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Music Biz: Today’s Tech Era Is Gonna Run Out of Gas

Don’t blame the Internet messenger that the message has lost its mojo

I recently watched the film “Downloaded” (pictured), the story of Napster. Which seems like ancient history, even though it occurred little over a decade ago. But what would stun the music execs if they pulled their heads out of their rear ends is that their audience, today’s teens, never knew any different, the free music/YouTube/Spotify/digital world is all they’ve ever experienced, and despite inane protestations from the boomer-driven media that vinyl is making a comeback, akin to stating that Model T’s are replacing Teslas, the past is never ever gonna return.

We’re in the tech era now. But what they don’t tell you is one day it’s gonna run out of gas. It will be replaced by something heretofore unseen, dominated by nerds who were poor and got no attention and will suddenly rule the Earth. Kind of like how the techies replaced the musicians.

Sure, Shawn Fanning wanted free music, prior to his app, you could never afford everything, certainly not if you were a college student, but what motivated him even more were the challenges, and the riches. Yes, Fanning wanted to be rich and famous, and if you look back at the turn of the century landscape you can see that he’s only slightly less well-known than Eminem and Justin Timberlake. A youngster watching this documentary would wonder who in the hell Fred Durst was.

That’s not much different from musicians — the desire to be rich and famous — Fanning achieved his goal and most musicians do not.

Shawn Fanning wanted to change the world, musicians just want to complain how nobody is listening, and if someone is, they can’t get paid.

Jay-Z screwed up. He subjugated the music to the tech, turning it into a data-mining expedition along the way. Yes, to unlock the lyrics from the Samsung app you’ve got to tweet that you’re doing so. This isn’t about music but commerce, and that’s what’s been the problem ever since … Napster eviscerated the music business.

Yes, feel triumphant RIAA, you killed Napster. But you also forced tons of music previously buried, unheard, from the Internet.

That was Napster’s magic, the unearthing of live and rare tracks. This was healthy for both the artists and the music business. Because it got people excited about music, they wanted to hear this stuff, not the authorized pap put out by self-satisfied stars. Yes, we want to hear the work tapes, the unfinished version, that’s how dedicated we are. New groups get this, they post rehearsal tapes on YouTube, but the problem is … there’s nothing so cutting edge we need to hear it.

Used to be music was a plethora of breakthroughs, before MTV made it about image more than sound, and the CD was so expensive money rained down on record companies. Now everybody’s about the money and there just isn’t enough in music, which is why Bono is a venture capitalist and all the managers have tech investments.

But the techies knew the riches came last. At least the old school ones. They were mesmerized by the problem. That was the genius of Steve Wozniak; without him, Steve Jobs had no product to sell. Woz could solve the unsolvable overnight. Kind of like writing a hit song in 10 minutes. But today a hit song is written in a camp and massaged by a ton of producers, the music’s got no soul, and that’s why it doesn’t resonate.

The goal is not to be an overnight success. The goal is not to sell out. The goal is to establish a career that goes on for decades. It requires years and years of woodshedding, developing your skills to the point where you can find your voice. And then refining said voice.

The key is to be so skilled, so versed in the basics, that you’re open to inspiration.

You’ve got to get on the road to get to the destination. You cannot travel by thinking about it.

We need a reset in the music business. We need it to be about the tunes, we need to get rid of the corporations, players need to believe in themselves. And take us on a heretofore unseen journey. Not the one we’ve been on again and again and again.

Read more Bob Lefsetz columns at Lefsetz.com.

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