Greg Kot: How the Internet Changed Music

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In 1998, Death Cab for Cutie was just another tenderhearted indie-rock band signed to a minor record label, playing empty clubs for $50 a night. But after two years of soul-crushing obscurity, something strange happened: people started going to the band's shows. The crowds were small but enthusiastic, and concertgoers told the same story: they'd found the group's songs on the Internet. Then in 2003 the producers of The O.C. called — the band didn't even have a website, and a major television show had heard them online. Two years, one record-label switch and thousands of illegally downloaded songs later, Death Cab for Cutie had a gold album and was regularly name-checked on a prime-time teen drama. Death Cab is just one of the Internet-and-music stories chronicled in Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot's book Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. Kot talks to TIME about the demise of the music industry, whether illegal file-sharing is really that bad and why there may never be another band as big as the Beatles. (Read about Death Cab for Cutie.)

You mention in the book that a long time ago, live music felt threatened by records. And then later, recorded music felt threatened by recordable cassette tapes. Now it's MP3s and illegally downloaded music. Is this a real threat, or are people just worried about nothing?
Every time these technological advances came along, the people invested in the music business at the time took it as a threat to their livelihoods. If you had a phonograph player in your house, why would you ever go outside of your house to listen to live music again? In the 1980s the music industry took out full-page ads in Billboard and other magazines saying, "Home taping is killing music." They thought that because people had cassette tapes, they would just tape their friends' music and never buy albums again.

These advances did not decrease the desire for music, but rather exponentially increased it. I think the same is true now. More people are listening to more music than in any other time in history. Why is that a bad thing?

You mention a guy who says he's bought only four albums since 1998. But then you have stories about bands like Bright Eyes and Death Cab who make it big because of the Internet. This seems contradictory to me.
I intentionally included that guy in my book to indicate that for some people, [stealing music] is really out of hand. This guy has clearly exploited the system. The flip side of the model is you have people who listen to a sample, like it and buy it. Just because a listener downloads a piece of music doesn't mean the industry has a lost sale.

Right, cause without downloading it the person may have never heard it.
The biggest problem a band has is getting its music heard. For years, the music industry was confined to four multinational corporations that dominated the revenue stream of 70% of the music coming in, and four or five radio conglomerates that controlled what music was going out. Now all that has been broken up into millions and millions of little pieces and subcultures and niches that are serving small, really dedicated communities of music lovers. Listeners may not necessarily pay for that one song or the one album, but if they're intrigued enough, they're going to start following an artist or band. They show up at the gig or buy the merchandise or buy the next CD or the vinyl version of the MP3 they just downloaded. If you're a good band and making quality music, your fans are going to want every piece of what you put out. Once an audience is there, there are all sort of moneymaking opportunities.

You talked a bit about [music website] Pitchfork and how its reviews can make or break bands, like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or the Black Kids. You argue that Pitchfork's influence pushed them into the limelight before they were ready and then they sort of fell apart. But aren't they just modern-day one-hit wonders? (Read about The Pitchfork 500.)
Absolutely. There have always been these bands with one or two good songs, but at least they had a chance to get their record out and tour behind it. A lot of these bands are being elevated to star status and then torn down before their record has even come out. The Black Kids were touted as the next big thing before they even had an album. The cycle has just become so much faster.

I feel like music has turned into a lot of very small niche groups.
I agree. I think it's healthy, actually. I think the most interesting art is inevitably created on the fringes — on an underground level. I don't say that to be snobbish. I just think art thrives best when it's created without regard to making any kind of compromise to get in front of a bigger audience. When a band gets to a certain level, they've made some compromises in order to make their music more mainstream, more palatable to a broader audience. But now, if you've got a taste for Polish jazz or Estonian hip-hop, you can find something on the Web. Imagine how difficult it would be to find those communities 10 years ago.

What about the really big acts, like the Beatles or Elvis? Do you think another major act like that will ever happen, or are people's music tastes too fractured?
My initial inclination is that we're not going to see that level of success anytime soon. From that standpoint, U2 might be the last of the breed.

Where does American Idol fit into all this?
I think American Idol is as big as it gets when it comes to music. It's kind of like the last vestige of the old music industry. Clive Davis has a role in it — he puts out a lot of the records those artists make after their Idol experience. What you were talking about earlier regarding the next big mainstream phenomenon — right now, American Idol is the phenomenon. But it remains to be seen whether any of these artists will truly have a 10-year career.

Read "Judging American Idol: The Final 2."

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