Photo of Wilco by Guus Krol on Flickr

A Response to Bob Lefsetz on Indiana

In the April 4, 2015 edition of his Lefsetz Letter, Bob Lefsetz conflates two mostly unrelated arguments into one, muddling both. Using the outrage over Indiana and Arkansas’s Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) as his example, Lefsetz argues:

  1. Musicians used to have the people on their side and as a result had the courage to speak out for or against things. Today it is the corporations, especially tech, that have the people’s support and are speaking out.
  2. The music industry is faltering because it refuses to adapt to change or utilize their leverage the way that tech companies have, and musicians are blaming everybody but themselves. This is why they have lost the people.

Lefsetz believes it was Apple CEO Tim Cook, “techies and WALMART that stopped Indiana in its tracks.” Wal-Mart was specifically directed at Arkansas but yes, pressure from billion-dollar corporations was key in getting fixes to the RFRA bills.

But according to Lefsetz, this corporate influence is based on having the people on their side, the kind of influence that musicians used to have: “People will get in heated arguments over iOS and Android, we used to have these fights over bands.” While it is true that certain companies inspire a passionate tribalism — Apple vs. Microsoft, Nintendo vs. Sony vs. Microsoft, Ford vs. Chevy, Sriracha vs. Tabasco — most companies don’t, and the power and influence of corporations is based on wealth, not public support.

Lefsetz also assumes that these corporations took a stand against the RFRA laws primarily because it was the right thing to do. That discrimination is wrong and they were standing up for their principles. That may be part of why Tim Cook, who is openly gay, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post, but it doesn’t explain Wal-Mart. Or NASCAR. It is 2015 and blatant LGBT discrimination is bad for business. These stances are about their bottom-lines, not moral principles. Corporations aren’t out to change the hearts and minds of the people with their opposition to discrimination, they are opposing discrimination because it is where the people’s hearts and minds already are.

To Lefsetz, there isn’t much difference between the nature of power and influence of popular musicians and of corporations. He sees a zero-sum game of popular support where musicians have lost and tech companies have gained. This isn’t the case. Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Justin Bieber: their power is cultural. They are more likely able to influence the attitudes of their fans than Wal-Mart or Amazon. Corporate power is financial: contributions to politicians and super PACs, control over jobs and business locations, investment power. While some corporations like Apple wield a fair amount of cultural power and some musicians like Jay Z and Beyoncé wield some financial power, generally this difference holds.

Another faulty premise is that opposition to LGBT discrimination is something that corporate (especially tech) leaders and musicians all share, but only the corporate leaders have the courage to speak out and take a stand. Lefsetz claims that “musicians are afraid of offending people, afraid of being ‘Dixie-Chicked’ and the only reason country acts don’t “push back against small thinking and racist, sexist and anti-gay comments” is because they are “afraid of [their] audience.” This foregos the possibility that some of those acts might themselves have racist, sexist, and/or homophobic sentiments. Maybe it’s not that they are afraid of their audience. Maybe they are their audience. Corporate leaders, however, have “become so wealthy that they are unafraid to utter their opinions.” This acknowledges that wealth insulates people from the consequences of their speech, but again assumes that they all share the same anti-discriminatory opinions and that their statements are based on principles and not profits.

Lefsetz is ignoring a lot of music artists that take strong stands for their beliefs. Miley Cyrus publicly came out against RFRA and urged her Twitter followers to call the office of Sen. Tom Cotton over homophobic statements. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and a number of indie music labels issued statements against the law. D’Angelo made a powerful ‘Black Lives Matter’ statement with his February Saturday Night Live performance. There are countless other examples.

The two arguments tie together with the idea that if musicians were willing to adapt, were less afraid of taking a stand, made records that actually said something, they wouldn’t be losing the people to corporations. Lefsetz uses the relaunch of Tidal to illustrate:

But Jay Z and Alicia Keys and Madonna were too busy trying to line their coffers in NYC, launching the moribund Tidal so they could get richer. And what is amazing is they’ve achieved the exact opposite of their desire. They believed their fans loved them and would embrace the service when online there was outrage that these “musicians” just wanted to get more bucks. I’ve seen more blowback against this cabal than Tim Cook has experienced in his three and a half years as head of Apple.

He believes that the Tidal launch artists are overestimating their influence over their fans and that their resistance to accept the realities of the current music market is further eroding that influence. I agree that this is a likely reason why Tidal will fail, but I don’t think it shows that music superstars lost their cultural capital to tech corporations.

No music act in history has had the ability to influence government and legislation that corporations do. Not even The Beatles or Led Zeppelin (who Lefsetz uses as an example of having the people on their side) could ever wreak havoc on an economy like a corporation can. Lefsetz writes: “That’s the story of business, utilizing leverage to get what you want, not crying to the government.” Corporations will always have more leverage to utilize than a music act. It’s never even close.

While I’m inclined to agree with Lefsetz that the music industry as a whole has problems adapting and could learn from how the tech industry adapts, tying this argument to a power shift based on popular support from musicians to tech companies doesn’t make sense. The ability of corporations to pressure politicians is unrelated to people’s relationship to music.

One final note:

And unlike the musicians, they’re educated. Really Alicia Keys, you want me to believe in you when you can’t even pronounce “adage”? Illustrates you didn’t write your speech, shows you’d have been better off staying in school.

I think this is a horrible and unnecessary cheap shot. At best it is condescending and at worst both racist and sexist. It is baffling that it is included in an essay that castigates people for not speaking out against such comments.

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