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Why I Both Love and Loathe The Musings of Bob Lefsetz

Bob Lefsetz's mug
29 October 2007

This is a column that I’ve meant to write for a long time, but for whatever reason, I’ve hesitated to do it until now. Nevertheless, with the recent release of RADIOHEAD’s In Rainbows, the time is right and it’s not as if the issues that BOB LEFSETZ raises weekly in his Lefsetz Letter aren’t actively being discussed every day and of importance not just to the music industry, but to music fans and how they relate to and consume it as well as how we interact with our fellow fans. This, of course, doesn’t even get into the relationships that fans have with musicians and the more direct connection implied and modeled when an artist goes out on a limb and sells themselves without a label. So, anyway, where am I going with this? Oh yes, Bob Lefsetz.

I started reading his column accidentally one day when I saw it in a newsletter I received (and still get) monthly from Rhino Records in the summer of 2003 (although the archives on his blog don’t go back this far, thanks to the wonder that is the internet, the column I just mentioned can be read here). In the column, he touted digital music as the future, assailed the quality of MP3 files (and told his readers his preferable bitrate and format to rip CDs), recommended the right computer (a Mac), satellite radio, an iPod (back when very few people I knew owned one, though that would change dramatically within a year or so), Rhapsody, and most relevant of all to today’s discussion, file-sharing of questionable legality. A year or so later, when I finally upgraded my internet connection and was ready to join the world of online music, I took Lefsetz’s suggestion and started ripping CDs onto iTunes (initially at my work and then a year or so later when I finally got a new computer, at home) and subscribed to Rhapsody. He was right. This was heaven on earth! I could have access to as much of my music online as I wanted and if I bought an iPod (which I eventually did a few months afterwards), I could even carry it around with me in a device smaller than my clunky Discman. And with Rhapsody, pretty much whatever I didn’t have at home was now accessible to me at the click of a few buttons. I listened to it daily. That is, of course, until I discovered the world of file-sharing, where not only was anything I wanted easily accessible, but it was also free!

So again, you might be wondering what all of this has to do with Bob Lefsetz himself? Well for years he’s published this newsletter and in recent years he’s positioned himself as an industry insider who is willing to stand up for the rights of music fans to download music. He argues that the old business model was ruined by Napster and since the business hasn’t learned to adapt, all they can do is legalize what’s already taking place under their noses, perhaps by striking a deal with internet service providers similar to how cellphone companies function, with a consumer paying a monthly rate and getting unlimited service. This, of course, was the business model that eMusic first espoused until, for whatever reason, they decided to limit the amount of downloads a subscriber can take and to increase their monthly fees as well. The problem with this, of course, is not only that eMusic carries only independent artists but that savvy users can just download it for free on other, more legally ambiguous sites. So, as he’s been arguing for years, they have to be cut off at the ISP level.

Of course, he’s absolutely right. I also agree with many of his observations about not only the vapidity, but the overall mediocrity of much of today’s hit music. Then again, I’m an aging, 30-something, white male music nerd, so on that level I’m the target audience for his ramblings in that regard as well. So where do I disagree? Well Lefsetz is clearly a product of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and as much as I love a lot of the music of both those decades, his typical Baby Boomer insistence that the best music was created during his time irks me to no end. However, what really irks me about him is his distaste for anything he perceives as non-mainstream. Take this ill-informed rant about PATTI SMITH’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year. Not to be outdone, he also singled out her harmless and actually quite nice editorial in The New York Times a few months later.

I sense an obvious West Coast, anti-New York bias at play here (ironic since he’s from Connecticut). Now, I don’t really believe in the concept of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, since I don’t believe that art should be competitive. However, I do believe that an artist should be judged by his or her work and the influence they’ve had on others should also come into play. On those tokens (namely because of her influence on generations of female punk rockers in addition to others such as MICHAEL STIPE and MORRISSEY), Smith is obviously (to me, at least) a great candidate for the Hall of Fame, since it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Even more to the point, however, is for how much he advocates artistic freedom and artists “fighting the man”, he’s still a product of the industry and as such disdains the things that I and many others, as fans of independent, forward-thinking music, value and treasure. While I agree with his premise that conditions for artists were better in the ‘70s (at least with major labels) and this is partly what led to the mega-sellers like PINK FLOYD’s Dark Side of the Moon or FLEETWOOD MAC’s Rumours that were not only commercially but critically successful as well, I’m also disheartened at the fact that he seems to regard artists who never broke through to mass, popular appeal as somehow inferior to those who did.


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