Rick Rubin and the Future of the Music Industry

There was a very interesting article in the New York Times Magazine about Rick Rubin. He’s a fascinating man in his own right, but the real crux of the piece was whether or not the music industry could be saved from itself.

Rubin is a pioneer. He produced and helped launch the careers of the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, the Geto Boys, and LL Cool J, and in doing so brought hip hop to the attention of the music industry. At the same time, he was producing Slayer and Danzig, including such classics as Reign in Blood, Seasons in the Abyss, and Danzig’s first three albums. Later in his career, he discovered System of a Down and produced most of their albums, and also helped revive Johnny Cash’s career while producing the Man in Black’s last five albums. The labels he has founded – Def Jam, Def American, and American Recordings – are responsible for too many legendary recordings to name.

Yet Rubin tells his interviewer: “‘I have no training, no technical skill – it’s only this ability to listen and try to coach the artists to be the best they can from the perspective of a fan.’” I have never known much about Rick Rubin personally, except that he had worked with a ton of great bands. I assumed he was an engineering wizard, to have risen to such prominence as a producer, and think it’s really quite interesting that he essentially reduces what he does to being the ultimate fan.

Given his track record of consistent innovation, it was an especially adroit move on behalf of Columbia Records to hire Rubin as their new label co-head. Apparently it wasn’t an altogether easy sell, either, because Rubin had sworn never to work with Columbia again after an album he’d produced for Neal Diamond, 12 Songs, which Rubin was especially proud of, suffered heavily in sales because Columbia’s corporate paymaster, Sony, had decided to load it with DRM software that doubled as spyware. (I told you this article was interesting!)

One of Rubin’s first accomplishments at Columbia was to convince them to “go green” and stop using plastic cases for all of their releases. For an industry that is completely out of touch with the present and mired in a vicious rear-guard action against the future, it was a nicely symbolic if inadequately small bit of acquiescence to the reality of where music is heading.

Of course, no one knows exactly where the music “business” is going, but everyone agrees that the majors seem bent on securing their profits even at the expense of allowing themselves to become completely obsolete. The actions of the Recording Industry Association of America have been thoroughly pilloried enough that everyone is aware of its crimes. Few people with half a brain still have any respect for the labels that use the RIAA as their attack dog against all those nefarious file-sharers that are “destroying” the music business. How does Rubin propose to pull Columbia out of this quagmire?

To combat the devastating impact of file sharing, [Rubin], like others in the music business (Doug Morris and Jimmy Iovine at Universal, for instance), says that the future of the industry is a subscription model, much like paid cable on a television set. “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.”

Obviously there’s a lot that would have to be figured out to put this system in place. There will be many complexities to such a system that Rubin does not touch on, so it will not be anywhere near as simple as he describes it. But a virtual library does have its attractive points, such as the idea that all your favorite music will be on one universal platform and you can listen to it anywhere you want. Also, as a musician, I like the possibilities this would give me to put out my music however I choose: I could upload every show my band plays, for instance, and my music would be available to my audience as the ever-evolving entity it is, as opposed to something static that I recorded at one point in time.

It’s certainly an interesting idea, but several issues raise themselves immediately, the most important being: Will people be willing to pay a subscription fee for digital copies of music, even if that money grants them access to a virtual universal library, rather than continue to freely share music digitally with their friends and online peers? I assume that, like with TV shows, hard copies will still be made available to those of us who insist on such archaic things. If CDs are available, how can the RIAA stop illegal file sharing altogether and force everyone to pay a subscription fee? It seems like they can’t, not without continuing to sue every starving student and single mother who “steals” music from them, a practice that is the single biggest factor in ensuring their steady path into obsolescence.

But Rubin does say, after all, that the iPod will be obsolete in this future industry. Are the major labels, in fact, thinking about not making CDs and vinyl albums at all?

Without the option of hard copies being available, you will inevitably have two distinct music businesses develop: The majors who only put their stuff online because that’s the only way they can squeeze the money out of it; and the independent artists who won’t play that game and still love and cherish the recorded artifact as much as the exposure and convenience of digital file sharing, free or otherwise. This would, again, ensure that the major labels remain the province of the mainstream, while all the true innovation continues to happen under their radar – in other words, a type of limited obsolescence, but obsolescence all the same.

I mean, sure there’s big money in Hannah Montana CDs, and the teeny-boppers who listen to that kind of thing are also entirely likely to buy into a subscription model because they don’t buy hard copies of music anyway. But if the majors insist that their artists cannot release CDs of their music, what self-respecting independent artist of today is going to agree to sign to them in the future? This is what I mean by limited obsolescence: the majors will only be able to continue serving up mainstream pop crap, not the kind of innovative music Rubin has a knack for producing.

This could actually be a great thing: Let the majors cater to the teeny-boppers, which is pretty much what they do best anyway, and let everyone else figure out their own way forward. I’m kind of liking this subscription model more and more…

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One Response to Rick Rubin and the Future of the Music Industry

  1. Norah says:

    Keep up the good work.

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