Rick Rubin: What to Do Next

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Last weekend, the New York Times Sunday Magazine featured one of America's most innovative record producers on the cover, with the headline, "Can Rick Rubin Save the Music Business?" It's a heady charge, but maybe Rick Rubin is exactly what is needed. Earlier this year, Mr. Rubin took over as co-president of Columbia Records. He's had an extraordinary career to date. He co-founded the seminal record label Def Jam in his college dorm room at NYU with Russell Simmons, back in 1982. In the last 25 years, Rick Rubin has produced important records by LL Cool J, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Shakira, Johnny Cash, System of a Down, Linkin Park and the Dixie Chicks to name but a few. He is considered one of the true visionaries in the business.

Mind you, saving the record business is no easy task and vision is desperately needed. The problems facing the business are complex and well rooted. But the most important consideration is the music itself. For far too long, the industry has deluded itself into believing the ordinary was extraordinary.

With our standards lowered, we've tried every which way to regain the sales base we once knew. But the truth is much of the music just doesn't stand the test of time. If we have any hopes for the future, records must engage and inspire the imagination of the listener in the profound way they used to. Rick Rubin is in a strong position to help make that cultural shift.

And the business needs to change. Instead of focusing on dazzling audiences with brilliant music, most of the industry focused on trying to market whatever music came through the pipeline. Marketing became the all important factor in determining success. Radio charts, music video airplay and retail visibility were seen as the king-makers and the business built larger infrastructures to try and manage the outcome. But when consumers shifted off those traditional marketing outlets at the turn of the millennium, when they stopped listening to commercial radio, stopped watching MTV and stopped buying CD's, the industry failed to shift with them.

Still the labels thought they were bulletproof, and continued to plow forward with expensive and ineffective means of connecting to the public. But the consumers were no longer interested and had embraced the digital age as their means to finding new music. Rather than seeking to understand the shift in the marketplace, the industry ignored consumer's new interest and tried to force them back to the outdated structures. Then peer-to-peer sites moved into widespread acceptance, when Sony Music put invasive DRM on their CD's and when the RIAA began suing their customer base, consumers said ENOUGH.

In hindsight, it's incredible but the record industry still refused to look inwards to see why things weren't working.

Now, the public has lost faith and the mistrust is deep. If the record business has any hope of earning back the respect of the music appreciating public, de-constructing the tangled web of the industry's delusional self-importance is exactly what's needed.

Record labels need to refocus their perspectives and start listening to music lovers. The music business is actually alive and well, and quite robust. It's actually the record business that's suffering, which simply means the marketplace to sell those shiny round discs. Connect with consumers at the music level, and the solutions to the marketplace will become obvious. That's marketing 101.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Photo: Dan Winters, © New York Times Magazine