Bob Lefsetz: Old Fart Complains About Old Fart Complaining

I've been following Bob Lefsetz since someone turned me on to him a while back. It's been fun listening to an old record industry guy rant about the record industry. As a tech and new media guy, it has been refreshing to see (as I've been doing it online for 10+ years). That said, there's always been a little something that's bothered me about his rants that today I've finally been able to put a finger to.

  1. Bob's understanding of disruption, technology, and social media are limited in scope, because he's never worked in that space. 
  2. Because of that his views are often one-dimensional  
  3. He's like a streamed music track on repeat. 

You see Bob loves to be the Old Guy/nouveau-hipster yelling at the world about his epiphany regarding music and technology. Gotta stay relevant!!! He's found the religion and he's preaching it with all the fire, brimstone, and snake handling he can muster. He's always preaching the new economy of attention and social media and how artists need to be baptized in the new faith. Then, a few weeks later, he'll rant against the same technologies and platforms he's been preaching about

Bob Lefsetz Tech and Music Philosophies

 Bob also doesn't have a long career in technology or social media, and with all of his ranting, he's really short on solutions. It's all bone, no meat. His latest piece I just find annoying in it's lack of scope and breadth of knowledge.

This time he takes on the recent piece in the Guardian by David Byrne where Byrne laments that today's evolving music industry and streaming is heading artists off a cliff from where they will not be able to recover. This is a theory I not only believe, but can give one hell of a powerful argument towards (and will in another post). Bob's answer to David's well worded piece is of course name calling: 

Old fart hates change, what else is new?
So I went to the Mill City Museum. Once upon a time they had sawmills on the Mississippi. Back before they cut down all the Minnesota timber and other states got into the lumber act. But if Luddites like Byrne were in charge, we'd still be sawing timber with water power, got to keep those jobs.
And then came the flour mills. But they disappeared too. Because with the advent of electricity, the mill didn't have to be on the water.
Change. It's constant.
The only people who don't get this are the musicians.

David Byrne. Musical pioneer, fan of technology and culture, friend to one of the best modern blogs on society and culture (boing boing)...a luddite? 

See I think Bob's found his niche being a ranter who offers up great commentary, but doesn't actually have any real solutions and hasn't actually done much in the space he comments on. He talks incessantly about how disruptive technologies are changing the music world, but he's short sighted in understanding certain fundamentals and being able to look from above at a larger picture.

I actually do know a little something about disruptive technologies, since I've been working in them for over 20 years (I'm an old fart when it comes to Internet years). In the past 10 years I've written many articles covering new media, given many interviews, and made many documented predictions on media and technology. I also created and launched Discovery Channel's first music property, where I learned first hand of the dysfunctions of the music industry. I say all this to qualify why I'm about to take Bob's schtick apart and why he's gotten under my skin.  

It's comments like this: 

As for those who don't get Spotify, you're completely stupid.
Here's how it works.
First and foremost...IT STOPS PIRACY DEAD! It doesn't make sense to steal.
And it only pays when your music gets played. What a concept. So different from selling an album with the aforementioned one good track. And it pays FOREVER! Even into your old age, when they no longer have turntables to play your vinyl records, never mind the software to play your MP3s.
But I could rant forever and Byrne still wouldn't get it.
But Byrne gets ink because news outlets know the Internet loves a controversy. Fellow Luddites e-mail people like me, pounding their chests, claiming another has-been is on their side!

I totally get Spotify and I've been a proponent and fan of streaming technologies for years . So I think I can say with some conviction that not only am I not stupid, but I think many of the points David Byrne makes are not only valid, but critical to the future of the music industry and the artists who comprise it. What's stupid is Bob's statement:

First and foremost...IT STOPS PIRACY DEAD!

Spotify does not stop piracy dead. Lefsetz should understand one thing well, since he's worked in an industry that forever has had people singing to us to fuck the system. That mentality is part of how you understand piracy. While there are cheery numbers on curbing piracy coming out from one tiny country where Spotify was founded, it completely ignores the dark parts of the Internet where piracy still runs rampant. You see, there exists a vein of people in society who view Spotify just as they view anything else, part of a system they want no part of. Spotify, for all its new "feel good" bullshit, is still the man. For Bob, piracy is stealing. For most pirates, it isn't about theft, it's a big middle finger. 

It's these blanket and overly simplistic statements he makes all the time which are damaging to his readers because they don't really consider the scope of the larger picture. It's all, "Yeah Bob, go man go, speaking truth to power!" Sure, people from the tech side will all yell, "AMEN," but the balance of truth is not being employed here. Bob has simply had too much of the new media/tech kool-aid to be critical. The tech industry wants you to believe that they have all the answers, and as someone from a world where I've always professed that information wants to be free, I can tell you that this non-critical view without a balanced approach is disingenuous and serves only one side of the argument. 

And then there's this gem from Bob: 

But if you don't think we're in a golden age of music access, if you're not thrilled that the history of recorded music is at everybody's fingertips and there's a monetization plan, you're positively ignorant.

It reminds me of a lyric from my friend Rupert Hine's great track, "A Golden Age"

I can't go on believing this
Have I lived just to witness the last decade
Or a golden age

A golden age of choice to some, a last decade to others. This golden age we're in does nothing to put value to music, but in fact devalues it. When I was a teenager, it took me 8 hours to earn enough money to buy one CD. At the end of the month, I'd drive 30 miles to the nearest record shop and I'd spend hours deciding on which three CD's I would buy. It was remarkably personal and powerful. It was tangible and had deep meaning. This is part of how music shaped us. It had a profound impact on me and that's coming from someone who had the first MP3 player on the market and ripped his entire CD collection 15 years ago and never looked back. I was primed for iTunes years before iTunes.     

Today a teenager only needs to work an hour to afford a month's subscription to more music that you can wrap your brain around. They have no real loyalty between one streaming service or the other. No one album or song has any real value because, just like in an all you can eat buffet, the lobster is the same price as the iceberg lettuce.*    

*I'll write another piece in the future of why this is a problem. 

Another problem I tend to have about Bob is he loves to hold artists like Amanda Palmer up as icons of the new system, but Amanda is the exceptional exception to the rule. I love what she's been able to accomplish, but it's simply not going to work for the vast amount of artists out there.

Bob often rants on and on about Twitter and Facebook and merchandising and touring and connecting with fans, because his primary focus in his narratives is on artists. What about songwriters? They don't record albums or have tours, they don't generally do gigs, they don't sell merchandise or special edition vinyl albums. How does the modern songwriter survive in Bob's vision of the future? T-shirts?

In Bob's world, only the strongest will survive, and they will be those adept in the new world order of social media re-invention. This is an absurd and unbalanced view on the reality of where music is heading. It's also short sighted and disingenuous. As someone who in 2004 proved that you could sell something through social networking (in this case selling out my book through blogs), I understand the power of crowds and connection, but this ideal is doing nothing to stem the devaluing of music in our a la carte, all you can eat world. But what's even worse is when we have people with big voices, like Bob, who belittle those who aren't actually luddites, but in fact concerned about not only their own living, but the artists that they are fans of as well.

Bob's world is that you can't fight the future, you can't fight progress. So join it. Don't stop to think about whether or not you can swim, just jump on in. It's a swift current, but you'll learn fast. Deep breaths.   

David Byrne is right to say:

As Lowery has pointed out, there's no reason artists should simply accept the terms and join up with whatever new technology comes along. Now I'm starting to sound like a real Luddite, but taking a minute to think about the consequences before diving in seems like a pretty good idea in general. You shouldn't have to give up your privacy, or allow all sorts of information about yourself to be used, whenever you go online, for example.
I don't have an answer. I wish I could propose something besides what we've heard before: "Make money on live shows." Or, "Get corporate support and sell your music to advertisers."
What's at stake is not so much the survival of artists like me, but that of emerging artists and those who have only a few records under their belts.

It does not make David Byrne a luddite to suggest that perhaps (in many aspects of our technological lives) we should think a little before we commit to every new thing that comes along. And his cautionary flag and well written and reasoned commentary does not make him an "idiot." 

Shame on Bob Lefsetz for taking such a complicated issue and dumbing it down to something so trite as get with it grandpa! I think I'm done with Lefsetz and his dumbing down of the dumbing down of the music business.