Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Rick Rubin, pop music producer

Yesterday's reading from the NY Times. Rubin is only 44 years old.

Rubin, wearing his usual uniform of loose khaki pants and billowing white T-shirt, his sunglasses in his pocket, his feet bare, fingers a string of lapis lazuli Buddhist prayer beads, believed to bring wisdom to the wearer. Since Rubin's beard and hair nearly cover his face, his voice, which is soft and reassuring, becomes that much more vivid. He seems to be one with the room, which is lined in floor-to-ceiling books, most of which are of a spiritual nature, whether about Buddhism, the Bible or New Age quests for enlightenment. The library and the house are filled with religious iconography mixed with mementos from the world of pop. A massive brass Buddha is flanked by equally enormous speakers; vintage cardboard cutouts of John, Paul, George and Ringo circa "Help!" are placed around a multiarmed statue of Vishnu. On a low table, there are crystals and an old RadioShack cassette recorder that Rubin uses to listen to demo tapes; a framed photo of Jim Morrison stares at a crystal ball. In Rubin's world, music and spirituality collide.

"That's why they call him a guru," Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, explained to me in August, calling from her home in Los Angeles. Maines, who has been with the label since 1997, first worked with Rubin in 2004. "At first, I didn't know if I was down with all that guru stuff. I thought, We're making a record — I don't want to be converted. But Rick's spirituality has mostly to do with his own sense of self. When it comes to the music, he's so sure of his opinion that you become sure of his opinion, too. And isn't that what gurus do? They know how to say the right things at the right time and get the best out of you."

The industry is in trouble. And Rubin sees a way out: subscriptions...

To combat the devastating impact of file sharing, he, like others in the music business (Doug Morris and Jimmy Iovine at Universal, for instance), says that the future of the industry is a subscription model, much like paid cable on a television set. "You would subscribe to music," Rubin explained, as he settled on the velvet couch in his library. "You'd pay, say, $19.95 a month, and the music will come anywhere you'd like. In this new world, there will be a virtual library that will be accessible from your car, from your cellphone, from your computer, from your television. Anywhere. The iPod will be obsolete, but there would be a Walkman-like device you could plug into speakers at home. You'll say, 'Today I want to listen to ... Simon and Garfunkel,' and there they are. The service can have demos, bootlegs, concerts, whatever context the artist wants to put out. And once that model is put into place, the industry will grow 10 times the size it is now."

From Napster to the iPod, the music business has been wrong about how much it can dictate to its audience. "Steve Jobs understood Napster better than the record business did," David Geffen told me. "IPods made it easy for people to share music, and Apple took a big percentage of the business that once belonged to the record companies. The subscription model is the only way to save the music business. If music is easily available at a price of five or six dollars a month, then nobody will steal it."

For this model to be effective, all the record companies will have to agree. "It's like getting the heads of the five families together," said Mark DiDia, referencing "The Godfather." "It will be very difficult, but what else are we going to do?"

Rubin sees no other solution. "Either all the record companies will get together or the industry will fall apart and someone like Microsoft will come in and buy one of the companies at wholesale and do what needs to be done," he said. "The future technology companies will either wait for the record companies to smarten up, or they'll let them sink until they can buy them for 10 cents on the dollar and own the whole thing."

The reason I'm blogging about him is that he likes Paul Potts.
So do I.
Anyone who agrees with me must have a lot on the ball. Get a load of this...

For the last two years, Rubin has lived in a house in Malibu that overlooks the ocean. In a way, this house is a return to his childhood in Lido Beach, where he spent his days near the water. "It's inspirational to live out here," Rubin said as he settled into a lounge chair with linen cushions facing the sea. "You feel the rhythm of the planet more keenly. I am never this aware of sunrise and sunset when I'm in town. The daily changes of nature at the beach can be deeply affecting."

Rubin has many of his business meetings here now. The '70s architecture of the house is nondescript, but the views from every room are spectacular. There's an old, elaborately carved grand piano in the living room alongside an enormous four-poster brass bed with a striking white linen canopy. When I arrived, Amanda Santos, Rubin's fiancée, was having a private yoga session. While we sat on the terrace, a small Yorkshire terrier named Henry ran between the living room and Rubin's lap. Despite a state-of-the-art sound system, there was no music playing. Only the sound of the waves.

All this Zen calm notwithstanding, Rubin, who was drinking ginger tea, was working. "Do you know about Paul Potts?" he asked as he went to the kitchen to get his laptop. "You have to see this. It totally blew my mind." Rubin found the proper link and turned the screen to face me. The clip was from a British show called "Britain's Got Talent," a version of "American Idol." Despite its popularity, Rubin has never seen "American Idol," and he had never heard of Simon Cowell, who is a judge on both programs.

"This is insane," Rubin said enthusiastically as the clip began. In the video, an ordinary-looking middle-aged man waited nervously backstage. When he faced the judges, he told them he worked at a mobile-phone store and wanted to sing opera. The studio audience looked annoyed — they clearly wanted to hear a pop song — and the judges were cold and dismissive. No one expected anything remarkable from this dull-looking, forgettable guy.

But then Paul Potts sang — "Nessun dorma" from "Turandot." He had an improbably beautiful voice. "Where does that come from?" Rubin said as he watched. Tears were rolling down his cheeks. "I can't look at this without crying," he said. "His voice is so beautiful." When Potts finished his song, Cowell said, "I thought you were absolutely fantastic." The studio audience roared with approval, and Potts beamed.

"It's August now — that show was eight weeks ago," Rubin said. "In England, Paul Potts is already gigantic, but we are going to launch him in America. This just blew my mind."
No one could have predicted that one of the first new Columbia artists to excite Rick Rubin would have been a would-be opera singer from a televised talent contest. "I certainly didn't expect his response to be so positive," said Steve Barnett, who originally brought Paul Potts to Rubin's attention. "I was surprised and pleased that he wanted to jump on it."

Rubin has an immediate plan for Potts — he wants to test the powers of his "word of mouth" department. "I want to see if we can create interest without there being a record to buy," he said. "I've told our whole staff to send it to everyone, to tell everyone, to mention it everywhere. I want to get Paul Potts out to the world." Rubin stopped for a moment. "Although, if someone tells you how great this is, it's not as moving. It's the element of surprise that makes you interested in Paul Potts: he looks so bland, and then he sings so well. If you expect him to be great, will the clip still be great?"

Never saw "American Idol" and never heard of Simon Cowell?!
Now that's a man after my own heart.

1 comment:

Suma said...

Hey, thats a nice blog..I have heard about the American idol..Rick robbin has a great thought and new ideas...

suma valluru