service that would have been good prior to the fall of 2001 when the iPod came out.

R&G: What are your thoughts on the ad-supported model that Myspace Music has adopted?

BL: No one hates ads as much as consumers. I read an article the other day about the monetization of online music in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. The article said that no one looks at the ads; everybody minimizes the window that has the player in it. I have nothing against the labels trying new models, but if an ad-supported model is going to be successful, Myspace Music is not it.

R&G: Who are the most important players or innovators in the music business today?

BL: Something that people don’t understand is that it comes down to the talent. You can have the best managers and the best labels, but if you don’t have a great act, it’s all irrelevant. So what’s happening? Something akin to the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, but even more so, the acts are getting all the power. So that’s where the story is. And who’s in bed with the acts? The major labels want to be in bed with the new acts for 360 deals and the old acts are not going to sign 360 deals unless they are lucrative. There are certain managers who sold one act, who are very powerful. They have power in that narrow area, sort of vertically, like Paul McGuinness with U2. Very powerful because U2 is a gargantuan band. But, the most powerful person in the business is now completely obvious. It’s Irving Azoff, because he controls a couple hundred acts. No one else has near that level of power.

R&G: You mentioned U2’s manager Paul McGuinness. He suggested that the ISPs pay for people downloading on their networks. How do you feel about that?

BL: The concept of getting the ISP to shut the user down, I don’t agree with. The concept of having a reasonable business offer where you pay the ISP, I completely believe in.

R&G: What’s your opinion about music blogs helping to promote music?

BL: The person who is going to make all of the money in the future is the person who creates a filter. What is that filter going to be? Is it going to be the Hype Machine? It’s something that’s going to tell you what to listen to; the filter must be something that people trust. Blogs are on the road to that, but, if you go to Pitchfork the concept is clouded because there are too many different writers saying too many things; there’s no single opinion. The filter is going to be just like the radio stations. No one forced us to listen to those. We listen to the stations where that guy plays the music we like. It’s going to be the same type of thing online, but it’s going to basically tell you what to listen to, and it’s going to have a lot more elements besides music. I would love that site. I would go to that site tomorrow. Where is that site???

R&G: It’s going to be difficult to pool 6,000 blogs or 6,000 people into a cohesive filter.

BL: This is my problem with the guy who’s at Pandora. We’re supposed to believe that computers are going to tell us what to listen to? Computer dating never worked, so all of a sudden we have computers, choosing music for us. It’s a human element. I want somebody to pick something. So the human element is going to be the solution here. We don’t listen to the television networks to tell us what shows are good. They say they’re all good, until they get cancelled. People don’t even look to reviewers; they ask their friends. So somebody’s going to build that concept online, and I think that whoever does it is not going to be looking for money first and foremost. Anybody who puts money first isn’t going in the right direction because they make their decisions based on that. People can sense that. If you’re about the art or the music first, then you can grow something, and make a ton of money down the road.

R&G: You’ve written before about bands licensing their music to commercials. Do you think that that ruins the credibility of a band?

BL: This is so complicated, because if you’re an ancient band, yes, it looks bad; like you’re whoring the track. If you’re a new band and you’re based on credibility to begin with, being on the road, I think there’s a backlash, just like with Wilco and Volkswagen. If you are an evanescent act, here today, gone tomorrow, yes, if you do a commercial or whatever, it’ll help, but it ultimately takes away. People are just frustrated because their sucky music isn’t accepted by more people. There’s not enough money in that. Assuming you’re an unknown band: do you think people really know or care? If you see the compilations, you buy the CDs, you know, tell your mother. Other than that, who cares? It’s not like playing the Super Bowl.

R&G: Feist was an established player before the iPod commercial came along. It seemed to expose her to a larger audience.

BL: The problem with that is that when you think of Feist you think of the iPod, and she’s broader than that, so I think it hurt her in that way. It’s certainly not getting her anything. And most of those casual fans, fans of “1-2-3-4”, they’re going to forget.

I don’t know if you know this but, do you know that Britney Spears had two kids, went to rehab? Everybody knows that. So, if you sell out to the media, you steal the story from the public. You have to protect that magic, or if your audience doesn’t own you, if the media owns you, you’re in trouble. And that’s the problem with major success. Look at Jet. Jet had a couple of good songs on that album. They do the iPod commercial. Where’s Jet today? They’re fucking nowhere.

R&G: What do you think of Radiohead name your own price for “In Rainbows”.

BL: It was a great publicity stunt. Good for the band. Is it the future of music monetization? Absolutely not.

R&G: What’s your opinion of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory?

BL: I don’t want to get into the economics of the Long Tail, but Seth Godin said something that I agree with. “Everything is available.” That doesn’t mean everything’s going to sell in quantity. You have to match your marketing relative to your expectations, so if you’re expecting to be mass and you’re micro and you spend according to mass, you’re screwed, but yes, there is a marketplace. Everything can be purchased.

R&G: You’ve recently received compliments from Ben Cohen and Bonnie Raitt. What’s your favorite compliment that you’ve gotten recently?

BL: At this point in time, if I write about an act, they read it. That’s not why I write about it, but as someone who’s first and foremost a fan, it’s great. There are some people in this business who are phenomenal when you meet them in person. Steven Tyler, Bonnie Raitt’s pretty irreverent, there are other people who have made some of the greatest records and you meet these people and you can’t believe it’s the same person. You don’t really want to be friends. What people don’t realize is if you’re in a situation where you can be friends, they don’t want to talk about their music, so what are the odds that you’re really friends; that they’re really going to want to go hiking, bowling, skiing, watch TV with you. A lot of artists are surprisingly quiet and introspective. Are these people you’re really going to want to hang with?

R&G: Do you have any regrets on any emails that you’ve sent out?

BL: No.

R&G: Which email generated the biggest reaction?

BL: Some of these you want to forget. People become so dedicated to certain acts, they’re so knee-jerk about it, and they can’t even say, “Well, let me use a different perspective, and then still maybe come back to my own belief.”

Every time I turn on my computer I get these emails, like literally every fucking day, that say “You’re the biggest fucking shit that ever walked the planet”. As long as my numbers go up I can’t be doing it completely wrong, but I’m not saying it doesn’t hurt. You learn a lot of things and you learn that a certain percentage of the public is just nuts.

And you learn how to deal with it. I mean, I now know why the rock stars don’t respond…they can’t respond because as reasonable as you might be, a certain percentage of people are completely unreasonable. Rationality does not come into the picture, and I’ve dealt with those people. In the last few days, I’ve received five emails from this guy, whatever I write, he pitches this band. I never ever write about anything that’s pitched to me. So I say “Listen, you gotta stop working me.” The problem is they don’t believe you’re really responding. Then you have these people who are just criminal assholes to you.

R&G: Why haven’t you chosen to take advertisers on?

BL: I don’t believe in it. It dumbs things down and sullies the message of the music.

R&G: Would you ever go to a subscription model and have people pay for your letter?

BL: I used to have a subscription model, up until the internet era. I have found personally, my business got much better when I gave it away for free.

R&G: When you first started the newsletter, did you have an axe to grind with the labels?

BL: No. When I was growing up, the goal was to work at the label. You couldn’t get a job at the label. My only problem with the labels was when it became about the one hit wonders of the ‘90s and missing the internet era.

R&G: Favorite artist right now. New ones…the reason I’m asking is because you quote a lot of ’60, ‘70s…

BL: I’m not touching that because all people want to do is judge you. You didn’t find out soon enough. You’re not hip enough. Because everybody can make a record and everybody has fans, they want to beat other people up so they’ll listen to their music. We’re never going back to the universal system where we all listen to 40 acts or 100 acts. There’s always going to be a zillion acts and be thankful you have an audience. And, if you’re good you’ll have a large audience. Probably no one will become ubiquitous.

R&G: In the Washington Post article it said some of your critics claim that you complain about the industry but you don’t come up with solutions.

BL: I’ve proffered many solutions. What they want me to do is they want me to sign a band and make a band big. That’s not what I do. That’s not my job. I’m a fan first and foremost. I’ve certainly been involved with people making records, whatever, but what I get off on most at this point is firing up my computer and hearing something really good. That’s what I’m doing here and I want to do whatever I can to make that a better experience for me and all the other listeners in the world.