Music in Transition

  Zafris lecturer Richard Blackstone
  Phil Farnsworth

If there's anyone you'd expect to uphold the status quo, it's a top music business executive. But Richard Blackstone embraces change. That's evident from the title of his February 22 lecture at Berklee: "The Music Business in Transition: Disruption with Optimism."

Blackstone, the senior adviser to the chair and CEO of Warner Music Group, was invited to Berklee as this year's guest for the James G. Zafris, Jr. Distinguished Lecture for Music Business/Management series. Throughout his open conversation with Music Business/Management Department Interim Chair John Kellogg, it was apparent that despite the years he's logged at major labels, Blackstone has kept the spirit of his roots. Previously, Blackstone worked at Zomba Label Group during its transition from a startup to the world's largest independent record label.

The discussion began with Blackstone's background playing the violin, viola, and trumpet to his first serious look at the music business working as a roadie for Squeeze. "I was part of an industry that was really exciting," he said. "I learned to stay up for days!"

He later pursued his artistic interests scoring films with his sister. But when a Hollywood scoring job went sour, he enrolled in law school. "We flipped a coin, and I lost," he joked. Getting serious, he said he never could have achieved what he has without going to law school.

After a few jobs, Blackstone accepted a position at Zomba as the director of business affairs, which he said involved "identifying opportunities and seizing them." He started out working with rap artists, and later Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, and Britney Spears. Blackstone eventually became the president of Zomba Music Publishing and helped nurture such acts as Linkin Park and Macy Gray. In 2005, he moved to Warner/Chappell Music.

Blackstone fielded questions from the audience on a range of topics. When asked what the major labels have to offer artists these days, he replied, "The fact that that question exists speaks volumes." He stated that the majors still have good CD distribution channels and can give artists some financial support. But with the relevance of the big labels in doubt, Blackstone advised, "Try to do a short-term deal." Another member of the audience asked whether entering a publishing deal was still a good idea. He responded that publishing industry executives know everyone and can make introductions. "A huge part of this whole thing is relationships," he noted.

One audience member wondered whether download cards indicate that labels still cling to the old tangible world, with which Blackstone agreed. "To do away with physical, tangible stuff is just not in the near-term planning for any company, because they make stuff."

Despite the music industry's struggles, Blackstone believes that music as an art form is thriving. "The enjoyment of music now is greater than ever," he said. Throughout his career, Blackstone's goal has been to help musicians thrive. "I want as many people as possible writing and creating," he said. In a new music business era, "we have white canvases here," he said. "I can't think about this without getting excited."