Lyor’s Screed

How could he go on for so long and say so little?

In "The World Is Flat", Thomas Friedman says the future is based on imagination.  Once a company starts talking about the good old days, and fails to push the outside of the envelope, it’s toast.  What did Einstein say?  According to Friedman, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

What Lyor demonstrates in his "Forbes" editorial is knowledge of the past.  He gives us a history lesson, and then says the future is live.  Hallelujah, now our problems are solved!  If only the cavemen had played live, if only there was a live tradition.  Hold it for a minute, it’s RECORDING that’s late to the game!  Maybe it’s recording that needs to be investigated as a business, that needs to find its place in the twenty first century landscape.  Maybe Warner Music just isn’t prepared for changed business conditions.  But you won’t read any of this in Lyor’s words.  You just get an old wave strategist trying to appear to grasp the new world in a business publication that speaks to investors.  I wouldn’t quite say it’s a crock of shit, but very little insight into the modern music business is delivered.  So, the old system is broken.  We knew that eight years ago.  As the saying goes, what have you done for us lately?

Warner upstreamed some rap records…  Mmm…look at "Pollstar", rap is shit live.  Rap needs major labels and their marketing dollars.  But acts that can sustain themselves on the road, do they need Lyor Cohen to blow them up and eviscerate their credibility?  It’s Warner that’s burning out acts, not the other way around.

Lyor goes on about networks.  Saying you need two, one to find the acts and one to market them.  That fiber-optic cables are irrelevant.  But they’re wholly relevant.  They flatten distribution.  They allow the tiniest of indies to compete with worldwide behemoths.  Yes, now you can get your music heard on the Web, and you can even get paid for it, you can even choose to give it away for the promotion involved.  All those entities major labels control…physical retail, MTV, terrestrial radio, they’re irrelevant.  A new indie act can sidestep them.

And stunningly, Lyor goes on about his muscle.  Bragging about manipulating Charles Koppelman is like Tony Soprano reciting the history of a hit.  Demonstration of a brutish way of behavior that is passe.  Code doesn’t manipulate.  And Web statistics don’t lie.  Oh, the ones on YouTube and MySpace can be manipulated, but is iTunes hiding pressing reports?

And the fact that social networking numbers can be faked only speaks to the underlying point.  Is what is being exhibited any good?  So, Tia Tequila is a massive star online.  Does that mean she’s going to sell records?  Ditto on the Sick Puppies.  Why in the hell did Virgin sign them?

And the problem is not that record companies suck up the talent, but that they’re only interested in multiplatinum, so they only sign pap.  The fact that lawyers sell you an act has no bearing on how fast you have to develop it.  Oh, maybe the deal is too expensive, but can’t you say no?  Can’t you be like Chris Blackwell or the Chrysalis guys and find what nobody else wants, something new and innovative, and pay fairly for it?

The problem isn’t music discovery.  The problem is Lyor and his ilk are part of a decaying system.  It’s not like talent is hidden.  If anything is good, it bubbles up on the Net.  But, if the act isn’t pretty and moving units already, if the major can’t figure out how to get to platinum on the first record, the company doesn’t bite.  The way out of this?  To sign more acts at a lower price and let them percolate.  But I don’t read this in Lyor’s words.  He’s just crying that the old system isn’t working for him and it needs to be reinvented.  It is being reinvented, but by people outside the decrepit edifice, who are not burdened by decades of crap that holds the music back!

Really, I don’t get it.  It’s not like music has lost its power, it’s not like people don’t want tunes.  Hell, more people possess more tracks than ever before.  The fact that the majors haven’t figured out a way to charge them for this acquisition, and instead are suing those assembling collections, is not addressed here whatsoever.  You’ve got incredible demand and you refuse to fill it and you say the problem is managers and lawyers?

And forget that competition for the entertainment dollar.  All that competition is not reducing the number of people having sex.  It’s not like someone says no, I’ve got to kill more people on Xbox before I screw my girlfriend, I’ve got to flip through Craig Ferguson and Conan and Jimmy Kimmel before I pay attention to your caresses.  Music has a unique power absent from all other entertainment media.  But rather than harness this power, the major labels have abdicated and are promoting laughable hip-hoppers and cotton candy like the Pussycat Dolls.  This is the majors’ choice.  No one forced them to go in this direction.  They see the path to riches as an easy one.  They just say they’re giving the public what it wants.  But that doesn’t appear to be so.

People want music that touches them.  If they get turned on live, fantastic.  But Steely Dan never toured in its heyday, and that didn’t keep me from purchasing and loving their albums.  And most of the bands in my collection I’ve never seen live.  And some of my favorite acts are shitty live.  If you’re selling records, live isn’t the end all and be all.  But if you’re involved in all revenue streams, it’s an important component.

Warner’s got more than record revenue with My Chemical Romance.  But most managers won’t give up road or merchandising income to the major label.  They see this request as a land grab, with very little given in return.  What is the label going to do to help sell tickets other than to squeeze traditional gatekeepers for exposure?  Major labels are not in the career development business.  They can’t wait for cash.  Hell, look at Warner’s stock, the company is desperate!  Yup, I want to hear Lyor refrain from releasing another single from a hit album, fearful he’s going to burn the act out.

Lyor takes no responsibility whatsoever in this editorial.  He admits no mistakes, he blames the lack of revenue on bad business conditions.  Hogwash.

Why not be like Steve Jobs at the turn of the century?  Taking a dollar in salary and saying Apple’s going to innovate its way out of the tech slump.  Oh, you didn’t believe it back then, you thought Macs were an island, that iPods were too expensive.  Hope you weren’t too stupid to buy stock.

But if you buy stock in Warner today you are stupid.  Because the managers of this once-revered company have raped the company for their own personal wealth enhancement, and have loaded the enterprise up with debt.  Fine if you’re making widgets that people need for the next twenty years, but nobody needs crap music on CD.  The catalog?  A fucking gold mine.  Close down new music and say you’re becoming a catalog company and watch the stock rise.  That makes sense.  Not spending millions to market the next wannabe platinum act that nobody wants anymore.  Yup, in a niche world the mainstream that the majors function in is losing breadth and depth.  Fewer acts selling less music.  Do we see Lyor address this?  Of course not.

I’m not vindictive.  I’m not the "Hits" guys on a vendetta, pissed Warner won’t pay them.  Rather, I’m disappointed.  That these great engines of quality, Warner, Atlantic and the dearly departed Elektra Records, are now shadows of themselves, that they no longer purvey life force, don’t sell what I need, rather are trying to coerce me into buying what’s easily digested and soon forgotten.  I’ll come back to the major label system when Lyor and Jimmy Iovine and Clive Davis relinquish their power to the acts, where creativity truly resides.  When artists testing limits truly rule.  When SoundScan numbers are secondary to artistic and listener fulfillment.  Greatness sells records, not marketing.

But greatness has been left out of the equation.

Great artists don’t like to be told what to do.

So great artists are now going it alone.  The music landscape will be ruled in the future by a completely different coterie.  People who are trustworthy, who aren’t into winning through intimidation.  They’ll gain their toehold via the Internet that still has majors scratching their heads.  They’ll use the new systems to deliver desirable music to niches however small.  They’ll realize we’re living in a golden era of opportunity.  Yup, Lyor is all doom and gloom, but there’s never been a better time to be a musician, or an entrepreneur.  And stunningly, they’re often one and the same.  And, those working at the long in the tooth major labels are usually neither.

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