Richard Blackstone: True Believer

Danielle Dreilinger
March 11, 2008
2008 Zafris lecturer Richard Blackstone
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

If there's anyone you might expect to uphold the status quo, it's a veteran music business executive. But Richard Blackstone embraces change. Just look at the title of his February 22 lecture—The Music Business in Transition: Disruption with Optimism.

The Music Business/Management Department's annual Zafris Distinguished Lecture gives students the chance to learn from industry luminaries. Blackstone's experience and proclivities meant that his message mixed ideas from the old days and the new. While Blackstone is senior advisor to the chair and CEO of Warner Music Group, he continues to hold onto the maverick spirit of a company he worked with at the beginning of his career.

Though the days of lush budgets, intensive artist development, and expense accounts have disappeared as labels struggle in the fragmented internet era, Blackstone compared the present to a landscape after a forest fire has ripped through. With the big old trees gone, "the independent cultures are going to blossom, and that's incredibly exciting," he said

Throughout, his goal has remained the same: to help musicians thrive. "I want as many people as possible writing and creating."

A New York native, Blackstone played music in school, worked as a roadie for Squeeze, and scored films. He headed into entertainment law after a soured deal convinced him he needed business smarts.

A few jobs into his career—including a stint with Paul Marshall, who had represented Elvis and Michael Jackson—he joined Zomba, then the small U.S. branch of a British company, as director of business affairs. The title "sounded really cool to me at the time, even if it was for a company I'd never heard of," he said. "It was about identifying opportunities and seizing them."

Which he did for the next 20 years. "I fell in love with the company," he said. "We were raised together as a family." Zomba began by working with rap artists, then moved to the bubblegum pop of the Backstreet Boys, NSync, and Britney Spears.

Though he was a "suit," Blackstone put artists first. He helped a timid Macy Gray become a force to be reckoned with, even finding band members for her. He let his intern's band Linkin Park use the office to practice and mentored them for three years. But he sent them to Warner to release an album, thinking it would be a better home for the band.

For him, the transformation out of the old music era started in 2002 when his boss sold Zomba to BMG for $2.74 billion. Though Blackstone initially resented the change, he recognized that again he had "an opportunity to grow in a very meaningful way." He set out to impress his new employer and succeeded so well that BMG let his group continue to work independently.

In 2005, Blackstone took advantage of another opportunity and became chairman and CEO of Warner/Chappell Music Publishing, a position he left at the end of 2007.

Maybe it was the right time. An audience member asked what major labels had to offer artists now. "The fact that that question exists speaks volumes," Blackstone commented, citing talented staff, good CD distribution channels, and some financial support for artists. However, with the majors' relevance in doubt, he said, "try to do a short-term deal."

In that light, an audience member asked whether it was useful to register with BMI or ASCAP or get a publishing deal. Blackstone said that technically it wasn't, noting that most of the music publishing industry is comprised of "little old ladies who have one song." However, publishing executives can make introductions on your behalf. "That's a huge part of this whole thing—relationships."

One audience member wondered whether download cards showed that labels still cling to the old model of music sales. Blackstone thought yes. "To do away with physical, tangible stuff is just not in the near-term planning for any company because they make stuff," he said.

However, the majors' slow response to change has given "the Zombas of the future" a break, he said. And whereas the labels were fortresses, hard to breach, now people can break in through any number of channels. "Who would've ever thought that Starbucks would have a record label?" he asked.

Despite the industry's struggles, Blackstone thinks the art form is thriving. More music is being recorded than ever before, "because you don't need a thousand dollars a day now to record in a studio." In fact, he said, "the enjoyment of music now is greater than ever. So what we have to figure out now is, is there a way to monetize that?"

He sees not one way but many. In the new music business era, "we have white canvases here," he said. "I can't think about this without getting excited."