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Monday, Dec. 6, 2010

Music and Commerce: ‘Fortune’s Fool’

Fred Goodman examines an industry in crisis

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Fred Goodman, author of the unrivaled The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce, has written another unbeatable story about the music we love to buy with Fortune’s Fool: Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis (Simon & Schuster). Goodman is an insightful observer of popular music and its flawed monetary structure. He never disappoints when connecting what defines an important artist to the underlying realities of commerce. In ways colorful and factual, his writing strikes out in search of artistic genius as well as its attendant commercial process.

Unlike Mansion on the Hill with its heroes and villains, Fortune’s Fool has its heroic moments replete with villainous outcomes. When Edgar Bronfman took over the Warner Music Group in 2004, he had to create an entirely new sort of business model.

Despite the surprising success (to the music industry only) of Internet music downloads—with illegal sharing outflanking legal buying by 19-to-1 today—predictions of a new world order in the music business have never materialized. MySpace, YouTube, Facebook—all these maverick inventions have never produced a significant way to make money for an industry, let alone for an artist. The crash of the industry that has been applauded by so many independent labels, artists and music buyers has not resulted in anything more than a lot of media fuss about a devastated business model and a fragmented scholastic enterprise disconnected from an objective critical canon. There is no singular place to go to and return from with cash or concept.

No new business formula has surfaced that results in mass sales and exposure of new music. This is not good for the artist and Goodman clearly explains why, using Bronfman and Warner to exemplify the mess we are all in from creative outset to retail outlet. Stories about the Eagles and Metallica—with Napster’s Shawn Fanning as the Fool to Bronfman’s Lear in tragic ways for both—and an upcoming, successful “bratty…well-off Jewish kid” named Rick Rubin populate the early chapters as the tension builds for the music industry to fall into fiscal crisis. Goodman’s book has been noticed by business publications looking for a lesson in what not to do if you want to make money on popular music.

In the final analysis, Fortune’s Fool poses more than business problems to solve. “Indeed, if you accept most of what’s been written over the last 10 years, it’s hard to imagine the major labels were anything more than criminal enterprises. The consumer anger at the record companies—and sense of online entitlement—can be palpable.” But it is more complicated than all that: “We don’t protect businesses against changes in technology; if we did, there’d be stables in every town.”
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