Best of luck to Rick Rubin

(cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

The cover of the New York Times Magazine last weekend looked like it was selling a feature story about a religious guru, with a photo of a large, bearded man sitting crosslegged in a field, wrapped in a white blanket. And there’s no question that Rick Rubin — the music producer who was the subject of the cover story — is seen as a guru by many in the industry.

02rubin1901.jpgRubin’s abilities have helped to create acts such as The Beastie Boys, and rescued fading stars such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond from oblivion. But can he save the entire industry? That’s the subject of the NYT piece, which goes into some detail about how iTunes and file-sharing have eviscerated the business, and how young music lovers pay little or no attention to the radio or buying CDs any more.

In fact, hiring a guy like Rubin — who refuses to attend meetings or have an office at Sony’s Columbia Records despite now being co-chief executive, and who wears cargo pants and a T-shirt instead of a suit — should be evidence enough that executives in the industry are scared out of their wits. And it’s clear that one of the things Rubin wants to focus on is the music, which would be a refreshing change.

As media mogul David Geffen puts it in the story:

“The music business, as a whole, has lost its faith in content… only 10 years ago, companies wanted to make records, presumably good records, and see if they sold. But panic has set in, and now it’s no longer about making music, it’s all about how to sell music.”

A couple of the other prescriptions for success that Rubin throws out in the piece, however, raise some fairly major question marks, and the first of those is the idea that the online music business has to adopt a subscription model in order to have any hope of staying alive.

The only problem with that idea is that no one has had any real success with the subscription approach, despite repeated attempts. Services such as Rhapsody, the new Napster and Yahoo Radio are still around and have users, but they are hardly growing. The bulk of music listeners simply don’t seem to be interested in subscribing to a kind of virtual radio station online, although some continue to support the idea.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs — who knows a thing or two about music online — has repeatedly said that he has no interest in offering a subscription service. “Never say never, but customers don’t seem to be interested in it,” Jobs told Reuters in an interview after Apple reported blow-out quarterly results. “The subscription model has failed so far.”

And Jobs is far from the only person who is skeptical of the subscription approach.

It’s true that part of the reason a subscription model hasn’t worked is that the record companies and other players — rights holders such as publishing companies and performance rights groups — haven’t been able to get their act together, and have spent most of their time coming up with new ways to screw people through DRM.

Unfortunately, there’s no sign that any of that is going to change anytime soon, with or without Rick Rubin.

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