Dear Steven Van Zandt,

I just read your interview in CNN, and I wanted to offer an alternative view to your thoughts, particularly related to this quote: “The reason nobody wants to talk about it is because it mostly sucks! Who are we kidding here? Nobody’s buying records? Because they suck!”

You also suggest that if bands learned more cover songs and listened to more “great records” (i.e. classic records) the record industry would be saved, which I think it is a slightly myopic view of what is happening in the business. I think you are missing two key points:

1. THERE IS AN AMAZING AMOUNT OF GREAT MUSIC OUT THERE, but I think you are looking in the wrong places for it. I suggest you take a look at eMusic – the largest online retailer for independent music. Find an artist you like, look at recommendations by eMusic and other consumers, and you can easily fall down the rabbit hole for hours experimenting with new, and in many cases, amazing music you have never heard before. Like Psych Rock? Check out Wooden Shjips. Sign up for newsletters from forward thinking physical retailers like Other Music, a store run by music geniuses who can connect the music dots between Grizzly Bear and Erlend Øye in three steps or less. And of course there are dozens of music blogs, from aggregators like the Hype Machine, live music session and editorial blogs like Daytrotter, old school outlets like Pitchforkmedia, and a million in between. Not to mention the myriad of online radio stations that are not hamstrung by the tight-playlists the consolidated commercial radio business has given us over the past 10 years. Widen your net, Steven, and you’ll find tons of music that will knock your socks off.

2. THE OLD MODEL OF A PHYSICAL RECORD-BASED MUSIC ECONOMY IS DEAD. It is not coming back. Dead. Dead. Dead. You can have a million bands covering “Working on a Dream” for a million years and you will not bring traditional physical record sales anywhere close to where they were at their height in 2000. The infrastructure has shifted forever. Some details you should consider:

Less Outlets for Traditional Music: Tower Records shut down their U.S. operation in 2006; Circuit City (9th largest music retailer in 2008) ceased operations in 2009; Virgin Megastore announced in 2009 that they will close all of their U.S. stores; Borders (the 6th largest retailer of music) has cut back their in-store floor space by 30% to 7% of their total floor space; and Transworld closed 101 stores in 2008, after losing $69 million dollars, including a 24% drop in total sales during the nine weeks leading up to the end of the year – traditionally the best music retail time of year. Taken together, there are simply less outlets and less floor space available to the labels to merchandise and sell their music. It is not a matter of buyers not taking in records because “they suck.” The space that had existed for music is now filled with DVDs and other media, or is gone.

Consolidated Commercial Radio is Ineffective: The number of artists that terrestrial radio “breaks,” in terms of converting radio play to mechanical royalty sales is smaller with each passing year. Although radio is still the primary method that folks hear about new music (49% of consumers list radio as the #1 way they find new music, according to a 2008 Edison Media Research survey), radio is quickly losing ground to the Internet, with 25% of consumers hearing about new music online.

The Replacement Cycle: Technological innovations have been shaping how, where, and when folks listen to (and purchase) music for years, beginning with improved production processes with vinyl, and then moving onto 8-track, cassette, CD, and finally digital music. Along the way, major labels have been able to monetize these technological innovations through a process called the replacement cycle – basically a repackaging of existing content in the newest format.

With consumers being able to convert files to digital themselves from existing CDs (not to mention sharing digital files for free online), the labels have been unable to find a way to monetize this format shift effectively. The end of the replacement cycle, coupled with the complete decentralization of the industry brought on by the Internet and the change in consumer habits, makes for a very tough time for the record business.

I know it’s a tough to find new music, particularly when you are on tour. Perhaps you don’t have regular access to the Internet. But I assure you; the issue is not that that music sucks. Spend some time doing your research on finding new bands, find some tastemakers you can depend on to turn you onto new music. The old industry that you grew up with is gone; but the phoenix is rising from the ashes with new models and new revenue streams. Whatever you do, please don’t blame what is happening on a lack of good music – it really makes you sound out of touch.

Mike

Ten months after Warner Music head Edgar Bronfman said that Apple’s Steve Jobs suggestion that dropping DRM copy protection from digital music was “completely without logic or merit,” Bronfman reversed direction last Thursday by licensing its catalog, DRM free, to the Amazon MP3 music store. Warner joins EMI and Universal in offering higher quality (256 kbps), DRM free mp3s through Amazon’s online store, leaving Sony as the odd man out in the major label circle.

On the surface it would appear that the majors are simply responding to consumer demand and giving music fans what they want. But the fact is, the majors hate the digital monopoly that Steve Jobs has with iPod/iTunes. They understand that the only way to increase their margins on digital music and regain some of the control that Apple has taken from them is to reach the billions of iPods floating around. Their endgame is almost certainly to get customers in the habit of purchasing mp3 files from a place other than iTunes (which currently accounts for 70% of all digital music sold).

DRM (digital rights management) is technology that copyright holders place on a digital file to restrict its usage. It’s a flawed, user-unfriendly tactic, and it will go away. But while it exists, I will continue to do my online music buying with DRM-free retailers emusic and Amazon.