When Labels Fought the Digital, and the Digital Won


via NY Times

“You can’t roll a joint on an iPod,” the singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne told The New York Times Magazine early last year. And, O.K., I suppose that’s among the iPod’s drawbacks. But it’s hard to think of an electronic device released in recent decades that’s brought more pleasure to more people.

Should anyone care that in the process, the iPod has all but killed the music industry as we’ve known it? Maybe not, Steve Knopper writes in “Appetite for Self-Destruction,” his stark accounting of the mistakes major record labels have made since the end of the LP era and the arrival of digital music. These dinosaurs, he suggests, are largely responsible for their own demise.

Mr. Knopper, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, provides a wide-angled, morally complicated view of the current state of the music business. He doesn’t let those rippers and burners among us — that is, those who download digital songs without paying for them, and you know who you are — entirely off the hook. But he suggests that with even a little foresight, record companies could have adapted to the Internet’s brutish and quizzical new realities and thrived.

This is a story that begins in earnest in the early 1980s, when digital music first arrived in the form of the compact disc. At first, Mr. Knopper suggests, almost everyone was frightened of these small, shiny new toys.

The labels worried about digital piracy and about refitting the factories that made vinyl LPs. Record stores didn’t want to buy new sales racks. Producers worried about the effects on recording sessions, now that every footstep and door click would be audible. A group called MAD (Musicians Against Digital) quickly formed, and artists like Neil Young declared that CDs were soulless.

“The mind has been tricked,” Mr. Young said at the time, sounding a bit like Yoda, “but the heart is sad.”

The labels came around because they could jack up prices. (LPs at the time sold for about $9; most CDs went for almost twice that. ) Labels could also renegotiate contracts with artists and force customers to buy entire new album collections. According to Mr. Knopper, executives also thought it was cool watching “that little drawer open and close” on CD players.

Producers and artists came around, Mr. Knopper says, because the CD “just sounded better than the LP, no matter how much its detractors complain to this day about losing the rich, warm analog sound.” But record stores remained resistant, and thus the existence of the much loathed cardboard or plastic “longboxes” — remember those? — until the early 1990s. (The author reminds us that in the movie “Defending Your Life” Albert Brooks’s character dies as he tries to tear one open while driving.)

“The CD boom lasted from 1984 to 2000,” Mr. Knopper writes. Then the residue of old mistakes and a wave of new realities began hammering the music industry from all sides.

One of the first things the labels got wrong, Mr. Knopper says, was the elimination of the single. It got young people out of the habit of regularly visiting record stores and forced them to buy an entire CD to get the one song they craved. In the short term this was good business practice. In the long term it built up animosity. It was suicidal.

When Napster and other music-sharing Web sites showed up, the single came back with a vengeance. Before long MP3 — the commonly used term for digitally compressed and easily traded audio files — had replaced sex as the most searched-for term on sites like Yahoo! and AltaVista.

The record industry bungled the coming of Napster. Instead of striking a deal with a service that had more than 26 million users, labels sued, forcing it to close. A result, Mr. Knopper writes, was that users simply splintered, fleeing to many other file-sharing sites. “That was the last chance,” he declares, “for the record industry as we know it to stave off certain ruin.”

Some of the seeds for this debacle were planted much earlier, during an industry fight in the mid-1980s over Digital Audio Tape (DAT). The labels, once again worried about illegal copying, installed a widget on DATs that permitted songs to be copied only once. But they made a short-sighted allowance for CD-rewrite drives on computers. Users could copy music almost endlessly there. Oops. “They blew it,” a Sony marketer says. “Completely.”

The final sections of “Appetite for Self-Destruction” describe the arrival of Steve Jobs and Apple on the scene. The release of the iPod was a kind of coup de grâce for the struggling industry. Before long, Apple became America’s biggest music retailer. Music executives watched, apoplectic and helpless. “Apple had basically taken over the entire music business,” Mr. Knopper writes.

He paints a devastating picture of the industry’s fumbling, corruption, greed and bad faith over the decades. (“The business ain’t full of Martin Luther Kings,” one former music executive admits.)

It’s too bad his interesting arguments and observations are wedged into such an uningratiating book. The prose in “Appetite for Self-Destruction” is undercooked, packed with clichés (the stakes are always high, people constantly take the fall, one-two punches are thrown) and awkward descriptions. Michael Jackson “danced like a backwards angel, screeched and squealed”; the Sony executive Tommy Mottola “wore gold chains and purple leather jackets and looked cool.”

What’s more, Mr. Knopper apparently did not get access to many of the major players in this tale, including Mr. Jobs. His account rehashes material covered in earlier, better books, including “Hit Men” by Fredric Dannen and “The Perfect Thing” by Steven Levy.

The record labels have, in the last few years, found some new reasons to believe. Ring tones have become serious business. Computer games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band have taken off, and need to be fed with new songs. And there’s always the hope that Apple’s near monopoly on music sales will be broken by other devices and services, allowing the labels to bargain for a better cut on song sales.

That could be a long wait. Apple will always be hard to beat. Mr. Jobs is probably at work right now on an iPod that will roll Shelby Lynne’s joint for her.

Sound Off!!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s