09/05/2007 08:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dear Rick Rubin (or Somebody): Why Not Surf the "Velocity of Music?"

Last week's New York Times profile of Rick Rubin has a lot of people talking. Some agree that Rubin, a great producer, has it in him to revolutionize the music biz. Others are more skeptical, including those who make a specialty out of skepticism. The question has two parts: 1) Can anybody save the music business? 2) If so, can Rick Rubin?

Then there's the implicit question: If by the "the music business" we mean the matrix of corporations that distribute recorded music today, should it be saved?

I think Rick Rubin's in a good position to change things, in part because of the "meta-message" that his biography sends: He's a producer - the kind that's an artist in his own right. He's a nurturer and admirer of artists. He's spiritual (that's important.) He's unconventional. And he loves music.

But, is he the right guy? Can he get the job done? Should Columbia and the other big companies be saved? I have no idea - but here's what somebody ought to try to do for the music business - and more importantly, for music:

1) Create a Mission Statement for the music industry,
2) convene a Brain Trust of the best minds he or she can find, and
3) understand and surf "the velocity of music."

Mission Statement

Nobody is asking the most fundamental question of all: What do we want "the music industry" to do? What are its goals, its reasons for being? Here's my answer, my suggested mission statement:

To enrich and bring joy to as many people as possible, with as little cost and effort as possible, while at the same time allowing those who create and distribute music to make a good living.

I don't care what the rest of it looks like. It's better not to care. That creates a good starting place for imagining what the rest of it should look like.

Some people are saying all music should be free, all the time. My answer to that is, who will write and make that free music? The last time I wrote about this topic somebody wrote me an email that went more or less like this: "F#&^ recorded music. I gig live and I make pretty good money."

Turns out he was in a Led Zeppelin tribute band.

I'm looking for a world where people can still earn a living writing great songs, recording original material, or creating art using technology-and-the-studio as an instrument. (Think Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson, or for that matter the early Rick Rubin.) None of those art forms will survive, except in amateur form, if things keep going the way they are.

Operating Principles

So, if we take my goals for America's Top Music Business Model (stole that phrase from the Writers' Guild newsletter - sorry), we can get to the following principles:

1. Music should be cheap. (No more 0.99 cents a download, much less $1.29 without DRM. I agree with Bob Lefsetz on that one. Greed kills - in this case it's killing the music industry.)
2. Music should be easy to acquire and use. No more copy protection. No more clumsy online music store interfaces. Whenever and wherever you want it - cell phone, car, etc. - you should have it, with minimal-to-no effort.
3. Music should be fun to acquire and use. Being 13 years old in 1966 and going to Doubleday's in New York City to hear Between the Buttons for the first time was fun. Hearing a random excerpt from a song in iTunes - usually not the part with the hook - is much easier. But it's frustrating and annoying.
4. There need to be avenues for hearing the music you don't know you're going to love. I've written about this before, and said we need online guides who can lead us to the music we love. Dylan is one, with his Sirius radio show (which is why the RIAA was foolish to oppose this device, which could have sold a lot of music for them.) Ultragrrl's another. So are the best DJs.

So how does Rick Rubin (or somebody) take advantage of the Velocity of Music, nurture more online guides to spread the word about good music, and develop a good revenue stream?

Convene a Brain Trust

The advice I'd give Rick Rubin or any record exec is the same I'd give a Presidential candidate dealing with national security issues (not that either of them has asked me, come to think of it): find the smartest people you can, give them a direction, and go at it. It worked for Roosevelt in the Depression - and, believe me, the music industry is in a depression.

So who should be in the Brain Trust? No record company execs, please. Artists, managers, producers, computing and AI wizards, economists, poets - pretty much everybody mentioned in the spoken part of the Donovan song "Atlantis," plus anybody that gets namechecked in a William Gibson novel.

The Velocity of Music

The Velocity of Money is the term economists use to describe the number of times the same dollar is spent over a given period of time. If $100 goes to one person and she keeps it, that's $100 in transactions. If she give it to someone to provide a service, and they buy something with it, then $300 has been spent. Three people, not one, have each received $100. That's three times the velocity that the $100 would have had if she'd kept it to herself.

(I'm grossly oversimplifying. The Velocity of Money is actually defined as


- but I digress.)

The Velocity of Music is my phrase for what happens whenever somebody else acquires a piece of recorded music. Music's "velocity" has never been higher, thanks to the Internet and file sharing, but nobody's figured out a way to make money from that velocity - yet.

Here's a model worth kicking around: First the Internet, radio, and other communication technologies will allow you to locate somebody you trust - the equivalent of the guy who owned that corner record shop in Brooklyn in the 1950's, or the Rolling Stones in the 60's (I found a lot of great artists just by looking to see who'd written the songs on December's Children.) Or, for that matter, Dylan and his radio show. (He played "Operator" by Sister Wynonna Carr. I love that song.)

They're the real-time evangelists for music, both new and old. In the New Musical Order, they should also become its distributors, its "virtual retailers." Which gets us to this: New distribution technologies should enable them sell the music they love and promote, for a few pennies per song. Split the pennies with them, and make sure the lion's share of what you (the record company) receive goes to make more music.

It's more important to keep that Velocity of Music going, to create a wave of enthusiasm and ride it, than it is to milk every transaction for as much as you can get. That means doing more than just trying to find the next Britney, or Christina, or whomever. Mine those back catalogs, the ones that are bought and paid for, and find virtual retailer channels for selling it.

The Architecture of It All

I've drawn the charts in my head and they look like this. (What, you can't see them? They're right there.) If I were skilled enough, there would be a graphic here that would show a music fan on the left. In the middle would be "virtual retailers" using digital music sales platforms (like websites, online stores, digital purchasing devices, add-ons to iPod-like devices, etc.) Underneath the virtual retailers would be music businesses that find and record artists, develop the technology, and support the retailers. On the right would be the artists themselves (with a dotted line to the music businesses.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Someone needs to convene a Brain Trust and let them design a working model. That might consist of my design, or of the subscription model Rick Rubin talks about in the article.Anything's fine with me - as long as somebody figures out how to keep the music coming.

The subscription model Rick mentions ($19.95 for all the music you'll ever want) is based on the work of Gerd Leonhard and his idea of "Music Like Water," that would be available in unlimited amounts for a monthly fee. That would require a back-end technology to divide the money back to companies and artists based on usage, but that's a simple task in tech terms.

There are also intermediate steps, like a subscription service for Columbia product only, that an individual exec like Rick Rubin could explore without bringing in his peers. But to make that fly, Columbia would have to throw in a lot of exciting extras to make people sign up. Not impossible - but it needs a Brain Trust to design it.

Lastly, here's a heretical thought: The CD is not dead. It's just not the cornerstone of the business anymore. If CD packaging becomes more like a coffee-table book, people will buy the occasional CD as a luxury item. It won't dominate the industry anymore, but it will always have a place. I'll bet good money on that.

There's more to discuss - like when, where, how, and if record companies should take a percentage of merchandising sales (I say "yes" - but only if it's a sale the artist couldn't have made on their own, and even then only for a reasonable percentage. If the recording company is finding new revenue from the artist, not looting the revenue they've already got, it's a win for everybody. But that means finding new ways to sell merchandise - hello, Brain Trust?)

Will somebody fix the music industry? Will the dinosaurs that dominate it today somehow learn to walk upright? I don't know - but if they don't, I hope somebody else comes along to build the model of the future. Whether it's Immortal Technique or the Blue Sky Boys, I like to think that I'll be able to find and hear the music I love for the rest of my life - and that the people who make it available can survive economically so that it keeps coming.

A Night Light
The Sentinel Effect: Healthcare Blog
RJ Eskow at the Huffington Post


UPDATE: Turns out that fellow HuffPo'er Tony Sachs, while more of a skeptic on Rubin, pretty much agrees with me about CDs. He's skeptical about an all-industry subscription service, too - although my answer is for each company go it alone, at least for now. I used to haunt Tony's store, NYCD, when it was in physical and not virtual space. He's a good example of the "virtual retailers" the record companies should promote with tech and other resources. Check out what he wrote.

(But, Tony - Clive Davis?)