The Future of the Music Industry

Music industry insider Bob Lefsetz gives us brief history of the Music Business, and a fascinating vision of what the future of the industry might look like:

"What if it’s over.  What if everything this business was built upon, everything we know, is disappearing.

Well, this business WAS built upon music.  But that was a long time ago. 

That was before everybody got greedy.  Before it was demonstrated how much MONEY there was in the music business.

Oh, there’s always been a music business.  Back to the days when cavemen were banging on rocks and people sat around and listened.  But the sixties were different.  We had recorded music, and a large ready audience, i.e. baby boomers, with the money and wherewithal to buy it.

Before the sixties the single was the dominant format.  First 78s, then 45s.  You can’t make much money selling singles.  Just ask the labels how profitable iTunes is.  And, there wasn’t much money.  There was a depression.  And then a war.  But when rock and roll hit, when the baby boomers came of age, when the Beatles turned it into an album format, purveyors started COINING DOUGH!

You HAD to have the Beatle album.

And the Beatles and the San Francisco sound begat concert venues.  And press to cover the scene.  And suddenly, music was the driver, the hippest art form extant.

And the MONEY!

First there were the records.  Then, Led Zeppelin changed the live deal.  To 90/10.  And everybody wanted to SEE Led Zeppelin.  There was no venue too big, they could sell every seat of a stadium.


And there was radio to grease the way.  To turn people on to new bands.

But then FM radio became formatted.  The acts became corporate.  The whole thing tanked.  But MTV revived it.

Suddenly, there was a new way to expose product.  And this new exposure sold TONS of albums.  Killed acts as quickly as it made them, but the public was hooked, they had to watch, MTV was the antithesis of corporate television.

Then came the baby boomlet.  The CHILDREN of the baby boomers.  Whose parents  didn’t believe in denying them.  Lou Pearlman developed a whole new breed of act to appeal to this group, and the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync sold DIAMOND! Over ten million albums per record.

Then it died.

Yup, died.

The labels will tell you it’s file-trading.  That’s why we have no more diamond albums.

Concert promoters blame the acts, they’re too greedy.

And if you listen to the public, everybody’s too greedy and the acts suck.

But, is any of this TRUE???

Well, all of it’s true to a degree, but are these the factors that are ailing the music business or are their OTHER, unforeseen, unexplored reasons?

There’s no center anymore.  No town square.  No marketplace that everybody passes through.  We’re no longer one cohesive culture.  And therefore, you can’t find ten million people to buy one album.  It’s not like the sixties, when you heard everything.  Mariah Carey had the biggest track of the summer?  I bet half of America never heard it.  Hell, most Americans are not familiar with the Top Forty chart.  It’s meaningless to them.  They don’t listen to the radio stations and they don’t like the urban-oriented sound.

The acts that sell today, to the degree they DO sell, are overexposed.  That’s what the major label’s business is.  That’s why you sign with a major rather than an indie.  They’ll get you on the radio, MTV/VH1/Fuse, "The Today Show", maybe even "20/20", in "Us", "People", singing the national anthem at sporting events, in movies, at least your songs.  Because if you don’t do ALL of the  above, not enough people are aware of your product, the major label can’t sell enough copies to recoup its investment.

But it gets worse.  In order to get everybody to buy in, in order to get all the exposing media involved, the music has to be palatable.  Must be bland and inoffensive.  Otherwise, it’s a tune-out, and ratings will decline.  UNLESS, OF COURSE, it’s the edge, the danger that you’re truly selling.  It’s not like the days of the Rolling Stones, words are not enough, how many times was 50 Cent shot?

But it’s not only the labels that are in trouble.  The live business is never going to be the same.  It’s got nothing to do with sheds or arenas.  Nothing to do with the quality of food.  It’s just that not enough people know about the touring acts that you can SELL 20,000 tickets a night.

Classic rock acts.  They’re already ingrained in the public consciousness.

The Dave Matthews Band?  Truly, the last one to squeak in.  When MTV still played music, broke bands.  THEY can make the numbers.  And then there’s Coldplay…  One has to ask, is Coldplay selling out because it’s such fantastic music or because people need a rallying point?  To feel SOME connection to the mainstream?

But Coldplay is irrelevant.  Let’s just say there will be a COUPLE of new bands that will break through and sell tickets for a year or two (if you think Coldplay’s gonna be doing 20,000 a night three years from now, you’re dreaming, or else they’re going to make a quantum leap in recorded material, since "X&Y" is so bland, so repetitive, so WEAK as to be laughable to anybody truly listening).

This business was built upon a NUMBER of acts selling out arenas.  Where are those acts coming from?

There’s no mainstream outlet exposing these acts, IRRELEVANT of how good the  material is.

MTV plays almost no music.  Remember when you HAD to get a ticket to the VMAs?  Could there be LESS buzz about next week’s show?

Radio is run by advertising men, not music lovers.

But music lovers still exist.  They haunt the Web.

But the Web is narrowcasting.

Music ain’t gonna die.  It’s just that each album is going to sell fewer copies and each concert is going to have fewer attendees.  You’ll go to a club to see a band that almost no one has ever heard of.  Just you and some other people on MySpace.  It will be enough to sell a couple of hundred tickets in Cleveland, but it won’t ever sell 20,000 a night.  Unless, of course, the act signs to the major label, which will dumb down the music, sell it everywhere and kill it.

It’s a funny era.  More people are making music than ever before.  More music is AVAILABLE than ever before.  There are so many genres that even an expert can’t keep them all straight.  But it’s bad for the old guard.  The old guard is based on tonnage of individual acts.  Those days are through.


To subscribe to the Lefsetz Letter, please visit

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. lord moranosa commented on Aug 23

    the problem with musick can be spoken in three parts:

    a) lack of musickal development
    b) lack of long-term vision
    c) lack of patience

    when anyone take a view of the musical careers of the beatles and led zeppelin, these two bands share a common bond to one another: they were allowed control their creative directions, and therefore their musick continues to challenge and inspires both the listeners and the musicians whom have studied their musick.

    as a black cherokee male, i am very offended by what i perceive personally as an amos and otis black-facing of current ‘rap stars’. the ‘urban sound’ has become nothing more than a bland, repetitive, uninterested format designed to keep the masses dumb about the ‘urban experience’. hucksters such as sean now-call-me-diddy-my-loyal-fans combs was never about cultivating the experience of creating enduring musick.

    the beatles were; led zeppelin were; jimi hendrix was; jim morrison and the doors were; and even the rolling stones (good and bad) remains committed to create what they believe in. i don’t hear this conviction in any of coldplay’s musick, other than i hear the obvious takes and attempts to be like u2 (another band that has remained true to their vision…).

    obviously, what the musick ‘biz’ has created has been a lot of marketers attempting to artifically create a ‘buzz on’ about a fifty-cent, about a mariah carey, about a destiny child, about a gwen stefani, about any plastic member of the platinum hits unit factory that creates useless, throwaway musick for anyone not willing to invest any personal time in understanding what musick means to them.

    i was born in 1965, and i have continually exposed myself to musick that has nothing to do with what the mainstream ‘should be raving about’ according to such publications as rolling stone magazine, people, us, entertainment weekly, billboard, mtv/vh-1, itunes, and any other portal that commits space and time to hawking the latest bland ‘product and commodity’…

    and perhaps there lies the problem in a very easy-to-see-easy-to-taste nut-holder: the minds behind the musick ‘biz’ has reduced the visceral experience of listening to musick into being a commodity and product to create unique market strategies around.

    ‘ ladies and gentlemen, please listen to me: how do we create and market the next mega-bad boy star from the urban setting..?’

    when rap musick burst on the scene during the reagan/thatcher era, the musick scared those in positions of comfort and security as assured to them by ‘da man’. reagan wanted everyone to close their eyes and remain asleep, after the broken dreams of the sixties and seventies epitomised by the iran hostage crisis, and jimmy carter’s inability to control the tripe threat of double digit inflation, unemployment, and interest rates.

    but rappers of the reagan era was seeing the situation clearly, if not uniquely. and from this era, musick was stirred by the punk scene of such bands as the ramones, and black flag led by the muscle-mind of henry rollins. rappers and punkers gave birth then to the grunge scene set forth by the creative burst of seattle washington by such seminal bands as mudhoney and monster magnet, which influenced the rise of nirvana, pearl jam, soundgarden, experimental art band sonic youth, the dave matthew band, the more intriguing early works of tori amos, the red hot chilli peppers, jane’s addiction, and enduring icon of my personal favorite pj harvey.

    the scene by the end of the eighties was alive and kicking, as the nineties saw the emergence of nine inch nails, the dj/rave scene, and the truly successful first lollapoloza, headed by mad-genius perry farrell lead singer of jane’s addiction. the musickal scene was raw and aching, creating unique moments and creating truly diverse musick for many to rallying around. and then, the musick ‘biz’ stepped in, wanting to create the continued ‘success’ found by nirvana – the band whose legacy can simply be considered as the band that reminded everyone that the musick did and should matter.

    but the musick ‘biz’, an entity birthed in the days of reagan, didn’t want musick but wanted profit and more profit. hence, the musick ‘biz’ set its sight upon the ‘urban sound’ by backing such lightweights as vanilla ice, mc hammer, and the material girl herself madonna. these were acts that were light, useless, and gave people reason to forget about their problems (it was inevitable then, that mtv would become consumed by the musick ‘biz’ because the very concept of musick and television was a concept that had to turn corporate, and the musick ‘biz’ waited most patiently and carefully for the moment to consumed and digest mtv into a corporate logos that becomes mtv/vh-1 programming and using the musick as a well designed bait and catch gimmick: mtv/vh-1 has become the incestrous step-children to formatted fm radio..) as started by the sexual revolution status of disco and the late seventies.

    why kill the buzz joy that disco started? why not continue the buzz joy using musick in a way that would become, some twenty-years later, the new esoteric of marketing and research?

    people want to use musick as a form of escapism – disco evolved from the coccaine fueled fuck danse floors into the ecstasy fueled glow sticks of ‘safe sex’ trance culture of the dj/rave culture. and the musick ‘biz’, truly the gnostic archon of business, studied and watched and sought and consumed and consumed and consumed and digested and transformed the musickal period of the 1950’s through the 1980’s into the current cluster fuck littering the virtual scene of highly glossed tunesmiths entertaining the masses with tales of urban creed and urban ‘living large and phat’….

    and meanwhile, reggae godfather bob marley continues to sale more albums a year than the top ten ‘albums of the year’:

    and meanwhile, the internet buzz-on of downloading the musick and the ‘hits’ continues to grow as many disenfranchised individuals are not willing to play the game of purchasing overpriced cd’s and overpriced tickets to shitty bands that no longer invoke the mojo like the beatles and like led zeppelin and like bob marley once did.

    sure, led zepplin’s ‘rock and roll’ plays in the background of general motors’ attempt to use their musick to sell their redesigned cadillacs, and just the other day with my lover, we both listened to bob marley while she shopped and purchased items from tristan and america. and we did both notice the ‘urban sound’ being played in fashion stores geared towards saling what i call ‘urban hand-me ups’ to the surburbia white woman wanting to get her freak on a al lil’ kim and the other carefully packaged divas of the ‘urban sound’ scene but for those playing musick for keeps, they know the score.

    the great musick producer and musician steve albini, in a very important manifesto, outlined the con and blow job of being signed to a ‘major record deal’, using the numbers of the standard record contract to clearly illustrate that playing with the ‘big boys’ means you will lose your mojo from the start. that the musick ‘biz’ seeks to exploit and manipulate to meet their old school old world standards of profits by appealing to the largest number of individuals through marketing a ‘product and commodity’ to hit those key ‘demographics’.

    in other words, the musick ‘biz’ wants to create the soft sale, investing the monies in the stacked red of the long-tail economic chart, while bob marley, led zeppelin, the beatles have consistently maintained a strong hold in the outstretching narrow consistent yellow of the long-tail economic chart. like george lucas’ jabba the hut, the musickal ‘biz’ archon has become a bloated, disgusting, entity drowning each moment and drowning each day in its addiction to power and control.

    the ‘next big thing’ won’t be televised, at any time, on any season of american idol…. but that’s an entirely different take all told.

    for we are living in times of very high interest.

  2. STP commented on Aug 23

    I agree with lord moranosa and also the body of the article. Born in 1959, outside of the boomers, I’ve been a music fan for decades, but that’s changing. I loved the alternative rock scene, but lately, it’s just gone totally blah. Any dickhead can bang on a guitar and scream. Same with the Rap scene. Someone talking smack to a drum machine doesn’t do it for me. It’s just not music. The kids aren’t dumb either, they’ve figured it out.

    The kids are turning back to Led Zep, Pink Floyd and the like, because the current bands suck. There is nothing exciting and I guess we’re waiting for the next big thing to come along.

    And let’s not forget home audio. Just what happened to it? It’s all surround sound and bose wave boxes. Most of the younger generation (I’d say at least 75% – 85% of them as a guess) have never experienced true Hi Fidelity. We’re talking a pair of QUALITY speakers (and I ain’t talking cheap here) and a good quality system to drive it. Quality audio for the masses died in the early 80’s as the PC and Cable TV took over. People use to listen to music in their home, but no longer. So music is not an important part of life anymore, like it was back then. I have always owned quality audio. I have a system that’s 25 years old and still blows people away with just how incredibly dynamic and rich the sound is. In fact, our house has four pairs of vintage JBL speakers and four vintage recievers, ranging from a Kenwood KR-9600, two Sansui G-9000’s and a very rare, Sansui G-22000 reciever that weighs an incredible 93 pounds and puts out an incredible 220 wpc and has beauty and build quality to match, you do the research and see what you get in today’s big-box store. It’s black plastic crap that sounds like it’s built. But the masses love it, so have at it, I know better.

    My roommate turned me on to smooth jazz and here’s a part of the music industry that I feel has room to grow. The quality of the music is very, very good, because you’ve got artists who care. The mastering is superb and blows away most new ‘rock’ cd’s with their depth and imaging. I have come to love this genre of music, because the variety and interpretation is wide open. You’re not bored with the formulaic pablum that has become modern rock, expecting the same ol crap. What you hear is refreshing, and this I like.

  3. aga98 commented on Aug 24

    you guy are old fools thinking they understand what the youth of today thinks. You dont. Your precious music of the 60’s and 70’s sucks as much as the current music. It’s all very subjective.

    The music industry simply is fucked by the new paradigm. Now the people decide what they hear. Technology has given the power to the bottom. Top down is finished. The music industry will adapt.

  4. biche commented on Aug 29

    Wow. I really like the Big Picture, as the thinking and the writing are generally taut, skeptical, and illuminating.

    This thing by Bob Lefsetz must be a joke. The rambling timeline and jagged, hither and yon musing could make sense only to someone who only views music or the music “industry” exclusively through the lenses of massively big business and modern music as an artified commodity.

    Thanks for trying to tell us why the “music industry” is dead. The reason you forgot to mention why anyone except a member of one of the Big Four label conglomerates should care is that only the only the dinosaurs that dominate the media system face extinction; music, industry, and almost everyone else concerned directly or tangentially seem better off.

  5. moonbiter commented on Aug 30

    There is nothing wrong with music or the people who make it. What was and is wrong is the assumption that music == big $$$, and that music label owners and musicians are entitled to be multi-millionaires.

    That is/was a historical anomaly.

  6. sandstorm commented on May 3

    I think that the article was right about one thing: the music industry has got some major issues that they need to take care of. But i dont think that the industry will ever go dead. There will just be less money to be made. The product that we buy, CD’s and songs from iTunes will decrease in value, and record companies–the middle man– will not make as much profit. But I think that the IP of music will still be valuable and artists will find other ways to market their work, like advertisements, performances, and much more. As for the quality of music, i think that if you look hard enough, in every genre you can find some good, REAL music. I admit that it wont be produced by any major labels. If a good group does in fact decide to switch to a major record company, i think i can almost guarantee that they will sell out on their next CD. Mainstream is popular but mainstream is boring. Once in a while you will come across a person or group that is brilliant, and plays for the love of music not for the greed, you just have to look hard enough.

  7. yaya commented on Mar 15

    I think we are seeing a shift towards independant marketing as opposed to major lable marketing. Sure major lables still hold much of the power in the industry but a lot of artist’s are starting to realize they can make just as much (or even more) money for themselves as independently signed musicians because of the huge cost it takes to invest in a musician labels are giving contracts that simply dont work well for anyone that doesnt go platmium.
    I will say that while no musician is entitled to be a millionair they have usually worked VERY VERY hard and risked a lot to be given consideration from the major labels asnd the music industry is like any other business, except about 10 times harder to break into, and those who work hard are entitled to be able to at least make a living off what they are doing.
    In the end good artist’s will always prevail regaudless of the state the industry is in.

Posted Under