Bob Lefsetz & Scott Cohen Rail on Music Tech in Spain: 'You're a Zit on the Ass of the Business'

Lester Cohen/WireImage
Bob Lefsetz attends the Shelli And Irving Azoff & Ronald Perelman Party to celebrate the publication of Lisa Robinson's book "There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock And Roll" on May 28, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. 

"If you really care that much about music, make a f-----g band, make a hit record. Otherwise you're a zit on the ass of the business."

Bob Lefsetz took aim at music start-ups, among other targets, when he brought his irascible industry analyst act to the BIME Pro conference in Bilbao, Spain Oct. 29-31. He appeared as the subject of the keynote interview, and as the main attraction on a closing panel ostensibly about the future of music, which served as a showcase for the open-ended kibitzing the author of the Lefsetz Letter is well-known for.

"Every one of these motherf-----g assholes tracks me down," he said, ranting about people from music tech startups, who incidentally made up a good part of his audience at the conference. "They always say 'I have solved the problem!' One of these people… they make playlists! Songza. They pivoted from something else; they don't give a shit music, they give a shit about money -- and they ultimately sold out."

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Lefsetz was joined by Orchard founder Scott Cohen, another star of the international conference circuit. Together, the potty-mouthed pair worked the networking-weary crowd like a cross between Siskel and Ebert and Martin and Lewis.

"America's biggest festival is the Electric Daisy festival in Las Vegas," Lefsetz quipped. "It's in Las Vegas because it's the only place where people die and nobody cares."

"I think the live business is shit," Cohen jabbed. "The live business is great if you're a superstar playing festivals, which is a very small subset of the acts. But this idea of going on tour and building an audience and going city to city and generating enough money, I think [most] bands make less money touring than ever before. Venues are shutting down. This isn't a thriving business."

Matias Loizaga, of leading Buenos Aires promoter Pop Art, and Fuji Rock festival director Jason Mayall were also on the panel. They added an occasional international -- and more idealist -- perspective to the conversation dominated by Lefsetz and Cohen, who were incredulous at Mayall's suggestion that he would conceivably add Oakland's The Coup, a band he had discovered just the night before in Bilbao, to the line-up of his festival in Japan. 

The conversation meandered from classic rock, which Lefsetz referred to as music's "renaissance era," to the sustainability of young artists like Miley Cyrus.

"We're not into music only to make money," said Loizaga, who noted that Cyrus, Katy Perry and other pop artists are not as popular as might be expected in Argentina, a market loyal to its own stars and with particular tastes in music.

"Miley Cyrus would turn people away from Fuji Rock," Mayall added.

"The idea is that it's the older acts who are the big headliners; who is going to be the next one?" Cohen asked. "Will 20 years from now people go 'oh my god we're going to see One Direction and Miley!'?" he squealed in a Disney Channel voice that got big laughs. "It's a serious question!"

The panelists returned repeatedly to the subject of festivals as a most significant sign of the times, to the realities of today's information overload and the attention economy, and to what the moderator, London-based Shain Shapiro of consultants Sound Diplomacy, called the hourglass shape of the current music industry; one percent of superstars on top, the struggling masses on the bottom, and the shrinking of the class of successful middle-range artists in between.

"I don't give a shit if you can't get paid," Lefsetz said. "Why is it every musician believes he's entitled to make a living? If you make something good you'll have to turn people away."

The panelists did not get around to making specific predictions for the next decade. Perhaps the best piece of advice for the future of the industry came in the form of a sports comparison from Cohen: "In sports, there's a self-awareness that seems to be lacking in the music industry," he said. "If I play sports, maybe I recognize I'm not good enough for the Olympics, I'm not good enough to play soccer for Chelsea [but I can still play]… The music business has been so binary for the last 50 years, either you succeed or you fail. I don't see that self-awareness in artists and their managers to have them say 'actually, you're never going to be that, but we can still do something on another level.' And I think there's an opportunity there that no one seems to play for."

"You need to know which game you're playing," Cohen stressed, switching metaphors. "There's a saying at a poker table. If you don't know who the sucker is at the table, it's you."

BIME Pro featured three days of panels on music and gaming, Spanish music business law, and the Latin American market, as well as a startup summit and recruiting area. The conference was followed by a weekend festival at the Bilbao conventions complex, headlined by The National and Placebo.


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