Bob Lefsetz calls it as he sees it. From his support of streaming services long before they became popular, to his unquenchable thirst for transcendent live and recorded music, there is arguably no greater champion for the power of the pop song working in the blogosphere today.
For some three decades, Leftsetz has published his Lefsetz Letter, sometimes multiple times per day. Topics can range from a Taylor Swift single (he's not a fan of her latest), to yoga shorts (he loves those by Lululemon), to everything in between. Passionate and often poignant, Lefsetz's grasp of both the history of music and the human condition itself makes for a fascinating read. Just ask subscribers like Elton John, or Toto's Steve Lukather, who write-in regularly with comments.
Lefsetz made time to give me his take on the current state of music, and why young artistic hopefuls might not want to bet it all on a career in Klezmer.
As someone who has read your newsletter since 2005, I’m struck by how spot-on many of your predictions have been - from the rise of streaming, to the demise of physical sales. What do you attribute your keen musical barometer to?
I read a lot of newspapers and publications, and I try to put my finger on the pulse. You can talk to people and be in your own echo chamber, but it’s best to try and collect information from elsewhere, and also to see that we lived through a technological revolution that happened on both sides of the year 2000. I try to see trends and synthesize where we’re going. So, I’d say it’s a combination of intellect, good education and a ton of reading.
You seem to appreciate current pop music, while at the same time, speaking about the musicianship you feel is often missing in much of it. What do you like about what’s happening in music today, and what most bothers you?
Let’s talk about the business for a second. With the streaming services, you have the history of recorded music at your fingertips for approximately ten dollars a month. That’s a great victory, and certainly different from what came before it. Therefore, the barrier to entry is essentially non-existent. It’s very low priced - you can make a deal with CD Baby or TuneCore and get all of your stuff on the services. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be heard, because there’s a cacophony of information with people messaging you and promoting themselves online. But you can do all of these things. I’m thinking about all of the naysayers who complain about streaming, and they have to get over their issues. It’s like people in the movie business complaining about [movie review website] Rotten Tomatoes. Data and quick information is the world that we live in. As a result, there is tons of music. Most of it is recorded on computers, and yes, you might want to go to a big studio to record “basics,” but not everybody has to. I get emails all the time saying, “If you want to do it in the best way, you have to go to a big studio and use the best people.” I agree. Those people are better. But you don’t have to be able to afford those things to play. So, there’s a cornucopia of music out there. The hardest problem is uncovering it.
Spotify is doing a good job with “Discover Weekly.” It’s imperfect, as is “New Release Radar,” but they’re exposing you to things. There’s certainly great music out there, and the tools to find it will only get better.
You had a great piece recently about Sam Smith’s new album that Elton John enthusiastically chimed-in about. He felt that unlike Sam’s album, much of today’s music is overproduced. Then there are people like the songwriter Dan Wilson, who told me recently that for him, it’s about looking toward the future when it comes to creating art. Are there things about what music sounds like in 2017 that excite you?
I’m not going to go that deep. I’m going to say that a hit record remains the same. One of the great things about music is that it’s the domain of the makers. Whereas everybody’s got an opinion on movies, when it comes to music, everybody in the business has to ultimately defer to the artist. I’m looking for something that touches me, and that could be Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” or Sam Smith which is more traditional. Some of the best songs in history were written on pure inspiration. I do believe it’s about the song, as opposed to the execution. If you go back to Dan Wilson, the biggest act in the world is Adele. Her songs are much more traditional than everything else in the Top 40. Now as we move forward, we’re going to an era of winners and losers. Right now, the winners are hip-hop and songs made by the “usual suspects” like Max Martin and others. Those people are very talented, but there’s a certain similarity [to their work]. Will these people rule once everybody’s on streaming? Or will other sounds become bigger? I hope so. In any event, there will be a thin layer of very successful acts, and the others will have a very small audience.
If you were coaching a young band or artist, what advice would you give them to help navigate today’s strange musical world?
The very first piece of advice that I always give is quit, because the odds are unbelievably long, and people don’t have that level of perseverance. I get email from people that says, “I’m gonna give this a shot for a couple of years after college, otherwise I’m going to go to graduate school. That’s not how it works! You have to walk down the path into wilderness. Secondly, under the best of circumstances, raw talent and skill is somewhere between 50 and 70 percent. So, your people skills are incredibly important. And then you must be realistic. If you make Klezmer music, a major label is not going to be interested in you and you’re not going to go to the top of the charts. There’s nothing wrong with making Klezmer music, but you've got to be realistic.
People need to understand the realities of the business. If you want to make money, there has to be a level of commerciality to your music. Some of the greatest bands in history who were outside the paradigm had a level of talent. You look at the prog rockers – Yes did it with Fragile, on their fourth album. Or look at the Ramones, who started a whole genre of music that arguably wasn’t successful until the grunge era, 15 years later. And their albums didn’t go gold for decades. So, if you’re outside the system, you might ultimately succeed, but you’re going to need perseverance beyond most people.
In your newsletter, you often talk about the idea of what it takes to have a “hit” in the music business. I’m wondering if you enjoy music that isn't as big and is more off the beaten path?
Well, today’s definition of “not big” is certainly different from the old one. If you go back to the late 1960’s and 1970’s, we could sit here and say, “Oh, we listened to a lot of different genres.” And although you look at the charts today and they’re more singular than ever before, the average person is exposed to many different types of music. There are hip-hop elements and they rap in country music, and kids today know who Led Zeppelin is. If you take me to a desert island, I’m going to take AC/DC’s Back In Black and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I like the loud music, and I like the quiet music. Can I enjoy a classical concert? Yes. In terms of traditional jazz, I’m more of a fusion guy – like Weather Report. And I’m a huge fan of Kraftwerk. I could listen to Computer World all day long.
Are there any keyboard-related tracks, or keyboard players past or present that move you?
I think the piano/keyboard is the number one, most versatile instrument in music. I’m a huge fan of Elton's, and Tony [Banks] in Genesis was great. I’m a big prog rocker, so I like Rick Wakeman from Yes, and I also like Felix Cavaliere from the Rascals.
What do you see happening in music next?
It’s very interesting to me that we haven’t had a new sound since the turn of the century. It used to be that a new sound would come and kill the old sound every three or four years. Grunge killed the hair bands, etc. The other thing that I emphasize is that, because of accessibility, in that you can listen to the greatest hits of both the past and the present at your fingertips, it will be a very small spectrum of stuff that will be ultra-successful. It used to be a regional business, and the regional radio stations would play acts like the band Black Oak Arkansas, who made a whole career out of going to places where no one else would go. They would say, “We’re gonna come to Montana and play,” and the radio station would play their music. Today, you literally have to be great. Good is not good enough. A song has to reach people the first time through. Somebody will send me their record and say, “Listen to it five or ten times.” Are you f%$king nuts? Even babies are overscheduled! They can only listen to a little bit. So, it’s the consolidation - just like we see in movies. One movie a weekend is successful. The rest are stiffs.
It's funny how musicians still send invitations out for their “CD Release” shows. When is the last time most people actually listened to a physical disc?
My two computers are state of the art, and neither has a CD player in them. It’s more convenient just to click, assuming I’m going to click at all. And that’s the other thing. I don’t want to sit and listen to an hour of your music! If I find something online I like, like I did the other day, I’ll download the rest of the album. That’s how it works. It’s very different from saying, “I spent ten or fifteen dollars and I’m invested and I’m going to play it five or ten times until I get it.
I remember you were one of the first people talking about how consumers can’t be “sold” music anymore. It now has to happen organically through word of mouth, instead of tastemakers telling people what they need to hear.
If you look at the playlists on all of the streaming services, there’s one for everything! There’s one for when you’re in the bathroom, one for when you’re sleepy during the day. That’s not what we need. We need two or three songs a week that everybody listens to, so at least we can have a national discussion about what people like. That’s the way I would do it.
Maybe there’s a playlist curation job in your future?
I don’t think so, for numerous reasons. One, if I aligned myself with one of these services, I wouldn’t be able to write about them. Secondly, it’s a job to find and listen to all of this new music. It’s not something you can do casually. So, I like to make recommendations. And I write about what I like.