The Music Biz: Murder or Suicide?

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Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash
of the Record Industry in the Digital Age
Steve Knopper
Free Pressr; 301 pages

The Gist:

Music isn't the only formerly flush — now flagging — industry out there (hello automobiles, journalism, finance, retail, publishing, etc.), but it might be the most stubbornly responsible for its own demise. As Steve Knopper writes in Appetite for Self-Destruction, his chronicle of the music business' downfall, it's not as if record labels hadn't seen this sort of thing before. In the early 80's, the industry. hurting from the collapse of disco, was saved by the advent of compact discs, which prompted fans everywhere to repurchase crisp, digital copies of albums they already owned on tape or vinyl. Record labels notched record profits and everyone went money mad. Then came the Internet, and instead of responding creatively and inclusively to this new threat, the industry decided to go to war. And it lost. (See photos from two decades of Guns n' Roses — from Appetite for Destruction to Chinese Democracy.)

Highlight Reel:

1. On the turn-of-the-century teen pop craze: "The moment Erik Bradley knew boy bands were taking over the world came on June 28, 1998 at the New World Music Theater near Chicago. 'NSync, the hunky young pop stars who'd just had a radio hit with 'I Want You Back' were opening the outdoor show. Bradley was backstage. The band was hanging out in its trailer before its brief set. Bradley smelled something odd. It seemed to be coming from a large metal fence, covered with a blue plastic tarp, which separated the bands from the performers. Then he realized desperate fans were using lighters to burn holes in the tarp so they could get a better look at Justin Timberlake, Lance Bass, and the rest."

2. On Apple's Steve Jobs: "At one point, [EMI's top new-media exec Ted] Cohen remembers John Rose, then an EMI vice president, writing demographic sales statistics on a thirty-foot-long whiteboard in an Apple conference room. Afterward, Jobs stood up, walked to the whiteboard, which was entirely empty save for the one square foot where Rose had scribbled, and erased it completely. Rose was undeterred by this blatant power maneuver. 'John, God bless him, erased what Steve Jobs wrote and wrote something else over that,' Cohen recalls. 'They were erasing each other's words for about ten minutes. It was funny to watch, but it was very telling — Steve wants to do it his way and that's it.'"

3. On how record labels screwed themselves: "After almost eight years of stonewalling MP3s and Napster, major label employees gradually accepted the fact that freely selling digital music was the blueprint for survival. EMI's decision to sell MP3s was a step in this direction — as would be Amazon's MP3 store, MySpace Music, and the Radiohead model of giving away music online. But labels were still a long way from overcoming their outdated ideas. They clung stubbornly to long held beliefs that selling millions of pieces of plastic would return them to massive profits."

The Lowdown:

Technology saved the music industry in the '80s. Technology also destroyed it less than 20 years later. The advent of file sharing programs like Napster, the industy's refusal to adopt new distribution methods, free-spending executives, the shrinking of radio and the increasing power of big-box retailers over devoted record stores — all have led to the present situation, where many consumers would rather steal music than pay for it. Knopper's analysis of the situation is pretty insular, however. Rather than attempting to draw parallels between music and other entertainment industries that have been rocked by the Internet — and explain how that has changed our relationship to art — he keeps his focus narrow.

The book ping-pongs between a series of miniature, magazine-like profiles and intricate accounts of lawsuits and record company financial transactions. That's fine if you're dying to get the nitty-gritty on the rise and fall of Napster, or the way that Apple grew to dominate the music industry (both well-trod stories at any rate). but if you're looking for some novel conclusions or recommendations as to how the music industry can save itself, you might need to wait for Knopper's next book.

The Verdict: Toss

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