Rick Rubin in NYT Mag

Beastie Boys and Rick Rubin

Just a couple quick before bed comments on this weekend’s novella on Rick Rubin swooping in to save Columbia in last weekend’s NYT Mag:

First of all, I am a certified Rick Rubin fan and despite the fact that I met Jay-Z at his house and we were introduced (again) at a 3 year-old’s birthday party in Malibu a few weekends ago I have never had a single conversation with the guy. But from Public Enemy to Slayer to Cash and Neil Diamond to witnessing him totally geek out like a fan boy at a Radiohead show at the 9:30 club ten years ago, I have nothing but respect for his ears.

Where the article is right on is pointing out that a record label’s first job is making great music. As Umair pointed out and I mentioned in my presentation at BarCamp a year and a half ago, quality is hyper-efficient in the Media 2.0 world and content companies need to invest in quality content above all else. As Alan says: record labels used to know how to look at a tree and see the table; modern record labels core competency is marketing and selling a finished table at Wal-Mart. Getting someone in there who can actually take something good and make it great is a Good Move (TM). One person isn’t enough, of course, so I hope Rick brings some friends. Rumor has it Matt Sweeny has been helping him out as of late, which bodes well.

But how weird was the “subscription is the answer” part of the article, with no reference to the fact that Rhapsody, Napster, Emusic, and Yahoo! have been spending millions of dollars marketing music subscriptions for years? You and I could all talk at length about what the issues have been (DRM, consumer confusion, Apple, etc), but the article introduces it as if it’s a new idea. “Subscription Music! Imagine this magical world!” Huh?

Also funny is the lack of mention of how consistently mediocre American Recordings was as a label. Apart from the Milk EP (“Never Dated”) and the Cash records I can’t even name a record I loved from that label. Despite being the hugest Misfits/Samhain fan on the planet (or probably because of) I thought the Danzig records were weak and no, I never liked The Black Crowes (sorry, Sam Velde). Did I miss some A&R genius there? The Jayhawks, I’ll give ’em The Jayhawks. And that one John Doe record. But the world didn’t stop when American closed. No one wept. No one noticed, as far as I remember.

But most importantly, the article does point out that the machinery of the majors is built to dominate radio, MTV, and retail, an entire infrastructure that doesn’t amount to anything but cost in the Media 2.0 world. The challenge for Rick is, where does size actually help? It’s going to be much easier to have success on a smaller scale, which is what Rick does best. The perfect Media 2.0 play for Rick (IMHO) would be to do exactly what he does — identify great talent and do whatever is appropriate for them and their fans, noting specifically that this might not be a 70 minute album anymore. Why not release songs in a bloggy sort of way, outlining the recording/writing process, show us the story that went with the album, make it last a year, sell the tracks on iTunes, give a couple away, give us some video, sell us a t-shirt, take us to a live show, and at the end package it up in a DVD box set that we want to spend $30 on (I just paid $50 for the Magnolia Electric Co box set so it’s not out of the question). Rick could do some amazing art this way.

Question is, can he really scale it across all of Columbia? Can he make the size and reach work for him or is it all just unnecessary overhead/headache? Or will he just spend their money making a few cool projects while the traditional side of the business continues its decline? It’ll be fun to watch.

My advice is that they get some proper social media geeks in there alongside the music geeks. I don’t necessarily mean engineers, I mean people who get blogging, people who understand that you don’t need to work at a company anymore to make a living publishing online (I’m talking about people like Andy, and Andy you know I’m talking about you). It’s why RCRD LBL makes sense — Peter Rojas understands the physics of Web publishing. He lived through the change in cost structure and value proposition between print and online, and this actually does make him extremely well-suited to build a music company on the same model. If you had more of these folks at a label they would be able to help build the label that operates on the “patient for growth, impatient for profit” (Christensen, from The Innovator’s Dilemma) mantra of emergent, scalable businesses.

It’s definitely a very exciting time and I think giving the company to someone with REAL EARS is a huge step forward, since I fundamentally believe that quality is hyper-efficient on the Internet. Now you need someone who gets the whole package, who can conceive of what the PRODUCT looks like in the Media 2.0 world, because it isn’t vinyl at 55 minutes or plastic disks at 72 minutes. But all in all I’m encouraged — it feels like we’re finally getting somewhere this year. The denial is over and some bets are being placed.


postscript: TechDirt was less kind, and right on with the original EFF plan reminder. Lesson is, listen to the market. Swimming up stream isn’t possible on the Internet. Go with the current. Seriously.


  1. Bawb wrote:

    So much to chew on here: “…that quality is hyper-efficient on the Internet”. It’s both more and less efficient although the mechanisms for good stuff to get through. Good things rise but the ocean is SO BIG. So fragmented. My buddy the college soc. teacher was saying: “I long for the days when there were three networks and if they were carrying a football game it was worth watching.”

    “…noting specifically that this might not be a 70 minute album anymore” Absolutlely. I think what we want is a “discrete package” of some kind. it used to be an lp, then a CD; now ….? box set would work. Put a tshirt in a box with a code written on it that gives you access to a mp3 server? Maybe a poster and DVD thrown in, sure.

  2. Toni wrote:

    Totally agree with you. I thought the NYT Mag did a better job capturing media 2.0 ideas with their Jonathan Coulton article a while back (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/13/magazine/13audience-t.html)

  3. Wayne wrote:

    Regarding the subscription business, the funny part of the article is when Rubin says “$19.95 a month” and then in the next paragraph they quote David Geffen at six dollars a month (which is in the ballpark of Y! and others).

    It’s good to have somebody who thinks his company can create awesome music that will result in fans paying twenty dollars a month. But there is a fine line between optimism and wishful thinking.

  4. jonathan wrote:

    Wow, that was one f*@#$ing long puff-piece! While there were definitely some good bits, I think you probably could have replaced 85% of it with what must have been the author’s voicemail message when she was writing the article: “Hi this is Lynn Hirschberg, I can’t talk right now because Rick Rubin’s balls are in my mouth.” (Not nearly as classy as

    Ian, I agree completely with your (and TechDirt’s) assessments. But, I feel that you both overlooked what was to me the most glaring assurance of the inevitable failure of Rubin’s well-intentioned efforts at Columbia: perpetuating (even exacerbating) the bloated cost structure that makes the current way the labels do business unsustainable. Yes, a return to quality is absolutely essential to the record business (or any media business) having a shot at survival. As are new, more costumer-centric business models, like a true consumer-grade subscription solution (I’m writing this on my way to the Apple announcement, and subscription iTunes is what *I* want for Christmas). But, they are far from sufficient.

    The reason the labels historically rejected subscription and many other interesting business models in the past is that they could not figure out a way to continue to make the ridiculous margins they’re used to making in the physical record business. And there’s a simple reason for that, it’s impossible. In this hyper-efficient, plastic, media 2.0, blah blah world of digital distribution, the crux of the labels’ business model — bundling crappy shit with good shit — is completely undermined. So, they cannot possibly expect the same margins that they were able to extract from the relatively low-costs of getting a hot single made and played on KISS FM and MTV with the high returns of charging people $18 to buy that single and the 11 other shitty tracks that came with it.

    If the labels are serious about changing their business model, then they need to get serious about changing their cost structures. And buying CAA former headquarters on some of the most expensive real estate in Beverly Hills because it has a more “artistic” vibe is exactly the wrong direction. If you want to send a message to employees that things need to change, get a warehouse in downtown and put them all in cubicles.

  5. iancr wrote:

    Jonathan: totally agree and I didn’t overlook it:

    “He lived through the change in cost structure and value proposition between print and online, and this actually does make him extremely well-suited to build a music company on the same model. If you had more of these folks at a label they would be able to help build the label that operates on the “patient for growth, impatient for profit” (Christiansen, from The Innovator’s Dilemma) mantra of emergent, scalable businesses.”

    That’s exactly what I meant. Sorry if it was a bit buried.

    Also, I should have noted that I agree, a ubiquitous IP-based streaming service is exactly what I want. I want it to my desktop, my control4, my portable, my car, etc. Subscription is the future, but Janus is not.


  6. jonathan wrote:

    But, the “he” in your quotation is Peter Rojas and RCRD LBL, not Rick Rubin and Columbia, right?

    You and TechDirt both talk about how the things Rubin talks about are good but maybe not good enough. I guess my point was similar to, if more emphatic than yours. I’m saying that when he talks about spending millions of dollars for “more artsy” feeling space, he’s inadvertently proving why all of his other efforts will fail: because the cost structure *must* be changed in order to sustain a shift to higher average product quality and more efficient value exchanges.

    Yes, we’re agreeing. But, I needed to get in the last word 😛

    Also, Marco and I talked today on the way back from the Apple thing. You and I really need to finally have that discussion about getting Y! Music attention management functionality into iTunes.

  7. SteveR wrote:

    It’ll be interesting – Sony Corp seems so rudderless right now in general. I thought it was telling (not in a good way) that they are putting a lot of stake into ephemera like relocating the LA HQ and changing their CD packaging from jewel cases. The best thing I read was his resistance to creating a new hierarchy to replace the old one. If i were him I would riff 50% of his employees across the board immediately and see what happens. The people at the labels seem too preoccupied with saving their jobs – get it over with and let the survivors operate without fear. The shock might jar them into more quickly abandoning the failed models.

  8. iancr wrote:

    Yes, you are right, Jonathan. I agree. Spending MORE money is not the answer. The cost structure needs an adjustment. Engadget works as a business because they pay $20 per post instead of $200… (I am making up those numbers but you get the idea)

  9. sam wrote:

    rick didnt a&r the crowes, george drakulias did….remember he drank ‘orange julius’ with yer boys……:)

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