Industry Profile: Bob Lefsetz
By Larry LeBlanc
This Week In The Hot Seat With Larry LeBlanc: BOB LEFSETZ
Bob Lefsetz, author of the Lefsetz Letter, may be an unknown outside the music business but he is--by anyone's measure--the only superstar music journalist in the world.
Did you read Lefsetz today?" is the mantra of today's music industry culture. His words are discussed, analyzed, and agonized over, throughout the world.
Lefsetz gives importance and passion to writing on music industry issues and trends while profiling. and often berating, entertainment kingpins and spearing/embracing pop music icons.
All with his CAPS LOCK key pedaled to the metal.
The clarity and harsh honesty of his arguments, coupled with the open-hearted approach in discussing his personal life, touches, angers and inspires thousands of readers.
Kid Rock even threatened him last year after Lefsetz had written dismissively about the singer. Rock then e-mailed Lefsetz:
I'm sure its difficult to sit on the bench while us folks play in the big game. Your a failed musician with a big mouth.
You try to make a name for yourself with half ass opinions based on everyone who is actually trying to do something in music. Yet you do NOTHING but talk. See you on the streets you punk ass mother fucker!!!"
Lefsetz, 55, grew up in the middle-class suburb of Fairfield, Conn. He graduated from Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont with an art history degree, and moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s.
He then earned a degree from Southwestern Law School; worked in the video business; and ran the U.S. division of London-based Sanctuary Artist Management that handled Iron Maiden and W.A.S.P. He was fired within a year.
The Lefsetz Letter launched in 1986, its 6-8 pages jam-packed with insider music industry tips. There were no advertisements. Revenue came from subscriptions, $89 annually, later raised to $110. In 2000, he took the Lefsetz Letter online, stopped charging for subscriptions, and became a viral sensation.
Lefsetz understands the realpolitik of the music industry perfectly. But he is also smart enough not to confuse rhetoric, even his own, with reality. Bob is great at laying out reality.
Many people who read you consider you to be an angry guy. But I don't get anger I get passion.
Absolutely. I listen to all of those great records, and I want more great records. And I want everybody to hear them.
Do you write in a stream of consciousness?
I view it as Jackson Pollock action painting. I get inspired and I throw it all down. My basic policy is that I re-read everything twice before I sent it. I clean up (spelling) mistakes, wrong tenses, lack of clarity but I do not change the content. I realized after doing this so long that if I change anything I fuck it up.
Occasionally, if I am in a rush or if I get inspired or a story is hot, I will only reread it once. Then there's always some minor thing, like a wrong tense, that makes me crazy.
Not everything you write is going to be good, is it?
A couple of times of the year I write something and it's an 11. But not everything I do is an 11. Not that it's bad. You tell yourself, "I have to let it go." Some times you are writing to get to that one great thing. You are throwing off rust so you can write a great thing.
How many emails do you receive a day?
Hundreds and they are all (personally) directed at me.
Don't you provide titillation for people who can't poke sticks at the big guns in the industry? And a lot of people think you're a jerk too.
Each day, I turn on my computer and people are telling me that I'm god. A certain number of people will go into depth over what I wrote. And a certain number of people say, "You are the biggest piece of shit to ever walk the face of the earth." When you read some of that stuff it doesn't feel good.
I got an email last night from some guy ripping me a new asshole, saying, "Just because you earn seven figures a year…." He has no idea what goes on with me.
Some times it's the same individual that swings from pole to pole. People build you up, then they tear you down. A lot of people have an agenda. Certainly on the Internet a lot of people want to be recognized.
You are quite dismissive of label heads. Like Universal chair and CEO Doug Morris. How do you really see him?
I have to give Doug Morris credit. Doug Morris, unlike a lot of people, learned his lesson. Let's never forget that, despite where Doug is today, that he worked his way up to the top of Warner Music Group [as Chairman Warner Music U.S..] and got fired. He played politics. He stepped on [Warner Music Group chairman and CEO] Mo Ostin's toes and ultimately he had to go. Since he's been at Universal, I don't know another major figure, certainly nobody of his caliber, who keeps a lower profile. He's smart.
Edgar Bronfman Jr., CEO of Warner Music Group, keeps a low profile these days.
Not as low as Doug.
But don't you think Dreamworks co-founder David Geffen and Clive Calder, founder of Zomba Music Group, rewrote the music industry book for label executives?
No. Clive Calder had the largest victory of all time [selling Zomba in 2002 for a reported $1.8 billion to the German-based media group Bertelsmann]. I don't know what book he re-wrote.
David Geffen was a friend of artists but, at this late date, we have to say that [Ticketmaster/Front Line CEO] Irving Azoff is a better friend of the artists than Geffen. No matter what has happened, no matter what his job was, Irving has always taken care of Don Henley.
Geffen has an estimated net worth of $6 billion.
Irving is more powerful in the music business today than Geffen ever was. Geffen has made more money but, in terms of raw power and reshaping the business, Irving is the one that goes down in the history books. Not Geffen. Geffen has agendas. What Irving does best is fuck with you and extract money from other people. But Irving's agenda is less "I am fucking with you" and more getting what he wants for his clients. He's known for his trustworthiness and Irving stories are hysterical. People won't even talk about Geffen for fear of his long arm.
The music industry is filled with colorful characters, isn't it?
The best rock and roll stories are told by (Montreal promoter) Donald Tarlton. He's the top. If anybody has better stories, they don't tell them as well. There's not a better manager than Bruce Allen [who handles Bryan Adams, Michael Buble, Anne Murray, Martina McBride] in Vancouver. He lives it. It's not about lifestyle. Bruce starts talking about Elvis Presley and it's a genuine thing we don't get in America. With Bruce, it's the passion…certainly.
How screwed up is the record business today?
The power goes to the person who controls the talent. And ubiquity is done. So if you are playing with the old game of trying to get on the radio it won't work. If Kid Rock with the biggest hit of the summer, a big hit on two formats, can only sell two million records in a year that shows you what that (radio) game is worth.
Right now AC/DC is outselling everyone. Why?
AC/DC is seen as a real act. That's the one act that parents want to take their kids to. It is seen as authentic. And its underground. You are not bludgeoned over the head with AC/DC all of the time.
Yeah, but here we are in 2008 and there is talk of Led Zeppelin touring without Robert Plant.
I am thrilled that Plant is not doing it. I don't believe that everyone is entitled to see and do everything. These acts meant a lot to me. The fact that these tours can be something for people to make a lot of revenue from, and take the kids to, fuck that. Live on the memory.
What was your role at Sanctuary?
I was working as a lawyer. Then I ended up working for this guy who started the first independent video company. We had video games, videos, and made movies. Mostly genre horror stuff. We put W.A.S.P in one of our movies and Blackie Lawness asked me to represent him in his (management) deal with Sanctuary. They went to Capitol, signed a deal for $500,000 cash based on the strength of also having Iron Maiden. They hired me to run the US office of Sanctuary Music because I knew music and they were never around. I negotiated the deal for Iron Maiden to play the first Rock in Rio in 1985. Ultimately I lost my job.
Did you then start the newsletter
No it took 18 months or so. It wasn't easy to get a job. I worked on a couple of movies for people I had hired to make videos for us. In the spring of '86, I was having a hamburger while reading Billboard and I thought, "This is terrible." This is right before Timothy White took it over and vastly improved it. Though I had no computer expertise I was aware you could do (a newsletter) with computers. So I charged all of this stuff and I started the newsletter.
Was starting newsletter an attempt to get a job?
The newsletter was very much an attempt to get a job. Everybody wanted to meet me but they wanted to meet the guy who wrote the newsletter.
The first issues were six pages?
In the '80s and early '90s, it came out every two weeks and was 6 or 8 pages. If it went to eight pages, it went to more postage. For the first five years it very much business tips. Now the business tips are woven in with other stuff. At first people paid. I didn't add that many people. The '90s were rough. My ex-wife moved out. My father died. I ran out of money. I was living on nothing.
In 2000, I went to the Aspen Artist Development Conference and they put out a contact sheet with email. Then because friends of mine worked at Random House I had that David Geffen book ["The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood" by Thomas R. King] a weekend before anybody had it. I wrote something about it and sent it to people on the list.
Suddenly, I get a whole bunch of feedback. I started hearing from people all over the world who were not subscribers. I would ask them how they found out and the link would be with people who were also not subscribers. In 2005, I automated it and the newsletter really went nuclear.
John Mayer is from your hometown, Fairfield.
John Mayer wrote that crazy song ["No Such Thing"] with the line "I wanna run through the halls of my high school." That is my high school. The fact that he is from my hometown, went to the same high school, and wrote about going through the halls of my high school is staggering. Two people from my high school are famous, John Mayer and actress Linda Kozlowski who married Crocodile Dundee.
Family is a big part of what you write in the newsletter.
My father was a self-made man. He owned a liquor store. He did some low level real estate, and became a real estate appraiser. By 1970, he was making the money that a good lawyer or doctor was making. I grew up in a split level house that my mother only sold four years ago. The first time a tornado hits Fairfield that house is going down.
Did you collect records in Fairfield?
I collected from day one. And I was an album guy from day one. I used to buy the cartoon records like Hanna-Barbera's "Ruff and Reddy" and "The Flintstones." I can't remember the first album but the first single I bought with my own money was the Ran-Dells' "The Martian Hop" in 1963.
Before the IPod, how big was your music collection?
I certainly had the largest music collection in my college. When I moved to Los Angeles they had these specialty music shops, Rhino Records was the most famous, but there were others. I went to the Granny 'N Grammy. It was a hole-in-the-wall on Westwood but they had all of the promo and they specialized in soundtracks. I was an extremely good customer.
My first stop was the new release bin. I'd comb through a hundred or so albums catching up, removing what I needed to buy. And then I'd slide down the right-hand side of the store to the promos.
I can tell you chapter-and-verse how many records I bought as promos. I took chances on albums that were promo. I saw the first Cars' record in the bin in 1978 and it was $2.49. The Alan Parsons Project's "Tales of Mystery and Imagination" I bought in 1976, shrink-wrapped for .99 cents. I loved the first side so much that I bought the album for everyone I knew. The Karla Bonoff debut record ["Karla Bonoff" in 1977]; that's one of the great records of the '70s.
Is it odd that you don't have a journalism background?
But I wanted to be a writer. When I was in college my goal was either to write for Rolling Stone or be a freestyle skier. I went on the freestyle skier path and starved. A friend of mine took over the high school newspaper when I was a senior, and I wrote a couple of things. But I went to a small college that was academically more conservative than I had anticipated. I first studied English and gave up on that and became a art history major. I took a writing course and I finally wrote something the teacher liked and then said it needed a twist. And I never wrote another thing for years.
How do you balance your columns between music and personal experiences?
I don't balance them. I just get uptight if I go too far in length. Post 2000, the great majority of newsletters were written on pure inspiration. if I hit a slow period now, I might go back to the inspirations I had about various records, and those might trigger something if there hadn't been a literal experience.
There's been criticism that Jann Wenner may be reshaping rock history in his role as founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The other criticism is that too many artists are being inducted. Music fans don't follow the politics of inductions. Do those things bother you?
I am willing to shut the doors much earlier than the average person. The institution has lost its steam. I believe, by the recent inductions, that the average punter is mortified. They should shut the doors. How many people belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? I get email constantly that Rush belong. I am too old to consider Kiss. There were a couple of good songs but this is a joke. Alice Cooper belongs. He tested the limits. That's what a rock and roll star is. He and Bob Ezrin made those great records. Somehow Patti Smith fits their criteria. She just wasn't a great musical act. Her biggest track was written by Bruce Springsteen.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess 2008, Larry was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.