Rick Rubin: Music Biz Savior?

The New York Times Magazine's Lynn Hirschberg ponders this crucial matter and concludes that Rubin, the Def Jam impresario/producer (Jay-Z, Beastie Boys, Slayer, Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash and 17,000 others) who's now employed by Columbia Records, just may be the mensch to prevent this Titanic from sinking. Or is he merely rearranging the deck chairs on said vessel? I dunno; I can't think of anything right now except for Rubin's beard...

But seriously, the feature's interesting, especially if you work in the music industry, leech off of it (I'm looking at you, fellow music journalists... and me), or are trying to make it within the beast as a recording artist. Everyone except the most in-denial record-industry doofuses believes that the business model is busted. Major labels (and to a lesser extent indies) need to adapt to emerging technologies and shifting consumer attitudes and figure out how to find new revenue streams, or perish. Because the piece is long and your attention spans are short, I've collated the hottest money quotes for your convenience.

* * * Rubin: "The most important thing we have to do now is get the art right. So many of the decisions at these companies have not been about the music. They sign artists for the wrong reasons ‹ because they think somebody else wants them or if they need to have a record out by a certain date. That old way of doing things is obsolete, but luckily, fear is making the record companies less arrogant. They're more open to ideas. So, what's important now is to find music that's timeless. I still believe that if an artist gains the belief of the listener, then anything is possible."

* * * This summer, Columbia Records began a program called Big Red. The company invited 20 college students from Harvard, Penn State and the University of Miami to work on various music projects. The interns concentrated mostly on the digital marketing and promotions departments in Columbia's offices in Midtown Manhattan, which are on Madison Avenue in a granite skyscraper designed by Philip Johnson.

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At the end of their paid internships, the students took part in focus groups that were closely observed by Steve Barnett, Rubin's co-head at the label, and Mark DiDia, whom Rubin brought in as head of operations, as well as by other Columbia executives. The focus groups may have been the real point of Big Red—Barnett and the New York executives, especially those who had been at Sony for years, wanted to try to take the pulse of the elusive music audience. "The Big Red focus groups were both depressing and informative, and they confirmed what I—and Rick—already knew," DiDia told me afterward. "The kids all said that a) no one listens to the radio anymore, b) they mostly steal music, but they don't consider it stealing, and c) they get most of their music from iTunes on their iPod. They told us that MySpace is over, it's just not cool anymore; Facebook is still cool, but that might not last much longer; and the biggest thing in their life is word of mouth. That's how they hear about music, bands, everything."

* * * Rubin: "In the past, I've tried to protect artists from the label, and now my job would also be to protect the label from itself. So many of the decisions at these companies are not about the music. They are shortsighted and desperate. For so long, the record industry had control. But now that monopoly has ended, they don't know what to do. I thought it would be an interesting challenge."

* * * To combat the devastating impact of file sharing, [Rubin], like others in the music business (Doug Morris and Jimmy Iovine at Universal, for instance), says that the future of the industry is a subscription model, much like paid cable on a television set. "You would subscribe to music," Rubin explained, as he settled on the velvet couch in his library. "You'd pay, say, $19.95 a month, and the music will come anywhere you'd like. In this new world, there will be a virtual library that will be accessible from your car, from your cellphone, from your computer, from your television. Anywhere. The iPod will be obsolete, but there would be a Walkman-like device you could plug into speakers at home. You'll say, 'Today I want to listen to ... Simon and Garfunkel,' and there they are. The service can have demos, bootlegs, concerts, whatever context the artist wants to put out. And once that model is put into place, the industry will grow 10 times the size it is now."

* * * "Either all the record companies will get together or the industry will fall apart and someone like Microsoft will come in and buy one of the companies at wholesale and do what needs to be done," [Rubin] said.

* * * [Columbia Records exec Steve] Barnett has other ideas, which he is discussing with Rubin. For instance, asking Columbia artists to give the record company up to 50 percent of their touring, merchandising and online revenue. [That sound you hear is the unison shout of "FUCK YOU" from every musician signed to a label. -DS]

* * * Rubin: “[T]oo many people make and love music for it to ever die. It will never be over. The music will outlast us all." [Best to leave on an optimistic note, lest you all be plunged into inconsolable depression. -DS]

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