Rules. By, Bob Lefsetz

Posted on July 7, 2014 by



“I cried when I wrote this song
Sue me if I play too long”

“Deacon Blues”
Steely Dan

There were no singles on “Aja.” Fans didn’t want a jazz-influenced rock album. But “Aja” sold prodigiously upon release and is considered a classic today despite breaking all the rules.

“Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”

“No one wants albums.”

“It’s got to sound like Top Forty.”

All of the foregoing are irrelevant if something is truly great. We’ve got unlimited time for great. The rules don’t apply.

Unfortunately, all the great today comes in tech. Take this year’s stories, Uber and Airbnb. Ask a million people and no one would come up with them. That’s the trick, to give people what they want when they don’t know it. To turn all preconceptions on their heads. It’s the essence of art, which is why we’re living in a bankrupt era today, no one is testing limits.

But we’re always ready for those who are.


If you’re talking about piracy, it shows you don’t know the game. As Michael Eisner once said, 10% of the public will never pay, ignore them. These are the same people who borrowed albums to tape who never bought one. They’ve always lived outside the system. Most people are ready, willing and able to pay if you give them a reasonable option to do so. Yes, you can steal all the music, but why would you, when you can just click on YouTube and there it is! As for those hoarding MP3s and CDs for some coming electrical apocalypse…are you also worried that YouTube will break, that everything will go kablooey?

Furthermore, if there’s no juice, your LPs won’t play either.

Everybody’s moved on to the access model except the musicians. The labels, the audience… If you’re bitching about it, you’re demonstrating your ignorance.


People need something to believe in. And when they find it, they’ve got unlimited money to spend on it. That’s the essence of KISS. You may hate ’em, but there’s a cadre of people who love ’em.

In other words, if you’re not getting rich, chances are people don’t believe in you. That’s the essence of social media, conveying your identity, not your tour schedule. But the music is enough if the music is great. No amount of tweeting will make a stiff record a hit, and a hit record doesn’t need tweets, at least not by its maker.

Instead of bitching that people won’t pay, concoct products and experiences that your fans want to give you money for. But just because some people want to give you all their money, that does not mean anybody else wants to give you a penny. You can raise a million dollars on Kickstarter but everybody who didn’t pledge doesn’t care a whit.


There’s a myth that if people just knew about you, you’d be successful. But now, more than ever, with everything at people’s fingertips, that is untrue. Publicity is about getting early adopters to check out your incredible product and make it go viral, to e-mail and text and Facebook and tweet about it. And others will be receptive because they’ve heard about it.

But you only get one bite at the apple.

If you’re staging a huge publicity campaign, know that you don’t get a second chance, not in our time-constrained world of a million options.


No one is watching, no one cares, if you think a late night slot is your one big break get ready to go back to your day job. A TV appearance is just another thing that lives on the web for those who are interested to check out. It’s a piece of the puzzle at best.


Everybody is lonely, everybody is alienated. If you can encapsulate their feelings in a song you’ve got a good chance of making it. But this requires you to leave some blood in the file, to open the wound and get a ton of negative feedback from the snark patrol. You must be strong, you must realize that everyone will never like you, and that most of music is a fad but he or she who speaks their truth resonates forever, i.e. Joni Mitchell.


Robin Thicke had no idea people were against him.

But everybody knew he was seen as a one hit wonder and a cad.

By putting out his “Paula” album he misjudged his audience. First and foremost, there wasn’t much of one. You can have a monster hit and have no fans, ever heard of Carly Rae Jepsen?

The blowback killed Thicke’s album. It may be his truth, but no one else can relate, you mean you’re rich and famous and hang with naked models, squeezing boobies, and now you’re complaining your wife left you, what’s up with that?

Never lose touch with your audience. It’s cool to lead, but if you don’t have people’s hearts and minds to begin with, it could be a very cold journey.

So those who are proud of not e-mailing, not reading their reviews, not participating in social media…are missing the point. That is life today. It’s equivalent to going to the mall in decades past. To make music and not be online is akin to producing television and not owning a TV.


Especially on the SoundScan chart. Every week there’s a new one and the total is anemic. If your handlers tell you they’re striving for a high debut get out of the deal, they’re playing an old game, you’re gonna get buried. Today it’s all about sustaining, you don’t need a one or two week play, like the publicity extravaganzas of the major labels, but a six or twelve month plan. How do you infect people’s consciousness and stay there? Certainly not by debuting #1 and getting the “Times” to write about it.

As for radio number ones… What format? And didn’t Mariah Carey eclipse the Beatles’ radio record? That’s like saying you’re more successful than the World Series MVP because you’ve got more trophies in your bedroom, that you got for participating in Little League and AYSO.

People can’t make sense of charts anymore. One cadre is all about what’s happening now and another is about digging deep. So either your Iggy Azalea or Wilco. Numbers have nothing to do with it, it’s all about music.


First and foremost you must be available. I don’t listen to Sam Smith because he’s not on Spotify, it’s just that simple. And I get e-mail from people saying the same thing. So, the press says his record is selling… BUPKES!

It’s about the long money, not the short. There’s so little money in recorded music today that if you’re making people jump through hurdles to hear it you’re just leaving a ton of other money on the table. The real money is in touring and sponsorship. You want as big a pool as possible to be fans of your music so you can maximize the real dollars.


Every week there’s another person saying how they’re getting screwed.

First and foremost, the music business has a history of screwing people.

Second, what was the deal?

You’ve got bad online royalties. But what is your deal with the label?

And if a musician could be a lawyer or an accountant, they would. In other words, they can’t read their own deal.

Don’t worry about what everybody else is making, just worry about what you’re making. And ever notice you’ve never heard of the people complaining about online payments most? They’re Grammy nominees but have no streams… Shows what the value of a Grammy nom or win is. That’s just a way for those who don’t count to keep score. Real artists keep score by the number of fans they have and the money they make, and they’re not bitching about either.

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