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Blog // Sounds
February 24, 2012

Bob Lefsetz?

Who the hell is Bob Lefsetz? It’s a question I’m asked, more and more in conversations, emails and online exchanges. And, it’s the heading of a recent expose in Wired magazine. If you are a musician, music-lover or in any way connected to the music business, I’d encourage you to check out that Wired article […]

Who the hell is Bob Lefsetz? It’s a question I’m asked, more and more in conversations, emails and online exchanges. And, it’s the heading of a recent expose in Wired magazine. If you are a musician, music-lover or in any way connected to the music business, I’d encourage you to check out that Wired article and at least be familiar with Lefsetz’s somewhat infamous blog, The Lefsetz Letter.

“Lefsetz is the author of the Lefsetz Letter, an online record-biz op-ed that mixes analysis, rants, boomer-rock reveries, and the odd bit of futurism. Like most music bloggers, Lefsetz posts frequently and verbosely; unlike most music bloggers, he has actually gained the interest of the music industry, so much so that even Lefsetz’s most casually tossed-off missives get noticed.”

What is obvious today, was obvious five years ago

It’s tempting to suggest Lefsetz is just another opinionated (old-style) blogger, recycling ideas from other more innovative commentators, lavishing far too much time reviewing old artists and pounding a small number of overworked themes.

For example, in a recent post he claims that we are heading for “a place where music is ubiquitous.” Sure, but David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard were saying that back in 2005 with their book, The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution (Berklee Press). Here as in other places, it seems Lefsetz is only restating what others have said before – less clearly, less presciently and with less evidence to back up the claims.

I took the 12 week BerkleeMusic The Future of Music and the Music Business course with David Kusek back in early 2004. It was pretty clear then that we needed to change our mindset (and that we needed new kinds of managers and business leaders). The industry has only recently started to really adapt to those challenges. If this was an opera, then today we are only at the beginning of the fourth act in a five act drama!

Who is Lefsetz audience?

But, maybe I’m not really Lefsetz’ audience? Maybe I (and probably you, if you regularly read this blog) are the choir that writers like Lefsetz no longer needs to preach to? After all, there are so many great music business blogs out there, like Digital Music News, Musician Coaching and SonicScoop.

However, you don’t have to go to a lot of “industry events” to see that an alarming number of “industry professionals” at big companies are trapped in (or by) the past. Others have adapted somewhat, but can’t stop themselves from tilting at the same old windmills (like piracy and file sharing). Some are few really are innovating, but are held back by the companies they work for and the byzantine legacy of the industry’s existing structures (like licensing and copyright).

If these people really do read Lefsetz, then maybe he is doing a service for the rest of us?

Why Lefsetz Matters

At his best, Lefestz is disarmingly accurate. I do hope his best writing is one day collected into a (well edited) book. Take this, which comes at the end of a recent post on visiting the old Sun Studios in Memphis (where Elvis started out),

“…now you can cut your album on a laptop and shoot an HD video on a smartphone.

And seemingly everybody who had success before laments the passage of the good old days.

The good old days weren’t so great. Most people couldn’t get exposure, it was frighteningly expensive to record.

These are the good old days.”

That’s a decent summary of our current reality as musicians. And, for a business as disconnected from reality as the music industry, maybe there is a need for the ranters and pamphleteers like Bob Lefsetz?

Why I don’t (usually) read Lefsetz

I tuned back into Lefsetz because I kept being asked questions about him, because he is going to be at MusicMatters in May and because of that Wired article. But, I’m not a regular reader of his work. Too many of his posts are poorly formatted, judgemental, repetitive and mean (yes, I’m referring to his comments about Taylor Swift).

Lefsetz is at his best, as a blogger, when he is concise and focussed on the positive trends in the music industry. You get a sense of what he can offer in this interview with the Hollywood reporter – Music Industry Watchdog Bob Lefsetz on the Future of the Biz and 5 Mistakes New Acts Should Avoid. Yet, despite making some good observations about the declining significance of the major labels, the future of the industry and the most compelling players on the business side of things (especially Coran Capshaw and Ian Rogers), there’s still the odd comment that makes you wince.

“There are tons of talented businesspeople and very few talented acts.”

No. Sorry. That’s total BS. In recent years I’ve seen a lot of talented acts and artists who still do not have major exposure. And, I know of a lot – a potential tidal wave – of artists who were buried by the old system that are still making good music and have yet to plug into the new digital economy.

There are some truly talented business-people in this industry, but I wouldn’t say there is a lot them. In fact it is alarming, once you get down the local and regional level, how many artists, managers, venue operators, studio owners and promoters can’t even build a decent website or manage a basic social media presence and still believe in the old “get signed to a label” mythology.


Lefsetz says he’s been “…inside the belly of the beast” so to speak. Having never worked at a major label I respect that. I’ll be curious to hear what Lefsetz has to say at MusicMatters and I hope to ask him some questions about music blogging, either from the floor or in person.

But, when it comes to advice about where this game is going, I’d rather tune into the opinions of people who are doing more substantial research into the industry (like Mike King at Berklee or Andrew Dubber at Birmingham City University) and to the many people who are out there, day to day, making music and building new building music technologies.

The music industry has been forced to change because digital technologies are reshaping our attitudes and behaviours. Consumers have had a taste of being opinion-leaders and influencers and they are not going to step away from that. For artists, success in this environment will come just as much from connecting with their fans desire to be influential in their community and to produce their own art as it will from the artists’ own work.

And, for bloggers, being able to point to what you’ve done, to change the world, will matter a lot more than just having an opinion about what others have done. The past belonged to the gatekeepers, the future belongs to the makers.

Jeff Shattuck 12 years ago

I read Lefsetz often and I like his posts, they’re almost always a good read. But I tire of his notion that everyone needs to accept that the old world is dead and we all need to move on and will be happier for it. The old world had its faults and I don’t want to see its return, but to suggest that we’re all better off burning copyright law, as Lefsetz seems to suggest, is naive. He seems to want us all to return to a time when a musician’s only wages were from live shows; he calls this innovation. Whatever. He’s fun but he’s an entertainer, not an authority.

Fernando Gros 12 years ago

Jeff – one of the emails I received in response to this post suggested that Lefsetz is like the John Stewart of the music industry. I’m not sure I agree with that, but it did make me wonder.

Like a lot of things Lefsetz says, I find myself kind of agreeing with what he says on the points you raise, then ultimately feeling disappointed with the lack of substance. It’s a bit like eating McDonalds when one is really hungry – simultaneously satisfying and unsatisfying.

I do agree with Lefsetz that the “old world is dead” as you put it. There’s no going back. However, I’m not sure everything is better now. And, we need some notion of copyright.

As for live music, well I think it shows a really big weakness in most of Lefsetz’s “letters.” His notion of a sustainable model for musicians is really weak and for all his ranting that the past is dead, it’s still basically the past minus recording revenues. Not everyone is a live musician nor should they be. There’s a lot of models for musicians that incorporate education and other non-performing vocations that need to be discussed.

I’m singling out Lefsetz here, perhaps too much though. On this last point I’m pretty dissatisfied with many of the pundits these days.

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