Rick Rubin And The Future Of The Music Business

The NY Times has a long piece on Rick Rubin in the magazine section this weekend. If you don’t know, Rick Rubin is one of, if not the, top music producers in the business. He’s produced The Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Dixie Chicks, and Neil Diamond, among many others. Recently, he was made co-President of Columbia Records and the column in the magazine section suggests that if he can fix Columbia, he may point the way to fixing what ails the business side of the music industry.

But Rick Rubin is not really a businessman. He’s a musician, the kind who helps other musicians make great records. And he’s certainly proven his ability to do that across multiple genres of music, over a twenty+ year career in the music business. And clearly, making great music is an essential part of fixing what’s wrong with the music industry. Maybe it will take a musician to fix the music business. It certainly would be fitting if that were to happen.

This section of the article is telling

This summer, Columbia Records began a program called Big Red.
The company invited 20 college students from Harvard, Penn State and
the University of Miami to work on various music projects… At the end of their paid internships, the students took part in
focus groups … The Big Red focus
groups were both depressing and informative, and they confirmed what I
— and Rick — already knew," DiDia told me afterward. "The kids all said
that a) no one listens to the radio anymore, b) they mostly steal
music, but they don’t consider it stealing, and c) they get most of
their music from iTunes on their iPod. They told us that MySpace is
over, it’s just not cool anymore; Facebook is still cool, but that
might not last much longer; and the biggest thing in their life is word
of mouth. That’s how they hear about music, bands, everything."

I’ve often thought that nothing is really wrong with the music industry other than the simple fact that music fans don’t find out about music and listen to it the same way that they did ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. As a result, the business models that exist in the music business are broken. They need to resolve themselves and that’s a process that can take an awfully long time to play out.

Rubin’s answer to the business model question is the same one that I’ve been suggesting for years on this blog. He says in the article:

"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."

What’s odd about the article is that business model exists today. That’s how my family listens to music (except there’s no mobile solution yet). It’s called Rhapsody, Napster, and Yahoo! Music. And it’s not $19.95/month, it’s $9.95/month.

But Rubin’s right. Music needs to be friction free in the digital world. You need to pay once and be able to listen to whatever you want. And there needs to be a free ad supported version of this vision as well.

The reality is all this is either here today or coming soon. Brought to you by technologists who love music and also see the future. But the music industry has fought the technologists every step of the way.

It’s very hopeful to me that someone like Rick Rubin who truly understands great music and the artists who make it, sees the future so clearly. Hopefully the industry won’t reject him and his ideas as quickly as they’ve rejected others who have come before him with many of the same ideas.

#My Music