New Rules

MTV rescued the music business. The novelty of seeing acts on television, especially risk-taking performers from the U.K., energized audiences, impacted the discussion and generated monstrous sales. But just before the advent of the television station music was in the doldrums, killed by AOR/corporate rock and disco, which flamed out as soon as it peaked.

The twin pillars of MTV and the CD gave the impression that we were living in an era of intense creativity, because where there’s money there’s always an industry saying what’s happening counts. Then MTV stopped airing videos and Napster eviscerated sales and somehow blame fell upon the audience when it’s clear that the problem was the industry and the musicians it supported.

I just finished reading David Browne’s “Fire and Rain”, a look at the music scene of 1970 through the prism of the careers of Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles, James Taylor and CSNY. It was incredibly depressing, because one can see what happened back then is happening now. In tech.

Yes, the techies are all in their twenties, writing their own rules, creating irresistible products and becoming rich in the process. And the establishment hates them for it. Only now, the music business is the establishment.

Simon & Garfunkel had a hit in 1957, eight years before their breakthrough with “The Sound Of Silence”. Tell someone to endure a decade in the wilderness today and they’ll look at you incredulous, they need to be successful TOMORROW! This is the fallacy of the TV shows. There’s no experience, no struggle behind the winners. Even on “The Voice”… Just because you had a record deal that doesn’t mean you’re ready. Stephen Stills had a hit under his belt, “For What It’s Worth”, but the Springfield broke up anyway, he played on “Super Session”, he was still looking for his big breakthrough when he hooked up with Crosby and Nash.

James Taylor was committed to a mental hospital after his initial album on Apple tanked.

And the Beatles played a thousand gigs before anybody in the U.S. had heard of them.

All these acts paid their dues. They became players not to get rich, but for the music. Is it any wonder we’re in trouble today?

In order for music to count today:

1. Control must be given to the artists. Sure, George Martin was an integral part of the Beatles’ sound, and Mort Lewis had managed the Brothers Four and Dave Brubeck before Simon & Garfunkel. But both were subservient to the acts, which were not big on taking direction they did not agree with. Successful, groundbreaking music is about creativity, taking chances. Business people hate risk. They want insurance. Is it any wonder the tunes being released today have the personality of Allstate and Prudential?

2. The keys must be handed to the twentysomethings. When you’ve got nothing at all, you’re willing to take chances. Everybody in the business today has so much invested, so much at risk, that they don’t want to take chances. The Internet is the enemy, even though twentysomethings don’t feel that way. The Net blew up in the midnineties, it’s all they know, they’ve got a facility with it, it’s the norm. As “The New Yorker” stated, online dating is de rigueur for twentysomethings, it’s not odd at all. Discovering tracks online and e-mailing them to your friends is all twentysomethings know.

3. Just like “Sgt. Pepper” ended the tyranny of the single, the Net has eliminated the tyranny of the album. Then again, the wannabe acts have all watched TV and lack insight. He who is willing to break with convention will succeed in the new era.

4. Everybody has to stop trying to get rich. The MTV/CD era was an anomaly, a temporary monsoon, an earthquake, here for a moment and already gone. Raising ticket prices to make up for lost recording revenue is like Exxon Mobil raising prices to compensate for the proliferation of the Prius. Things change, own it. Money is for bankers. For corporate titans. Musicians are neither. If you’re not satisfied with the adulation and the sex get into a different line of business.

5. Justin Bieber is not built to last. Music will be saved by people who know how to play who’ve been doing it for in excess of ten years, playing in local bands, getting more rejection than acceptance.


1. Listen to a lot of records. A knowledge of music is the best education. Spend more time listening than posting on Facebook. The musicians of yore could play every lick on their favorite blues records, can you?

2. Learn how to play. Start with lessons. Only give them up when you surpass your teacher. Know how to play what you don’t like. It’ll come in handy, just like studying algebra.

3. Write. We’re interested in what you have to say. You can wring emotion with a note, but begin composing lyrics too. Music blew up in the sixties because we were interested in more than the surface, we wanted to know who these acts were, we wanted to know what they had to say.

4. Rehearse. If you’re not frustrated, if you’re not chomping at the bit, you’re not doing it right. Sure, post the results to the Net, but don’t expect anybody to pay attention. And promotion is passe. Don’t tell people to listen, go back and cut more until you create something so good it spreads by itself.

5. Use what’s come before as a stepping off point, not as a blueprint. Although you should know how to play the classics, your music should not sound just like the Beatles or Zeppelin, but different. If you haven’t got people scratching their heads, telling you to turn it down, you’re playing it too safe.

6. No one has the magic keys. Top forty radio is a formula fed by a conveyor belt no different from the one at GM, but with a lot less innovation. If you’re interested in making a Cruze or a Camry, sign up. But it’s the aforementioned Prius which is sold out and unavailable, it’s what people want, what they’re willing to overpay for, even though GM killed its electric car. It takes a while for the public to catch up. The Prius was not an overnight success. Hipsters and the green signed up first, Toyota improved the product, gas prices went through the roof and voila, a mania! Manias are not manufactured, not ones that last, they’re all about being in the right place at the right time, anticipating the market, not playing it safe, but being dangerous.

7. If practice isn’t hard, you’re not doing it right. No matter how much success you’ve had, if it’s become easy, if you’re repeating yourself, you’re on the road to failure.

8. Listen to no one but yourself. Recruit information, but preferably from someone without a financial interest in your success. Musical artists are the last loners, they’re visionaries, they’re not part of the group, but outside it. If you’re showing up at the club or the Met Costume Ball you’re doing it all wrong. No one should be inviting you, they should be afraid of you, and if they do call you won’t go, because you know they’re trading on your success for their own benefit.


1. Be willing to starve, just like the musicians.

2. Don’t go to work for the established players, start your own thing, just like an act.

3. Finding and nurturing talent is a thankless task. If you’re not up for it, provide an ancillary service. But you’ll be at least one step away from the heart of the action.

4. Just because you know good music that doesn’t mean you can find a good new act. There are more listeners than players. You’re not that special.

5. Do the grunt work, that’s where the lessons are learned. Be a roadie, an accountant, a road manager, you’ll learn more than you will in any class at UCLA Extension or music business school. Who can teach a business that changes every day? Wouldn’t that be like studying the iPod in an iPhone world?

6. Be the bridge between player and listener, beholden to both. This is a fine line to walk. Both must be satisfied for the game to work.

7. New ideas are the key to success. Promote unknown acts. Create a new online platform. Don’t ask for permission, just do it. If it’s good, people will flock to you.


1. You’re in the service business. You’re servicing the acts and the audience. You’re secondary. You don’t write the music and you don’t pay to get in. Get over yourself.

2. If you’re not thinking about tomorrow, get out of the way of those who are. Don’t think about protecting what you have, but creating demand for something new. Almost no one wants the Top Forty hits of the last twenty years, why are you so busy protecting them?

3. Acts cannot see you as the enemy. If you’re making more than they are it must be because you’re so good and successful, not because you’ve got great bargaining power.

4. Labels… Adversary relationships are passe. The new mantra is trust. Accounting must be transparent. Success must be shared.

5. Attorneys. You’re a protector of the rights of the performer, not a salesman. Defend your act, don’t try to find someone who will bid a lot so you can get your percentage.

6. Promoters. Pay less and charge less. You’re the only ones who can change this paradigm. Stop bidding against yourselves and losing money. Concertgoing must be a casual choice, barely more expensive than a movie. Fandom is cemented at the show, why would you want to exclude someone?

Tech has got the wow factor. There’s a ton of product, constantly blowing your mind. If a tech company rides on its laurels, sells one product for three years, it’s history in the marketplace. That’s the story of RIM and Nokia. Don’t get caught in this trap. If you’re not constantly making new music, constantly destroying the old to get to the new, it’s only a matter of time until you’re kicked to the curb.

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