I recently came across a blog post by a guy named Bob Lefsetz, a music industry critic and pundit. In the post, Lefsetz expresses his disdain for services like Patreon and Substack that enable writers and artists to earn money from their work.
Lefsetz’s bio notes that he’s been publishing a newsletter about music industry trends for 25 years. He was featured in the LA Times four years ago, so this guy is not no one. In the LA Times piece, Ethan Varian describes Lefsetz as having “an irreverant and boisterous take on the business of popular music.”
Varian’s piece goes on to explain that Lefsetz earns money from speaking engagements and paid writing gigs in publications like Variety. A key fact about Lefsetz stood out when I was researching him. His “irreverant and boisterous” commentary tends to come at the expense of others. It’s the type of “no holds barred” opinion writing that can be mean spirited and cruel.
He once wrote a scathing post about Taylor Swift’s performance at the 2010 GRAMMYS. That year, Swift had an off night. Lefsetz was merciless, writing that she was “dreadful” and dedicating most of the post to what I assume he felt was putting a very-young Swift in her place. He wrote:
Taylor’s too young and dumb to understand the mistake she made. And those surrounding her are addicted to cash and are afraid to tell her no. But last night Taylor Swift SHOULD have auto-tuned. To save her career.
They say it’s easy to fake it in the twenty first century.
But one thing we know is the truth will always come out.
He predicted that she’d ruined her career because of this one bad performance. Remember, Lefsetz’s newsletter is read by “just about everyone who’s anyone in the music industry” as Varian wrote in that LA Times piece.
Swift was just 19 years old at the time. Leftsetz’s post was a potentially career-killing piece by a well-known and respected industry luminary. She was, understandably, devastated. She wrote the song “Mean” in response to his review. She won two GRAMMYS for that song. I guess he showed her, huh?
You have to start somewhere
I took the time to learn about Lefsetz because I wanted to understand why a man who has clearly earned money from his writing would discourage others from earning money from theirs. This notion that wanting to charge readers for your work somehow diminishes the writer’s higher purpose is, frankly, a fantasy. It’s hurting writers.
Good writing doesn’t magically manifest from some muse-inspired center of the writer’s soul. It’s a slog. It’s time consuming. It’s often frustrating. It can be incredibly discouraging. Writing is hard work and advising writers that they should be doing it for free — for exposure or audience-building or the love of the game — is pure crap. I think it’s important to understand why people like Lefsetz — people who have a platform with the potential to do real harm — would dispense this kind of advice.
Touting the benefits of a free newsletter makes sense for Lefsetz. His newsletter is, after all, the foundation of his success and it’s probably true that he’s able to grow his readership by not charging a subscription fee.
But this wasn’t always the case. Lefsetz launched the newsletter as an actual paper newsletter in 1986. Per the LA Times piece:
“The year was 1986, and to get the newsletter off the ground, Lefsetz charged a brand-new Macintosh computer to his credit card. He entered 3,000 names and addresses taken from a music industry directory into a database program, printed copies of the newsletter on his dot matrix printer and mailed three free issues to each address soliciting a subscription.”
Wait, what? Lefsetz railed against writers trying to earn money by charging for newsletter subscriptions, but this is exactly what he did when he was first starting out. And of course he did! I absolutely do not fault him for this. He had to pay for that expensive Macintosh computer, the dot-matrix printer, the paper he used, and the many hours it took to print and distribute the first issues.
By the time Lefsetz made his newsletter free online, he’d already been writing it for 16 years. A brand new distribution channel — the internet — enabled him to expand his reach from what was (I’m assuming) an already impressive subscriber base of music industry executives. By 2000, he’d achieved enough prestige and recognition to find paying work from speaking gigs and contributed articles to publications like Variety. He didn’t need to charge for the newsletter anymore. Good for him!
Your story is not my story (and that’s okay)
I actually love Lefsetz’s origin story. It’s a great example of how an independent writer took ownership of his work and turned it into a successful career. That Lefsetz doesn’t consider himself a writer is beside the point. In the LA Times piece he is quoted saying:
“I’m not part of the fraternity of writers…I’m also not in the world of journalism. I hang with the musicians and I hang with the business people.”
This is Lefsetz’s story. But it’s not everybody’s story. It’s certainly not my story. Most of my income comes from clients who pay me to write content for them. While I enjoy this work, it’s not the dream. Some day I hope to write whatever I want and make enough money to earn a comfortable living. That might mean charging a subscription fee to newsletter subscribers.
This does not make me greedy. It does not diminish my writing or make me any less of a writer than someone who is in it just for the love of writing or someone who uses their newsletter to promote themselves. I love writing. I also love paying my mortgage and feeding my family.
Okay, but what about access? What about audience? Won’t charging for my work limit my readership? In his recent post about Patreon and Substack, Lefsetz writes:
“NO ONE, has ever grown a larger audience as a result of a crowdfunding campaign or presence on Patreon, it’s just a way to milk your already existing fans for more money.”
When Lefsetz says using Patreon is another way to milk your fans for money, he’s really talking about himself here. His audience is what helps him get those lucrative speaking gigs and he doesn’t want to ask more from them. The next logical conclusion is that charging for a subscription will cull your audience. Again, an easy conclusion to draw for Lefsetz based on his own experience. He has, after all, been giving his newsletter away for free for over 20 years. Is it true for other people? That remains to be seen. This is a conclusion that he didn’t bother to source.
Still, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt here and assume that zero people have grown their audience via Substack or Patreon.
So what? There is no single end game for platforms like Substack, Patreon, and Medium. Creators use them in different ways and for different purposes. Tools like Substack and Patreon can help writers earn enough money from their work while they grow their audience on platforms like Medium. None of this stuff is mutually exclusive.
Also, the last time I checked, you could still forward a newsletter for free or post your content to Facebook or put it on your own blog. There are many ways to grow an audience.
If you’ve got nothing nice to say…
Pundits like Lefsetz can do real harm to emerging artists when they dispense advice that’s based on their own realities and gut feelings without taking the time to understand the nuance that comes with trying to make a living from your art.
Maybe he’s trying to rationalize his own decision to walk away from the earning potential of his newsletter. I can only speculate. I think it’s fine that he’s giving away his work for free. That’s his choice. But it’s not everyone’s choice. If it means less people will read our work, so be it. That’s the individual writer’s burden to bear, not a music industry pundit who continues to rail against “the man” without realizing that he’s actually become the man. He writes:
“In a world where your goal is to have impact and power, why would you put up a wall?”
Why put up a paywall? Because good writing is hard work. Because good writers should be paid for this work. Because you can’t have impact or power if you’re struggling to survive.
It doesn’t make us greedy or naive or arrogant to want to earn a living doing what we’re good at and what we love. Yet people keep telling us that we’re not real writers because we want to charge money for our work.
I write because I want to make money. But I also write because I love to write. I write because I want to reach people. I write because I love to read. I write because when my daughter died and grief swallowed me whole, reading other people’s stories kept me from giving in to despair. I write to elevate other writers whenever I can, which isn’t as often as I’d like it to be.
I have a request for Lefsetz. Don’t tell writers how we should or shouldn’t make a living and we won’t weigh in on music industry monetization issues (unless we understand the music industry). Also — some writing advice.
Short sentences are your friend.
Limit the word “and” from your writing. It’s a crutch.
Be nicer. It’s not that difficult.
Charge for your newsletter if you want to. I won’t hold it against you.
Don’t tell writers they shouldn’t want or expect to earn money from their work just because that’s the path you decided to take.
Be nicer to Taylor Swift.