Rick Rubin is a living legend. He founded Def Jam, has always done exactly what he has wanted, and succeeded on his own terms. Not a bad way to be.
As the new Co-Chairman of Columbia, Rubin is again in a unique position to affect change in the music biz and the New York Times got a rolicking interview with the bearded one that is a great read. Two of the best snippets below…
“Until very recently,” Rubin told me over lunch at Hugo’s, a health-conscious restaurant in Hollywood, “there were a handful of channels in the music business that the gatekeepers controlled. They were radio, Tower Records, MTV, certain mainstream press like Rolling Stone. That’s how people found out about new things. Every record company in the industry was built to work that model. There was a time when if you had something that wasn’t so good, through muscle and lack of other choices, you could push that not very good product through those channels. And that’s how the music business functioned for 50 years. Well, the world has changed. And the industry has not.”
That the labels have lost the ability to market music effectively, half of their main charter — the other is discovering new music — isn’t a huge revelation. It is to hear it actually said out loud by the head of a music label. Refreshing, to be sure.
Rubin has a bigger idea. To combat the devastating impact of file sharing, he, 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.”
The problem is that subscription has been tried and for the most part, consumers hate it. Even if a system can be devised that creates an elegent solution — that is, the DRM built into the subscription model doesn’t hinder the consumer in any way and actually allows the consumer to do what they want to do — it is still a herculean shift to get consumers to accept a license system over actual ownership. The “collection” mindset is one that cannot be ignored. “Oh yeah, I have that,” won’t go away easily.
While I will continue to be a huge skeptic of subscription models, I do firmly believe that one of a label’s main charters is to get consumers to listen to new music…or, more aptly said, music that is new to them. The discovery of music is critical to the music industry and the almost single-minded focus that new albums = new music is the path to disaster.
“The iPod will be obsolete” may be true eventually. but for the next few years, at the least, fighting Apple is Sisyphian battle. There are ways to help consumers discover music new to them. It all starts with iTunes playlists, individualized to that consumer for the role they want that playlist to play in their lives (e.g. gym or driving or upbeat, etc).
Consumers are begging for great music and fortunately for the labels, there is already decades of incredible albums sitting in their catalogs. Matching the rights songs with the right consumer with the right time is their goal. If a new song fits, so be it. If it doesn’t, there are hundreds of thousands of others in the vault that may fit the bill.
To use Rubin’s example, how does a consumer even know they want to listen to Simon & Garfunkel? They probably don’t but if you give that consumer the right S&G song in context, that is, it fits the rest of that playlist, that situation, that mood or feeling they want right then, then they will discover not just a new song but a new song that works for them.
The subscription model Rubin talks about solves but a small piece of the bigger problem. The labels needs to match the right song with the right person in the right circumstance. It’s easier said than done but totally possible. Songs are but smaller pieces in a soundtrack that consumers create for their lives. Program those soundtracks, make it easy, do it right and all of a sudden all those tracks have value again.
When record companies stop playing marketer and start playing matchmaker, they will rediscover that yes, they do matter and even better, what they have and what they do is something the consumer really wants.