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Rage Against The Machine
Bob Lefsetz, the Music Industry's Go-To Gadfly

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008

LOS ANGELES

Bob Lefsetz is cranking the outrage to 11. Again.

This time, Lefsetz -- one of the music industry's most influential analysts, and certainly the loudest -- is seething about the state of the concert business. Tickets are too expensive, he howls. Service fees are out of line. Music fans are being "raped" by promoters.

"Where is the CONCERT-GOERS' bill of rights?" he shrieks, gesticulating wildly. "What the [expletive] IS GOING ON?!"`

Bloviating about the industry's shortcomings is Bob Lefsetz's shtick. It's made him famous, and infamous, as the sharply opinionated author of the widely read Lefsetz Letter, which has become a viral sensation.

Usually, Lefsetz delivers his stream-of-consciousness screeds, along with his raves and reminiscences, via e-mail and online at Lefsetz.com. But on this particular day, the Lefsetz Letter has gone live -- he's been invited to speak at the Concert Industry Consortium, an annual trade convention. And so, somewhat improbably, he's on a stage in a hotel conference room, doing what he calls "my act" in front of a standing-room-only crowd whose very business he's ripping apart.

Lefsetz tears into promoting giant Live Nation. Goes after greedy booking agents. Lambastes Ticketmaster, noting that even his octogenarian mother knows the company as "Ticketbastard." Refers to Warner Music Group chief Edgar Bronfman Jr. as "a [expletive] idiot" (his term for many executives), and, in a shocking aside, attacks "that [expletive] Sheryl Crow."

Lefsetz is something like Jim Cramer with a country-music obsession and a distaste for the synthetic drums of Top 40 pop. Basically, he comes off as kind of a nut.

Yet his acumen draws readers who include some of the most powerful figures in the music business. His fantastical dispatches tend to get high-profile industry insiders talking -- often to Lefsetz himself. Island Records Urban Music President Jermaine Dupri, venerated rock musician Al Kooper, Sire Records founder Seymour Stein, country singer Pat Green and former Verve Records chief Tommy LiPuma are among those who have written to the Lefsetz Letter recently.

A writer notorious for abusing his CAPS LOCK key, Lefsetz, 54, comments daily -- and sometimes, it seems, hourly -- on whatever topics pique his interest: diminishing album sales, Steve Jobs, the meltdown of the major-label system, skiing, the monetary value of music, favorite songs of 1971, overeating, Wal-Mart, the greatness of Regina Spektor, seventh-grade crushes, the overrated legacy of Patti Smith, the unremarkable wardrobe of Kenny Chesney.

Onstage, addressing the concert promoters, Lefsetz sounds like his work reads, his voice unmodulated, his mind wandering. He's blustery and entertaining and insightful and infuriating, and he doesn't pull any punches.

The crowd, though, isn't punching back. Lefsetz came to the conference bracing for a fight because he's accustomed to it, because there's never a shortage of blowback in his churlish culture of the Internet. Kid Rock even threatened him in a November e-mail after Lefsetz had written dismissively about the singer. "See you on the streets you punk [expletive] [expletive]!!!" Rock hissed in his e-mail.

But in person, where the dynamics are markedly different, everybody seems so . . . civil. The moderator challenges several of Lefsetz's stances, and an audience member voices disagreement with Lefsetz's take on the Led Zeppelin reunion concert. But the session ends with an ovation.

"I wasn't sure what to expect," Lefsetz says afterward. He shrugs. He almost seems disappointed.

* * *

I quoted "Captain Jim's Drunken Dream" at the shrink today. The doctor asked me if I was in the cool group in high school. I said no. Seems that nobody in the music business was cool in high school. If you were cool in high school, you've long ago descended into obscurity. That was the peak of your life. Whereas those of us who were frustrated, who wanted more, we've been trying our whole lives to achieve coolness.

-- The Lefsetz Letter, Nov. 10, 2007

* * *

Once, Bob Lefsetz was a lawyer doing pickup legal work. But it was never his intention to become a practicing attorney. Once, he was a talent manager for heavy metal bands. But nobody understood his creative vision.

Nearly 40 years ago, in high school, he edited a student newspaper in the upper-middle-class suburb of Fairfield, Conn., where he experienced a significant moment of cool. Riffing on the big Paul McCartney rumor of the day, Lefsetz had wondered, in a front-page piece, whether his school's headmaster was dead. "It was a HUGE hit," he recalls.

In some ways, he seems to have been questing for some inchoate sense of self-coolness -- for validation -- ever since, and perhaps he's found it by turning his own life into a performance.

"Doing the kind of [expletive] I'm doing, you're looking for some kind of acknowledgment, the love your mother didn't give you or something," he says. "If you're not neurotic, if you're not insecure, you're not doing this. It's not made for well-adjusted people."

Lefsetz is slumped on a bench outside a bookstore, telling yet another splenetic, circuitous story that's loaded with profanity, asides and Bob Dylan lyrics. It's a story about a lifelong love affair with rock-and-roll and a deep-seated hatred of anybody or anything that threatens the music-loving experience. It's the story about how the Lefsetz Letter happened.

Lefsetz graduated from Middlebury College with an art-history degree and did some freestyle skiing in Utah before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. Something about the vibe in all those old Brian and Dennis Wilson songs about Southern California. Plus, he was following a girl.

He earned a degree from Southwestern Law School, landed at a firm with entertainment clients, tried -- and failed -- to make it on his own as an independent record-label owner and talent manager, got mixed up in the movie business, then met heavy-metal singer Blackie Lawless from the band W.A.S.P.

That led to Lefsetz's first -- and last -- major music-industry job, in 1984: Running the U.S. division of Sanctuary, a London-based management firm whose clients included Iron Maiden and the notoriously raunchy W.A.S.P. Lefsetz was fired less than a year later. "I was fighting for the artistic integrity" of a W.A.S.P. album, he says, "and that was secondary to everybody getting along and keeping people's egos stroked."

Thinking back to high school, Lefsetz eventually "got back in touch with wanting to be a writer" and unsuccessfully pitched a few magazines. Then, thumbing through a copy of Billboard, he had a Lefsetzian revelation: "This is [expletive] TERRIBLE! I can do better than THIS!"

The Lefsetz Letter launched in 1986, its six pages of 8 1/2 -by-11 paper filled with odd, opinionated musings on the music business. "One of the early subjects," Lefsetz says, "was Stevie Winwood and whether the fact that he was dancing in his videos was [expletive] his credibility." (Short answer: Yes.)

The goal was simple: "Get another gig in the music business." There were no advertisements in the biweekly newsletter; revenue would come from subscriptions, at an annual rate of $89, which was soon raised to $110. Lefsetz went through an industry directory to find potential readers and the early returns were encouraging, with the likes of then-Arista Records chief Clive Davis signing on. (Never mind that Davis soon signed off, becoming, Lefsetz says, "one of only two people who ever canceled me when I had the print newsletter.")

The Lefsetz Letter created a stir from the outset, but there was no windfall for its author-publisher, who recalls: "I'm living off the credit cards, basically starving, and I'm not doing so well. And then my wife moves out and my father dies and I REALLY crash."

Or started to, anyway: He bottomed out in 1994, when a 6.7-magnitude earthquake rocked Los Angeles, leaving Lefsetz badly shaken. "The newsletter is coming out every two weeks, no matter what. But at this point, I've fallen off the edge and I want to give up."

Never did, though. Lefsetz -- who has always taken the emo approach to pontificating by weaving threads from his personal life into his music-business analyses -- continued to publish the newsletter while working through his issues. And in 2000, he took the Lefsetz Letter online after writing about a not-yet-released David Geffen biography and e-mailing the piece to some of his subscribers. "The response was phenomenal," Lefsetz says.

He ended the print edition and stopped charging. The newsletter's subscriber base grew from about 2,500 in his first year online to, well . . . Lefsetz won't say exactly. "When I hit send, I'm reaching tens of thousands of people," he says coyly. Then: "I reach more people than most first-time novelists."

But if they don't pay, then how does Lefsetz earn a living? Where does he get the money for the ski vacations, the increasingly expensive therapy sessions, the dinners with industry players that he's always writing about?

"That's the age-old question," says Larry Solters, the spokesman for Ticketmaster, Nielsen SoundScan and the Eagles, and a regular Lefsetz reader. "How does Bob make his money? I don't think anybody knows."

Lefsetz says that's because he isn't really making any money.

Oh, sure, he gets checks from Celebrity Access and Yahoo! Music, which reprint some of his screeds. And Rhino Records pays him for monthly podcasts. And he'll get a stipend for speaking at events like the Concert Industry Consortium and the upcoming Music Matters convention in Hong Kong.

He's done some consulting work for record companies, including Warner Bros., which seems to run counter to his assertion that he's beholden to no one. ("It's not something I pursue," Lefsetz says of consulting contracts.) And he used to have a radio show, too, until the station sold his hours for infomercials.

"I live on a no-cash basis," he says. "I live in a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica. . . . I don't have kids or all these other expenses people have. If I'm going to dinner, somebody else is picking up the tab."

The ski vacations? Cheap flights to Colorado and even cheaper accommodations: Lefsetz is dating Felice Mancini, daughter of the late composer Henry Mancini, and the family owns a condo in Vail. "People have this fantasy that I'm living some exotic, marvelous life. . . . I laugh when people think there's a big pile of money somewhere. . . . NO! You're just not willing to live and sacrifice the way I do. And believe me, I've sacrificed."

So then what's the payoff? "I love connecting with people and telling a story," he says.

* * *

A remarkable thing happened last year, according to Solters, the Ticketmaster spokesman. The company was preparing to announce a major acquisition and in the midst of a media-strategy meeting, he recalls, "we're talking about the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and somebody says, 'How are we going to deal with Lefsetz?' I couldn't believe that question came up. But so many people in the industry read him. His influence is incredible."

As the traditional music industry continues its downward spiral, Lefsetz's voice appears to be growing louder and more resonant. While the analyst/provocateur says some people misunderstand his mission -- "I'm not angry; I'm just passionate about music and trying to speak the truth about it" -- just about everybody in the industry seems to read his newsletter, at least occasionally.

Solters explains the appeal thusly: "He's not boring. He really gets people's blood boiling, which is what an editorial writer wants to do. He speaks from the heart. He takes an opinion and just goes for it."

Though Lefsetz is famous for enthusing about the old days and old music, as in a recent 1,625-word post on the Who's "Quadrophenia," he's best known for his vituperative approach: When it comes to writing about best-selling stars and high-flying executives, he doesn't speak truth to power so much as he whacks power across the knees with a crowbar.

Last year, for instance, he torched Blue Note Records CEO Bruce Lundvall, characterizing him as a horribly out-of-touch dinosaur. Lundvall quickly fired back, writing: "If there is one thing you've accomplished in your career that hasn't been at the expense of someone else's reputation, I'd be grateful to know what it is." The sentiment is common among Lefsetz's detractors. (Another frequent criticism: While Lefsetz is keen on riffing on the industry's myriad problems, he doesn't proffer many solutions.)

"Why CAN'T I say something negative if you're [expletive] wrong?" Lefsetz retorts. Through a Blue Note spokesman, Lundvall calls Lefsetz "the industry gadfly" and says, "Whether or not we agree with him, everyone in the industry reads him. He does what he does, and I respect that."

So, too, does Randy Phillips, even though steam sometimes leaks from his ears while he reads the Lefsetz Letter. Last summer, Phillips -- the president and CEO of AEG Live, the second-largest U.S. concert promoter -- got into an e-mail argument with Lefsetz after he'd written that Justin Timberlake, an AEG client, was "an uneducated twit whose only goal in life was to make it."

They wound up exchanging 18 e-mails in 81 minutes, with Phillips sending 10 of them from London, on a BlackBerry, in the middle of the night.

"It's amazing how many people read him, given how many people say they hate him," Phillips says. "I think some of his columns can be phenomenally interesting, when he gets it right. . . . And he is a character. This business has become so homogenized that any time you have somebody like him, it's a good thing-- especially if they're thought-provoking. Having said that, I wish I'd gone to bed that night instead of correcting the record with him."

It's exactly what Lefsetz seems to be looking for: A response, a reaction, a signal that his voice is being heard, even if he can't quite digest the idea that anybody would pay him the slightest notice.

"I write something every day, and I cannot believe that people are reading it," he says. But it's his finest moment when they are, because every performer -- every act -- needs an audience.

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