Can Rubin deliver us from iTunes?

Can one man revive a dying music industry? The New York Times certainly seems to think so. The Sept. 2 issue of the Times’ Sunday magazine featured a lengthy article about Rick Rubin, the potential saving grace of both Sony-owned Columbia Records and the failing record industry as a whole.

Rubin’s name certainly carries a lot of weight in the industry. The man has honed and polished a broad spectrum of bands and musicians, including Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, LL Cool J, The Dixie Chicks, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica and Slayer, according to the Times. He’s revitalized careers and exposed new talent with a Zen-like, spiritual approach to musical production and constantly defied both standards of the industry and of genre.

It also doesn’t hurt that Rubin is shrewd, innovative and business savvy – think Buddha meets Bill Gates. This is most likely why Columbia Records brought Rubin in as the co-head of the label. Surely Columbia must think that Rubin, ever the innovator, can breathe life into the fading record industry by producing truly inspired music.

Though Rubin has accomplished a great deal, it is difficult to say whether or not this is possible. He faces two distinct challenges. The first is the multi-million-dollar juggernaut that is iTunes. The second is the ever-increasing trend of music piracy. Both have prompted the rapid deflation of record sales and the closing of numerous independently-owned record stores nationwide. For the most part, anyone who still wishes to buy their music does so a track at a time from iTunes. The rest simply steal or share it, depending on whom you ask.

Rubin’s master plan to counteract these trends is an ingenious one. He suggests an all-encompassing, subscription-based music service. Much like a cable TV service, listeners would have a seemingly limitless supply of music to peruse right at their fingertips. Vast digital libraries of music would come with payment of a monthly fee.

Here is where Rubin’s plan collides head-on with stinging reality: people don’t like parting with their money. The prospect of a limitless, digital-music library certainly is tempting, but as any somewhat Web-savvy college student knows, free music of all kinds can be found on the vast, untamed and lawless frontier of the Internet.

Rubin’s results as a producer certainly cannot be disputed. Musicians produced by Rubin have experienced both commercial success and refinement of their music. He reminded us all how cool the Man in Black was, discovered the Beastie Boys and brought the Chili Peppers into the lime light with “Under the Bridge.” It is the hope of Sony and Columbia Records that Rubin can increase the quality of music and give people a product worth buying.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the Internet has already enhanced the quality of music. Aspiring musicians no longer compete against similar bands in their immediate area, but similar bands world-wide. This new form of competition has forced bands to think of innovative ways of marketing themselves and their music. This has made for mixed results.

Recently, I interviewed the front man of a talented, up-and-coming local rock band. He lamented that the Internet has produced a great deal of generic sounding bands that join a radio-friendly pop sound with girl pants and youth medium sized t-shirts. The end result is a million bands that look and sound like Fall Out Boy.

Then again, the Internet and file sharing have spawned successful careers for inspired acts like the Arctic Monkeys, We Are Scientists and The Guggenheim Grotto, which – by word of mouth and Internet buzz alone – were propelled to star-status seemingly overnight. The Internet and file sharing have proven that the best musicians and bands still rise to the top.

Since there is no shortage of good music today, and most of it can be obtained at no cost, I find it difficult to believe that one man can revitalize the fading record industry. The trends of file sharing and piracy are so engrained in popular culture that it is unrealistic to think that they can be reversed. Regardless of the record industry’s future and the methods by which we obtain our music, more music – both tired and inspired – is sure to come.