The Lefsetz Letter

Read just one Lefsetz Letter ( and you’ll feel you know its writer. The no-frills font, the colloquialisms, the undeleted expletives, the phrases hammered out with the caps lock on, the bristling spikes of exclamation marks, all lend it the look and tone of a dashed-off e-mail from a friend rather than an authoritative music industry polemic that was first published more than twenty years ago.

Its accessibility is enhanced by the top-of-the-head nature of Bob Lefsetz’s writing. When he ends with an insightful statement, it’s clear the conclusion is triggered by the preceding train of thought, rather than being a point he planned to make from the start. One letter closed with the statement, “Playing music is a calling,” as if the notion had not struck him until that moment. A new subscriber, I’d been carrying the same thought in my head since I’d seen stellar sideman Tim Renwick playing guitar in a pub band in Cornwall. I shared my thought with Bob and, unexpectedly, Bob e-mailed back.

His regular round-ups of readers’ feedback show others share that sense of familiarity, which, despite the letter’s informal look and style, is not inevitable, given that Lefsetz doesn’t set out to be liked: he can be arrogantly opinionated, blunt, shouty (that caps key) and sarcastic, though rarely less than interesting. His “tens of thousands” of readers include the movers and shakers of the industry he declares moribund, but he seems pleased to share their responses with the rest of the readership, as if his role is validated by their reciprocation.

Words flow with the assurance of a draftsman who only lifts his pencil from the paper when the image is complete. I had in my head Hockney’s drawing of Auden, which appears to have been created by a single, nerveless line, but when I asked Lefsetz how he writes, he compared himself to another artist. “It’s like action painting, the Jackson Pollock style… I’ve got to get in the mood, inspired, I’m in a trance when I write… I’ve found, over years, if I edit after the fact, I fuck it up. I, of course, reread, at least twice, everything I write, but I’m looking for obvious mistakes, spelling/grammar/factual inaccuracies. And, I don’t plan in advance, it’s the trance… Getting the inspiration down on paper.”

Among his recurring themes are atrophying album sales, the irrelevance of music radio, unreasonable CD and concert ticket pricing, downloads, new technology, and the inevitable extinction of the dinosaur record companies and their obsolescent execs. Even when a topic doesn’t interest me – I don’t share his enjoyment of skiing or video games – I know it won’t be long before the next letter arrives in my inbox. Often less than a day. Last month I received five in 24 hours, prompting me to ask Lefsetz what fuels his output: “Inspiration! Passion! I’m reacting to the world and want to share!”

His views on the music business are compelling, but if it weren’t for his manifest enthusiasm for the music itself, his opinions wouldn’t – as Bob might put it – COUNT FOR SHIT! He has me checking out new artists on YouTube and pulling CDs from the shelf that I haven’t played in years. He’s like the friend you visit, who tells you at the door, “You have to listen to this.”

Now 54, Lefsetz was brought up on the East Coast (“my real home”), but moved to southern California, where he attended Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. He worked as an entertainment business lawyer and headed Sanctuary Music’s American division, before launching the Lefsetz Letter in 1986. Originally a fortnightly niche publication for industry insiders, in 2000 it went online, where its circulation increased virally.

One work-in-progress topic is the delineation of an alternative business model for bands – forget record companies, forget radio, build a fan base via the internet, release individual tracks, not albums, create a community of followers who will pay to see you live and will grab every tidbit you feed them online – but he has no time for whingers who blame their lack of a break on the current state of the music industry. Of two recent letters on the subject, he finished one with an advisory “Fuck off” and the other like this: “It’s about making music. If it’s good, put it on the web, energize your fans, they’ll spread the word. But you probably suck and are looking for the easy way out. And crying that you just can’t make any money. Boofuckinghoo.”

(This article was originally published in June 2008)

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