On the Record

5 Jan

In his new book, Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, writer Steve Knopper explores the history of the record companies, from the 1960s and the creation of the CD to the present day, trying to explain why the industry enjoyed such boom times in the 1980s and late 1990s, and why it’s in the crapper today. I suppose it wouldn’t take much thought for any casual music fan and amateur industry analyst to provide a guess as to where the business went wrong, but chances are it would not be as thorough or enjoyably presented as Appetite is.

Knopper knows his stuff — he’s been a regular contributor to Wired and Rolling Stone for years — but rather than rehash his old articles and tell the same old stories (like Jeff Gordinier did in his X Saves the World), he’s gone back to the well, conducting more than 200 brand new interviews with executives and others who’ve had a hand in creating or distributing music over the past 40 years. Much of Appetite is anecdotal and episodic, with Knopper zeroing in on one or two characters for pages at a time and telling their stories. There’s a chunk about Steve Jobs and his early struggles with getting the record companies to buy into the iTunes Music Store, of course, and there are sections about Shawn Fanning, Lou Pearlman, and Walter Yetnikoff, among others. Yes, you’ve probably heard some of this before, and Knopper seems to know that, but the way he tells the stories, it’s still entertaining. The Napster chapter is one example where I basically knew the story arc, but I still loved reading about it and learning some new facts about the players involved. It brought me right back to those heady days when I was enjoying the software, before it was taken offline.

It doesn’t really ruin anything to say that Knopper’s message is essentially that the record companies screwed themselves and have only themselves to blame for their current financial woes. They tried to duplicate the success of Thriller too many times, they took advantage of music buyers by raising prices of CDs too high, they sued their own customers at the dawn of the digital age, and they still haven’t adequately capitalized on the potential of the Internet. As charismatic as some of them are, the executives often are presented as slow-to-react traditionalists who resist new technologies, not even realizing the potential of CDs at first, and who stick to the “tried and true” and other old fashioned methods rather than embracing new ways of reaching customers. Everything is included — everything. For example, Knopper includes a history of the longbox and gives appropriate grief to SONY BMG’s rootkit, the software included on some CDs (including one by Neil Diamond) that installed viruses and worms on users’ computers without their knowing. Suffice it to say, music fans won’t find many heroes in this book; instead, they’ll be saying “I told you so” over and over.

Full disclosure: I know Steve Knopper, and have worked with him multiple times on articles for Continental magazine. One of my favorite Knopper articles in Continental was about the Chicago blues scene. Point is, I am not entirely unbiased about this book. But that said, if you’re a music fan, like I am, I hope you’ll give this one a try. It’s a quick but comprehensive read, and it’s full of really interesting information. If Appetite is correct, and the record industry will soon be dead, then Knopper’s book will serve as one hell of an obituary.

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