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Sound Check: A successful record producer fires shot across the bow of music industry

On Monday, the Lefsetz Letter – a blog run by veteran music industry analysis Bob Lefsetz – published an open letter from iconic record producer Bob Ezrin. And oh man, is it ever a doozy.

Ezrin – whose production credits include everything from Alice Cooper and Kiss to Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Phish, Nine Inch Nails, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel and Jane’s Addiction – unburdened himself to Lefsetz in a letter that paints a portrait of the present-day music industry as an artistic wasteland largely bereft of the imaginative application of craft and lacking in its ability to at once comment on and influence the broader culture.

“And there used to be music,” Ezrin writes. “No longer.”

So what’s Bob’s beef? To wit:

“In just the last few generations, we have witnessed the complete devolution of the mainstream of music from the intricacies and demands of jazz, swing and modern ‘classical’; the subtleties and finesse of the best of popular song writing; the mastery of ‘folk’ instruments and vocal performance in the best of folk and rock; the singular high-mindedness of the greatest singer songwriters; and the hard-won craft of playing and writing and creating meaningful work, to four bar grids of ‘cut and paste’ monotony over which someone writes shallow nursery rhymes about partying, trucks and beer or bitches and bling, or whines in hardly rhyming verse about their sad little white boy or girl life.”

Whoa. It’s rare for someone who works on the inside of the music industry to be so openly critical of that industry. It’s almost like whistle-blowing, or a Wall Street executive coming clean and letting the world know that the entire house of cards is built upon the ability of, as Elliott Smith once put it, “junk bond king(s) trying to sell a sucker a stock.” I’m guessing some of Ezrin’s friends are less than pleased with him. I mean, dude, keep quiet, and we’ll all make a killing! Have your people call me! We’ll do a power lunch with Taylor and Kanye!

Most of the reader comments on the Lefsetz Letter page praise Ezrin for his bravery in speaking out and express agreement with his assessment. It’s not hard to understand why. “Cut & Paste” methodology rules the roost in contemporary music, and a casual glance at the Billboard Top 100 any given week over the past few years does indeed reveal a paucity of imagination in the song lyric department. (This week’s top of the Billboard pop charts includes the likes of Wiz Khalifa, Maroon 5, the Weekend, Ed Sheeran, Walk the Moon and Rihanna – all are responsible for songs that trot out lyrical clichés, most involving the topic of romance or something like it. All also sound like they were pieced together on a computer, because they were.)

Those who expressed disdain for Erzrin’s op-ed unfailingly played the ageism card, insisting that Ezrin’s age – 65 – makes him incapable of understanding the music young people are making. That’s a tough criticism to defend, because it’s sort of like arguing for or against religious belief – it can’t be proven one way or the other, and so is difficult to defend with logic.

There are, however, some nooks and crannies in Ezrin’s argument that those looking for weaknesses will be able to exploit. He criticizes the tendency to whine about “sad little white boy or white girl (lives),” even though he’s white himself; He decries the state of lyric writing, though he has some less-than-terrific lyricists on his résumé, Taylor Swift among them. Ezrin’s commercial breakthrough recordings came via projects with Alice Cooper and Kiss, and some might argue that the music of both is as shallow as anything Ezrin is criticizing in his Lefsetz letter. (I wouldn’t agree. The Kiss and Cooper records Ezrin produced are very well crafted.)

The issues he raises are legitimate ones, and he goes out of his way to praise current examples of young pop artists who are pushing boundaries and issuing musical and cultural challenges, hip-hop visionary Kendrick Lamar among them. It should also be noted that Ezrin stands to gain nothing from sharing his opinions here. In fact, he seems to be motivated not by bitterness or any perceived “old man-ness,” but rather by a hard-earned understanding of what music is capable of achieving in the real world, and how so much contemporary music is failing in that area.

“With our music and words, we used to fight for freedom; we used to incite change; we used to elevate each other; we used to speak for all of us and literally move mountains,” Ezrin writes, “No more.”

Interestingly, at no point does Ezrin directly blame listeners themselves for such failures, though perhaps that blame is implicit. He does explicitly call out what amounts to an inter-industry cynicism, whereby music business professionals claim the high road while trolling the gutter.

“All that talk about the ‘me generation’ turns out to be true,” according to Ezrin. “We lost ‘us’ in the ’80s and since then we only care about ourselves and our personal gain; we only want the money. The rhetoric endures – as it does in politics. There’s not a single human working in the ‘music industry’ who doesn’t say that they’re in it for the music, for the art form. Just like there’s no politician who doesn’t claim to be doing it to serve their country or community. But the reality is, we’re all in everything for the pay off. Period.”

This is brutal, but save for the “cranky old man” criticism, it’s difficult to argue with, at least from a position based on the available evidence. Embracing change is not the same as accepting the dissolution of a once-great culture, however. I wish Ezrin was wrong. Sadly, he’s not.

If you’re young, and you take umbrage with Ezrin’s assertions, instead of blowing him off, why not prove him wrong? You’ve got the mic in your hand. What do you have to say?


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