Vimeo Killed the Radio Star

Internet makes it hard for music

It’s hard for acts to sustain success in a world where the music just doesn’t scale anymore

So you’re 15 years old. You haven’t got a driver’s license, but you’ve got a computer, an iPad and an iPhone. Your parents insist you do well in school, you’re on the advanced placement track. Worldly in a way no generation including your parents’ was at your age previously, you see that we live in a society of winners and losers, and you don’t want the short end of the stick. So what do you do in your limited free time? Play the guitar? Sing in a band? Those odds are horrendous, almost no one succeeds, you’re dependent on too many others, and success never lasts. No, you develop an app, you pursue your tech dreams.

(From the pages of the April 2 issue of Variety.)

People in the music business don’t like this. They want you to believe the tunes are as good as they ever were, and if you challenge them, they say you’re too old, you listened to crap too, like the Beatles, the Stones, Elton John. … They want you to believe that Justin Timberlake is a national star. That what’s on Top Forty is universal. That Justin Bieber is forever. They’re delusional. The game has changed.

Once upon a time Top Forty radio was everything. It was your best friend. Want to know why it burgeoned? TRANSISTOR RADIOS! That was your heart’s desire in the ’60s, not an iPod; computers were something incomprehensible that filled whole rooms, you just wanted the tiny box that streamed your music via your best friend, the deejay. And when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, having honed their wares for years, the whole nation went nuts, everybody picked up a guitar to get some of what they had, fame, riches and sex. There are a lot easier ways to be rich, famous and get laid today, which is why the best and the brightest don’t go into music.

The baby boomers sustained the business during the classic rock era, the early ’70s, with FM and arena and stadium shows, but then the whole thing collapsed and was resuscitated by MTV, and then the Internet blew a hole in the music business so wide that those still in it can’t see it. The center is gone. The glue has melted away. Nothing SCALES!

Let’s start with this week’s big music business story. Justin Timberlake’s sale of almost a million albums. At wholesale, that’s not quite $10 million. David Bowie debuts with 85,000 albums, but this week he only sold 23,000, everybody who truly cares bought it, there’s no virality. Bon Jovi’s new album dropped by nearly 70% in its second week. If you think Bowie or Bon Jovi or even Justin Timberlake is going up from here, you’re delusional.

Hell, the only person who went up from here was Adele. Whose album sold purely on its music, she disdained almost all hype, the audience embraced it, everybody knows it, it scaled.

The reason Summly sold for $30 million is because the potential audience is EVERYBODY! That’s what musicians just don’t get. They’re
still living in an antique universe wherein if you’re anointed, you sell tonnage and get rich. Where exactly is that vehicle again? Radio is moribund and MTV plays no videos. There is no space program. Your only hope is to be the next Beatles, i.e. Adele, to create something undeniable, but all we’ve got is made by committee fads. Want to hear the next PSY record? NO, OF COURSE NOT! “Suit & Tie” was a radio stiff, like the initial Justin Bieber track from his new album, until the label muscled it up the chart. Justin Bieber is already over, he just doesn’t know it yet. As for Mr. Timberlake … Do you expect multiple singles over the course of a year? Could happen, but reviews have been positively mediocre. Mr. Timberlake’s success seems due to marketing prowess and likability. And that’ll get you in the door, but it won’t sustain you.

What we’ve got to confront is the old days are gone and may never come back. The reason “American Idol” worked is because it SCALED! You could reach the masses with something new, you could break … two acts. Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. After that, it was all about television, drama as opposed to music. Will there be another paradigm that blasts music to the top?


But where’s the audience? The audience respects innovation and excellence, which is delivered constantly in tech, but is rare in music.

So what you’ve got is a teenage Englander who sits at home and changes the world.

Isn’t that what musicians used to do?

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    1. Geoff Boyd says:

      The music industry is near death because it has failed to find an effective way to monetize musical works of art in the digital age. The subscription models, and iTunes fro that matter, are failed attempts to monetize the promotional model of the past. I believe that Music Matters to Consumers and Labels Matter to Artists. The industry needs to use the technology of the digital age to plug the analog hole in music recordings and create a new paradigm in High Value Digital Music Content which can be effectively monteized to halt and reverse the decline in music industry revenues which has fallen from $15B in 1999 to $7B in 2012. #NoMoneyNoLove. How many Adeles have fallen through the cracks in the last 10 years. As a consumer and lover of music this hurts me.

      • HM says:

        Not really. There is plenty of money and plenty of love for the music industry, just that love hasn’t been shown to the major labels. Their decline hasn’t been due to the piracy that they want everyone to think it is and they know it. CDs represented a record time for physical sales because people were shifting from older technologies that were on their way out. Vinyl, and tape. Collections were being bought for a second and third time. That simply didn’t need to happen in a digital age. The same age that brought about new recording technologies which allowed artists to work independently of a label and still find pretty good success. In fact world wide the industry grew from 1999 through till now, with revenues topping 168 billion. More artists and more albums are released now than were in 1999. Consumers have more choice, and for the very first time the major labels have real competition in the form of independent labels and artists. The very public stats, the shrinking from 15 billion is a highly skewed number taken from physical sales. Well of course they were in decline. It doesn’t factor in an increase in digital sales. I don’t feel bad for the labels at all, they constantly want to say they’re working for the interests of the artists, but they have a long and well documented history of screwing over those same artists. Working independently artists now get a much larger cut of the revenues. Your adele comment just makes a point that there is still room for the labels in this new music economy, they’re just no longer getting the whole pie like they once were, and if you’re sad because you think some other adeles have fallen through the cracks, multiply that by 10 or a 100 and you get the number who fell through the cracks in the pre digital age. Now those who don’t get picked up by a label still have an opportunity to forge it alone, an opportunity that didn’t exist in the 90s. Don’t be sad with the system because of the adeles that fell through the cracks, be sad with yourself for not taking the time to try to find them.

    2. K russell says:

      The teenager had nothing to do with Summly. One of the weirdest stories this week. And it ain’t just about getting rich. Art still matters and music still matters. It’s now possible to build and sustain an artistic career completely on one’s own.

    3. Joe says:

      Good points but what does this have to do with Vimeo? Totally confused. Vimeo is a video hosting site. Did I miss something?

    4. Reblogged this on People & Projects and commented:
      Love this guy! Bob Lefsetz is brilliant…

    5. Jeff Rivera says:

      Brave article. I liked it. Doesn’t pull any punches.

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