Who is Bob Lefsetz, and why are radio insiders eager to hear him speak?

Non-Comm headliners include, from left, Willie Nelson, Rufus Wainwright, and Bob Lefsetz. Lefsetz, a tart-tongued and widely read music-industry blogger, will be featured in a special forum Thursday.
Non-Comm headliners include, from left, Willie Nelson, Rufus Wainwright, and Bob Lefsetz. Lefsetz, a tart-tongued and widely read music-industry blogger, will be featured in a special forum Thursday.
Posted: May 18, 2012

Look out Non-Comm, here comes Bob Lefsetz.

Bob who? Non-what?

Non-Comm is the shortened term for the annual radio industry gathering officially called the Non-Commvention, which is hosted by WXPN-FM (88.5-FM) and starts Thursday in University City.

It will bring an assortment of high-wattage and up-and-coming names to World Cafe Live over the next three days, including Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, Beth Orton, Brandi Carlile, and the War on Drugs. (Tickets for all those artists are sold out, but piano man Rufus Wainwright highlights a free Saturday afternoon show at the new Penn Park, at 31st and lower Walnut Streets.)

“Non-Comm,” as XPN drive-time DJ and conference founder Dan Reed explains, refers to noncommercial “left-of-the-[FM]-dial” radio stations, most of which play contemporary, rock-based, adult-targeted music. Programmers from more than 50 stations around the country will attend the confab, says Reed, which is why artists like Dr. John and John Mayer (both of whom will be interviewed by World Cafe host David Dye, but are not performing), as well as buzz acts Poliça and Nick Waterhouse, flock to the confab.

Amid all that established and aspiring talent, however, the most provocative figure at Non-Comm will not be a charismatic musician but a highly opinionated blogger, 59-year-old lawyer Bob Lefsetz. He’s as well-known within the music industry as he is virtually anonymous outside it, though he’s widely believed to have inspired — and to be the subject of — Taylor Swift’s song “Mean.”

Lefsetz is the industry gadfly and curmudgeonly Cassandra who’s been writing the widely read Lefsetz Letter since 1986. It started as a mimeographed, mailed-out pamphlet and since 2000 has been a free Internet bulletin that can be subscribed to at Lefsetz.com.

It specializes in clueing in music industry insiders about just how clueless and close-minded they continue to be when it comes to embracing the digital future. Yet it also finds time to sing the praises of favored acts like Jackson Browne and, at first, Swift — Lefsetz was an early supporter of hers until he witnessed the 2010 Grammy Awards performance that led him to conclude, “Taylor can’t sing.”

Lefsetz is not one to mince words. In a blog post this week, for instance, he strafed Carole King’s memoir A Natural Woman (“It’s trash”) and lambasted Jay-Z for calling his Philadelphia festival Budweiser Made in America (“Do they call it ‘Coors Coachella’? ‘Beck’s Bonnaroo’?) while praising Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for refusing to dress up for the New York Stock Exchange. “This used to be how the musicians acted,” he wrote, using “Hoodiegate” to remind his readers to “be true to yourself. That’s all you got.”

A former adviser to metal bands, Lefsetz renewed his ambition to be a music writer after losing his job at a management company in the ’80s, and was the subject of the recent Wired magazine profile titled “Who the Hell Is Bob Lefsetz?” The article enumerated his public run-ins with Gene Simmons of Kiss and Kid Rock, who responded in kind after Lefsetz dismissed him with an expletive.

In an interview last week from his home in Los Angeles, Lefsetz talked about the sorry state of the industry, the glut of good and shortage of superb music (“Life’s too short for good, I want great”), and why he thinks that after a decade of post-Napster confusion the industry has a chance to recover.

With the major labels stripped of much of their power as technology has allowed musicians to make and distribute music cheaply, “we’re living in an era of chaos where everybody can play, and where the listener goes, ‘Holy s —,hat’s going on?’?” Lefsetz says.

“I used to watch Westerns on Saturday morning TV,” he says, offering an analogy for how the music industry failed to react creatively to the file-sharing revolution that caused sales and revenue to collapse. “The bank would be robbed and everybody would get together, and what would they say? They wouldn’t say, ‘Let’s get a big megaphone and yell for them to come back with the money!’ Never did that! They always said, ‘Let’s form a posse and cut them off at the pass.’?”

In Lefsetz’s view, the growing amount of revenue coming from subscription streaming services like Spotify — for which you have to pay a monthly fee if you want to use it on a mobile device like a smartphone or iPad — offers the music industry a chance to cut the audience off at the pass. That’s despite the wariness of some bands — which he generally dismisses as “dumb” — for trying to preserve an antiquated business model and refusing to make their music available on such services.

How big is the Lefsetz megaphone? The blogger, who does not accept ads or charge for his blog, makes money though paid writing gigs and via personal appearances, much like a touring band. He won’t say how many subscribers he has. He knows Swift was one of them, though, because he corresponded with her early in her career. That was before the Grammy performance he now describes as “awful.” And it was before Swift, a 22-year-old Wyomissing, Pa., native, targeted her song “Mean” at a bully who she imagines one day being “washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things?/?Drunk and grumbling on about how I can’t sing.”

Reed, Non-Comm’s founder, will interview Lefsetz on Thursday afternoon at 1:30 at World Cafe Live in a session open to conference registrants and fans who purchased all-access badges, which have been sold out for weeks. (About 250 conventioneers will attend, at $95 per badge, according to Reed, who says that attendance is up. “It goes up and down with the economy. In 2009 and 2010, there were a lot of small market stations that couldn’t afford to make the trip.”)

“Almost everybody reads the Lefsetz Letter from top to bottom in this business,“ says Reed of the pundit who in 2007 asked: “In an era of iPods, and music blogs, and P2P trading, can music radio survive?”

“He’s provocative. I’m like everybody else. Sometimes I totally agree with him. Sometimes I vehemently disagree with him. But he always gets you thinking,” Reed says. “I just think it’s going to be very interesting. There are a lot of people in this industry looking for ways to survive, and this guy spends all day thinking about this stuff.”

Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, “In the Mix,” at www.philly.com/inthemix.

Tickets for the 2012 Non-Commvention are sold out. Concerts from the World Cafe Live will be broadcast live on WXPN (88.5-FM). Saturday afternoon’s concert at Penn Park, 31st and lower Walnut Streets, is free. It starts at noon with Dexter Romweber Duo followed by Rufus Wainwright, Sons of Fathers, Elle King. and Nick Waterhouse. More info at triple radio.com/noncomm.

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