Bob Epstein: The Music Man

A music industry veteran describes how the business has changed over the years.

Bob Epstein: The Music Man

Jake Epstein , Entertainment Writer

Bob Epstein: The Music Man

by Jake Epstein (his son)

There have been a lot of changes in the music business in the last fifty years.  Both the medium on which recorded music is created has changed and the way it is consumed has shifted.  Bob Epstein, an entertainment attorney specializing in the music business,  has seen it all.  He has worked with clients from Joe Jackson to Michael Bolton and Eric Clapton.  He has represented all sides of the industry — labels and record companies, artists, songwriters, and publishers.

In the early 1970s when Epstein first got started, the industry was based on vinyl records.  Labels were strong, and some of them were shady.  Epstein remembers, “In those days, you’d make more money selling records than you did on touring, but the converse is true now.”

When MTV launched in 1981, its format was album-oriented, and “They pretty much played rock music,” Epstein recalls.  “Part of that changed when a manager of Michael Jackson pushed them into playing the videos from Thriller which helped break Michael Jackson bigger than he was and paved the way for more African American artists on MTV.” It also helped shift the station’s focus from rock to top-40 pop.  

Almost simultaneously labels started trying a new digital technology.  The first CDs were released in 1982.  “The CD was the first digital type of music,” says Epstein.  “I think when it became digital, it allowed people to steal.  You had all the Napsters back when Napster was still legal and when you could file share and send your music all over the world.  For a while that really hurt the business.

“Initially, digital music resulted in a lot of theft of music.”  But, before the theft became a pervasive problem, Epstein reflects, “One of the good things that happened when CDs came out was that people who had CDs would buy the same CD as the record they already had because it was a new technology and easier to transport music.  There was a huge boom when CDs first became popular.  People bought things over again.  

“Then, people started sending the music around the world free.”  Many file-sharing systems developed through the years, but it was the meteoric rise and fall of Napster that really changed the music business.  Napster lasted only a few years right around the turn of the millennium.

Hot on its heels came Steve Jobs’ brainchild.  Epstein remembers, “It was huge.  Downloading via iTunes at one point was the biggest way of selling music. “When Steve Jobs first approached the labels and asked them to partner with him, they laughed at him. ‘No, we’re just going to keep selling CDs.’  iTunes was like a 99-cent singles market, but ‘We’re selling LPs for $15 for the whole thing.’  And, Jobs said, ‘But sometimes when you sell LPs for $15, they only have one or two songs that anybody really wants, and the rest of it is filler; so, people are paying money for things they don’t really want.  They want to hear the 1 or 2 hits.  So, what I’m doing is they could just buy a hit for 99 cents.’

“The labels thought it was ridiculous and rejected him.  Then, ultimately at one point, iTunes became the predominant way that music was sold.  Now it’s become streaming.”

Epstein continues, “Right now, in terms of where artists make money on their recordings, streaming is the number one thing, and then the use of recorded music in films and TV, and the third would be CDs.”

When asked to predict where the music industry is headed, Epstein reflects for a moment and replies, “Back when I started, streaming did not exist.  There was a needle that was put on a disc.  Then cassettes.  Then CDs.  That was all physical.  Now it is all ephemeral through streaming.  I can’t predict what the next configuration would be.”

Music has always been a pastime for people; during uncertain times, music has been a constant companion for so many millions around the world. Epstein’s reflections illustrate how much has changed, and inevitably, there will be technologies we haven’t even dreamt of that will bring music to us like never before.