Bob Lefsetz on Tidal, Terrible Music These Days and Whether He's Been Punched in the Face (Q&A)

Bob Lefsetz

Bob Lefsetz

Los Angeles-based Bob Lefsetz, the no-words-barred music industry pundit who has been churning out 10-20 pieces a week for his popular Lefsetz Letter since 1986, is a regular at Canadian Music Week in Toronto. 

He first attended in 1989, but didn’t return until 2003 and has been a lively fixture ever since. In 2009, his jabs at Gene Simmons, a keynote speaker that year, led to a last-minute in-person battle between the two opinionated music vets.

This year was comparatively copacetic. Billboard sat down with the collar-popping talking head just before he headed to the airport, to get his take on everything from the Canadian industry to his predictions on Tidal, and whether or not he's ever gotten punched in the face.

Did anyone give you the information about our government awarding $14 million to 100-plus music businesses?

I heard about the Ontario Music Fund. This is baffling to an American, that the government is this involved in the music business. On the one hand, you hear people naysaying, saying the usual suspects get the money and the game is rigged and the records are ultimately not successful, and then by the same token you have investment in the arts, which everybody is bitching we don’t have in the United States. At the end of the day, it’s about creating music that people are exposed to and certainly the Canadian government gives developing acts a head start. So it can only be good, especially [when] there are no territorial borders when it comes to music services. So the fact that Canada gives local artists a head start, that’s a good thing.

What have people wanted to talk to you about?

Everybody wants to know ‘How do I make money?’ There’s an incredible amount of money in music, if you are successful. So if you are a Rihanna of the world, you’re a Katy Perry, a Lady Gaga, without going into their specific careers, there is more money to be made in music than ever before. The percentage of those revenues that are in recorded music are lower than before. By the same token, concert tickets far outpaced inflation. We have a winners and losers situation. I can speak primarily about the United States, but it’s not that different elsewhere; the guy who runs the corporation makes $30 million a year and the product is manufactured overseas and the people get a subsistence wage.

So… would I like to see less income inequality? Absolutely. When it comes to music, people only have time for great. In the old days, you had to buy the record to hear it. Today any kid can hear Led Zeppelin on Spotify for free. So if you are a new act, you are competing with Led Zeppelin. In addition, there are no territorial boundaries.

When you say there’s lots of money to be made -- where?

Ticket prices [are] hundreds of dollars. Concert ticket prices used to be $10.

What about new bands?

The problem with new bands is they’re not good enough. They hate hearing this. We have people combing the Internet 24/7 looking for great stuff. If you are great -- look at the example of Lorde and ‘Royals.’ She was in New Zealand. She was 16 years old. Jason Flom flew down to sign her. She had an iconic song. If you are great, we’re looking for that. We’re not looking to keep you down.

Isn’t that a fuddy-duddy way of looking at it, that new music is not good now?

No, no, that’s not what I said. I’m making a completely different point. We are only interested in great. Forget the way it used to be in the past. If there are 100 records, all the attention is only going to go to two records, whereas in the old days, because of radio and the lack of ownership, people like things that weren’t just the top two. But today, since we have instant access, for both information and listening power, we only want to hear the top two. So at this point in time, they talk about kids having a short attention span, that’s not true at all; kids will play video games for 24 hours. They have an incredible shit-detector. It’s like, ‘Next, next, next, next.’ So your key as a creator is to make someone not say, ‘Next.’ It’s very difficult. And there are very few people successful at it.

Emerging new acts, like Shawn Mendes, Hozier -- are there some that you get an inkling that they will still have successful careers in 10 years?

It’s a very different marketplace. Generally speaking, the consumer is only interested in singles. So Hozier had a huge hit track. Yes, people bought some of his albums, streamed some of his albums. There’s some action on a couple of tracks, but his career will based upon how many more tracks he makes that have the ubiquity of ‘Take Me To Church.’

The past five years or so, when you have sent out your Letter, has there been anything you felt strongly about but an email response changed your mind or you were proven wrong in time?

I make mistakes. I’m learning every day. The most interesting thing I would say I had wrong was when the classic rock acts stopped touring the live business would implode -- but one of the most astounding stories is the younger generation wants to see new acts in droves. It didn’t used to be this way. Let’s use the example of Rihanna. Rihanna had a few hits and she was still playing clubs. She was playing House of Blues. Now she is selling tickets in arenas. That’s healthy for the business. I didn’t see that happening.

What do you think is going to happen with Tidal?

Tidal is going to fail. And it won’t fail because it had a bad press conference and it won’t fail because the exclusives are not good enough. It will fail in that it’s entering a relatively mature marketplace far too late. Spotify already has traction. Apple has everybody’s credit card and a huge footprint, so they can make a huge impact. The world doesn’t need a me-too service. If you look at Rdio and you look at Deezer and you look at Rhapsody, they’re not going to survive either.

Not surviving, you mean bankruptcy or they’ll exist but not at No. 1?

Well if you look at Rhapsody, one of the first companies there, they just got a $10 million infusion from Rob Glaser and RealNetworks. To compete in today’s world, where you are in the red because you’re paying for the free service, it requires incredibly deep pockets, which these services don’t have.

What about the seeming death of music journalism -- it seems to have transitioned to a sea of Internet opinion now.

On some level, a lot of the people who had the job at the newspaper, or at the TV, they just had opinions. Forget music. Look at movies. The movie critic is almost irrelevant at this point. Granted a certain number of movie critics went to film school, but it turns out they didn’t need the movie critic to know if something was good. They can crowd-source. If I’m going to go to the movie, I don’t go to the critic; I go to Rotten Tomatoes. And I average it out and I see what’s going on. If I want to know what’s good, I don’t want to read a 2000-word diatribe on what you think. 

But that’s what you do.

Listen, my point is that I’m lucky enough that people want to read me. I could tell based on my audience. Somebody can go into competition with me any day. No one is stopping them. But no one has the perseverance and no one has put in the time.

You must have a thick skin.

You learn to have a thick skin because people say horrible things; it goes with the territory. If no one is saying, ‘You’re an idiot, asshole, prick,’ then you’re not reaching enough people.

How do you make your income?

I get my income from speaking fees. I also have a deal with Variety and I get other writing gigs. That’s really my income.?

No one has ever punched you, yelled at you, scared you in a dark alley?

You can Google and find some of the interactions. It’s weird because we live in a world now where everybody is findable. I won’t say that I’m never scared but I’m here talking to you. He’s a friend of mine now but I had some interaction with Kid Rock so that’s way in the past. We’re literally friends. In terms of other things, to tell you the truth, no. Have people threatened me? Yes. 


Sometimes anonymous. But if someone threatens you anonymously, if people don’t have the courage of their convictions, it’s kind of funny. They end up being less threatening. Listen, do you occasionally write stuff that you’re paranoid about what might happen? Sure. 

Something you wrote that you wish you could’ve taken back?

Not a single thing. Not a single thing.

Did the response to “Bob Ezrin Weighs In” surprise you? His comments got picked up by other outlets. He began, “And there used to be music. No longer. In just the last few generations, we have witnessed the complete devolution of the mainstream of music…”

The real story has nothing to do with Ezrin. The real story is there is a generation gap and there’s a gap between the rich and famous and the hoi polloi. This is the Tidal story. People who have been stars for years have no idea what’s really going on, certainly with the online community. They think everybody loves them and will throng to them, when the truth is everyone’s got a voice now and many people are disgruntled and they are sick especially of the income inequality of people’s million-dollar or billion-dollar lifestyles. And they will say so. So when the Tidal people or when somebody else famous wades into this, they’re shocked. That does not make the naysayers correct, okay? There are certainly times when the billionaire or the famous person says something and they’re right, but they're going to get negative feedback. It goes with the territory. If you are in public, you are going to be excoriated because people are angry that [you] are successful and [they're] not. Doesn’t mean someday they won’t be successes themselves.

Not sure that’s why they’re angry -- it’s probably more the pomposity of how some of these people view themselves.

That’s true. 

In Canada, most of our stars are down to earth. Billy Talent plays arenas across the country but doesn’t walk around with bodyguards. 

Generally speaking, people only walk around with bodyguards if they had a bad experience. I’ve learned that. 

Last words?

The problem we have is there’s been a dash for cash in music. I’m talking specifically about the United States. You can’t make as much money in music as you can in finance or in tech. So people are focusing on the money. They should focus on power. Twitter is long in the tooth but if you look at the top 10 people on Twitter, they’re all musicians, almost all of them. They have incredible power. So utilize your power, as opposed to constantly bitching you’re not making enough money. And everybody can’t be successful. Everybody can’t have an audience. The barrier to entry is incredibly low. People can reach out, spam them and say, ‘Listen to my music.’  The way I look at it, it’s not like we’re out and you break your leg and I say, ‘Hey, Karen. I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos, let me set it.’ You go, ‘No, no, no, no, a doctor’s gone to college and internship and residency.’ I’m not saying that someone at home can’t write a brilliant song at age 14; but odds are, the people who have put a lot of experience in are going to do better. And also not everybody is talented. If you’re five-foot-two, odds are you can’t play in the NBA. So maybe you can just work in the music business, maybe you can just be a fan; not everyone can be successful.


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