Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Saving Columbia Records

Rick Rubin, as we all know, founded Def Jam records in his NYU dorm room in 1983. He's since gone on to reinvent the careers of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, the Dixie Chicks and countless other acts. This week's New York Times magazine looks at his latest challenge: saving Columbia Records and, quite possibly, the record industry itself.

The piece is an interesting take on an industry in full-fledged panic mode. With CD sales plummeting and companies like Apple reaping the lion's share of music download profits, once-dominant labels are struggling just to stay viable.

My question: Do we even need major record companies? Rubin seems to think so, pointing to their ability to spread new music to the masses. Yet one of his latest obsessions -- British-born Paul Potts -- has achieved notoriety almost entirely through YouTube. The primary asset of record labels is their ability to set artists up with record contracts, studios, and professional producers. But with technology becoming more affordable, there are countless smaller labels able to perform these same functions (albeit with the exception of a long-term record deal, though those aren't much use if all the major labels fold a few years hence).

The piece reminded me of an oped in today's Journal by Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. (Sony, by the way, owns Columbia.) Lynton argues that contrary to assertions by the likes of Thomas Friedman, globalization is not "making the world more homogeneous." Instead, he says, while Hollywood films once flourished in foreign countries, these same markets are now being dominated by locally produced films. This, one imagines, is once again a product of the increasing affordability of technology, with the expanding wealth afforded by globalized trade, and Hollywood itself responding to new market demands.

Wealth and technology are decentralizing the power once afforded to the big players dominating industries like music and cinema, enabling up-and-coming talents to create mass followings unassisted.

So, can music survive without institutions like Columbia and Capitol? Hard to see why not.

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