To singer-songwriter Paul Simon, a music industry heavyweight since 1964, leadership crosses professional boundaries.
This year, singer-songwriter Paul Simon received the first annual Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, an award recognizing ´the profound and positive effect of popular music on the world´s culture.´
Simon is also a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1990 as half of Simon and Garfunkel and as a solo artist in 2001. In 2002, Simon was named one of the five annual recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors.
Life in the Spotlight
Simon got his big break in 1964, when he teamed up with fellow New Yorker Art Garfunkel for an audition at Columbia Records. Sufficiently impressed, the label signed the duo to produce an album, ´Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.´ Over the next eight years, Simon and Garfunkel released eight more albums, including such blockbusters as ´Sounds of Silence´ and ´Bridge Over Troubled Water.´
Simon went solo in 1972 and has released an astounding 18 albums since, including ´Still Crazy After All These Years,´ ´Graceland,´ and, in 2006, ´Surprise.´ In 2003, Simon and Garfunkel reunited when they received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. This reunion led to a U.S. tour followed by a 2004 international encore.
An Industry Power Shift
Paul Simon loves to debate important issues, whether politics, music, or his beloved Yankees. So who better to sit down with and get views about the state of the music industry and the nature of creative leadership? Following are excerpts from our recent interview:
Q: If you look at the way music is made and marketed today, how does that differ from 10 or 15 years ago?
A: The main difference is that today you have a lot of new avenues to distribute your product, principally by the Internet. The main revenue source for music is still CDs. But CD sales are so far down from what they were -- and heading further south -- that most people think the end of the CD is in sight, that it´s being replaced by downloading songs.
With every new technology it becomes possible to advertise or sell your music in new ways. Also, protocols are changing. There was a time when no self-respecting artist would have dreamed of selling a song for a commercial. But then a few years ago Sting took one of his songs and allowed it to be used for a Jaguar commercial. The song, which wasn´t a hit, became a big hit from the commercial. From that point on, others have jumped on the bandwagon.
All of this has diminished the power of the major record labels. Ten years ago there were a few major labels that consolidated and marketed CDs in a conventional way and therefore had all the power. They got to play their music on radio and on MTV, which was still an important avenue for launching music. That´s what drove music sales.
Singing for Dollars
Q: I assume that the Internet is the most important avenue to promote music today?
A: Of course it´s important in order to get word-of-mouth going. But the most significant way to promote recorded music today is actually to perform it live. By far.
In the music business, while CD sales have suffered, live performances have thrived. The revenue sources from performing live are significant. Some acts that aren´t even represented by a major label can go out and build up a significant following that way, and sell a lot of tickets and a lot of records.
Many of the new record deals include the labels participating in revenue from live performances, both tickets and merchandise sold. This is one way the labels are fighting to stay relevant, but it´s also creating opportunities for new players to further upend the power structure of the music industry.
[Simon couldn´t be more right: Madonna just signed a 10-year deal with Beverly Hills-based concert promoter Live Nation, which will give her a rich mix of cash and stock in exchange for the rights to sell three studio albums, promote concert tours, sell merchandise, and license her name.]
A Hit Isn´t What It Used to Be
Q: Is it true that for both singles and albums, the units required for a No. 1 hit are much lower today than 10 years ago?
A: Generally speaking, I would say that´s true. It depends on the week. You could have a No. 1 hit with sales of 150,000 or 200,000, and there have been weeks when No. 1´s haven´t even sold 100,000 albums.
Some blockbusters in today´s marketplace will come out and sell 700,000, 800,000, 900,000 albums. That´s considered a pretty significant sum today. But after that the drop-off is significant.
Q: ´Bridge Over Troubled Water´ was your biggest-selling album, right?
A: Yes, [it] sold about 15 million albums in the first year and continues to sell. ´Graceland´ sold 10 million albums and continues to sell.
The Extremes of Leadership
Q: I try to uncover insights about leadership in non-business domains that might be adapted to the world of business. In that spirit, can you isolate what you´ve accomplished in music that non-musicians might apply?
A: What I´ve observed is that all disciplines, no matter how different they may seem from one another, share a similar difficult-to-describe quality as you get to a higher and higher level of performance.
Really great athletes and really great painters, for example, probably know something about their work that relates to each other beyond the boundaries of their professions. I bet if they had a dialogue, they would share an understanding about focus and concentration and how to think. I think they would share an appreciation that can be discovered only at the extreme of their fields, a level sufficient to induce wonder and gratitude about life.
As you go further along a chosen path, I think you come to understand more both about the journey and the ultimate destination. And at a certain point, you realize that what you´re doing and learning is actually not limited to the profession that you´re in, but applies to the underlying realities about the world. It´s this extreme where I think you find great leadership.
There´s a greater lesson to be learned from Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, both of whom I don´t know, than how to be a multimillionaire by investing in the stock market or making software. I can´t be sure, but my guess is that they know something that´s a lot more profound than how to invest in the market. The same probably holds true for Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and Derek Jeter.
Q: Who in music have you observed reaching this level of wisdom?
A: When I think about jazz musicians like Miles Davis, those guys seem to have understood something big that was going on, and that music was merely a way to express it.
I would put Stevie Wonder in that same camp. I think he´s had some great insights about larger things in life and how music has been a means for understanding that. Certainly John Lennon was like that as well.
Q: In closing, if you were to write ´50 Ways to Leave Your Lover´ today, with email, cell phones, and TiVo, what new ways would you add?
A: I wouldn´t dare touch it!