Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age by Steve Knopper
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Year: 2009
Pages: 320

Unless you’ve been in a cave, on Mars, with your eyes closed and your hands over your years, you’ve heard of the spate of recent lawsuits brought against alleged copyright infringers, who use peer-to-peer software like (then) Kazaa and (now) Bittorrent to share digital copies of music and movies, and who have aroused the ire of the RIAA and MPAA, respectively.

There’s really no getting around the fact that this amounts to theft (the term “piracy”, actually, gives it a gloss of sex appeal); you can say what you’d like about the near-zero marginal cost of digital goods, the criminal practices of the publishing industry, the economics of an information age, and success of Trent Reznor and Radiohead, etc. At its core, the issue is still one of users acquiring copyrighted goods to which they have no legal right; make no mistake: artists and actors and the technical workers who support them should be receive compensation for the work the produce, and that consumers who refuse to pay for these goods are ultimately hurting themselves, because they will staunch the flow of the media they consume.

Now that the ethical boilerplate is out of the way, I should point out that when it comes to depriving artists of their earnings and screwing the consumer, there is nobody who does it better than the record industry (the film industry has made many blunders, but are outside the scope of this book); and, as Steve Knopper, an editor at Rolling Stone, shows in Appetite for Self-Destruction, the RIAA and the recording industry it represents are just as skilled at poking themselves in the eye. In fact, it’s a surprise that there’s still a recording industry at all, a testament only to the enormous funds which underlie it.

Much of the issue has to do with the recording industry being a typically top-heavy business model: corporate executives in charge of large media conglomerates are ultimately who make the big decisions about direction, and there appear to be no corporate executives in that industry who seek to disabuse us of our commonly-held notion that suit-wearing muckity-mucks are money-grubbing oilspots who don’t understand or care about their constituents. Knopper is a little more sympathetic than I; he does, after all, work for a magazine which, despite it counter-cultural bona fides, makes its living as Big Music’s organ grinder.

If I could sum up Appetite for Self-Destruction in a sentence, it would come out something like “For the last 40 years, the record industry has consistently made the wrong decision with regard to new technology, always acquiescing too late, if at all, to changes in trends.” Yes, the music industry is filled with self-important blowhards who churn out terrible schlock at high prices; that’s very easy for me to say as a lover of marginal and independent music, but we must also remember that the music industry always manages to find best-selling and money-making acts, even as excrescent as we might think them1. This formula, which has not substantially changed since the era of the LP, does not work nearly as well anymore, and Knopper’s point is that the music industry is chronically behind the curve, digging in its heels and insisting that its model works fine except for those damn kids and their piracy!

The problem for the modern recording industry began in late 1970s, when the rather precipitous death of disco left many studios holding an armful of expensive investment in the genre. In an industry of hit-and-miss, this was a big miss, and so the chastened label executives withdrew into their shells, at least until Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982) single-handedly saved the biz. But just when all appeared to be well again, the Compact Disc rode into town.

From plastic disc… to plastic disc

Vinyl records are making a comeback among hipsters who either (a) appreciate their “warm” sound or (b) think it makes them cool because it’s counter-cultural and much harder to acquire. I sympathize with the vinyl movement on philosophical grounds2, though in fact its mission statement hasn’t changed since the earliest days of compact disc, when artists like Neil Young joined a coalition of musical heavyweights opposed to the popularity of the compact disc. The relative merits of records as opposed to the compact disc are merely tangential to the topic, but it should be noted that compact discs were the first technology that had clear advantages over the LP… namely, its sound reproduction was crisp and excellent, and was more resistant to wear and tear. However, it also meant that albums could be reproduced in perfect 1:1 copies; this was possible via a cassette tape, of course, but the quality was generally so bad that the recording industry didn’t care. They did care when Digital Audio Tape (DATs) became available, and their opposition is probably the reason the technology never reached general acceptance.

For reasons which, to both me and Knopper, are still mysterious, studio heads hated the idea of the Compact Disc. Like a sniveling child turning up its nose at a new dish, labels threw giant, bawling tantrums about the new technology until they noticed that they sold like hotcakes, and that the opportunity to resell consumers their entire vinyl catalog on a new medium meant ungodly sums of money came rolling into record industry coffers.

From plastic disc to digital bits

The story of the MP3 (or MPEG Layer 3) audio file is long—too much so to reproduce here, though Knopper does a decent enough job of it for technology laymen. Though the technology behind it is quite old indeed, it didn’t reach critical mass until the last years of the 1990s, when Napster exploded onto the scene. Napster was the first file-sharing service (this one catering only to music) enter the cultural zeitgeist, even though newsgroups had been trafficking in such material for several years; it was also the first service to genuinely arouse the ire of the record industry as a collective whole, and give it the opportunity to both (a) realize the threat that the internet and new technology posed to their business model and (b) entirely miss, on purpose, the opportunity to capitalize on the popularity of file-sharing services garner consumer interest. Knopper tells of marketing divisions explicitly forbidden to include MP3s in their marketing plans at all—even just releasing, e.g., a b-side MP3 to spark interest in an upcoming album.

The intransigence on the part of the record industry to adapt to the technology of the internet—both the legal and illegal parts of it—stems from the same germ as its inability to recognize the importance (and lucrative nature) of the digital compact disc; the difference is the stakes are so much higher now, because the reach of the internet is so much greater than anything that came before it. It is, to borrow a phrase from Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, a “paradigm shifting without a clutch”, and the results are disastrous.

The more you know…

Like a stern parent scolding a child, the RIAA and its constituent labels went into a legal tizzy with Napster, ultimately killing the service and continuing its litigious activities in every peer-to-peer service that followed, instigating perhaps a convenient cash flow from frightened teenagers settling for $3,000 to 5,000, but also garnering the enmity of just about the entire under-30 generation. It was this mindset—”technology is bad, and undercuts our revenue”—that Steve Jobs sought to remedy when he started his iTunes music store, hot on the heels of the iPod portable music player, in the early years of last decade. My own dislike of Steve Jobs and Apple aside, one cannot deny the breadth of his vision or the size of his testicles3, and in fact he was the first person to offer a digital music store of any size or import, albeit one encumbered by DRM.

The initial reaction to Jobs’ proposal to the music industry was mixed; there were, admittedly, a few wizened CEOs who came aboard, but mostly it was more fist-pounding and heel-digging as they realized that this “solution” to piracy wouldn’t let them return to the salad days of obscene profits and top-down control. iTunes (and its competitors) have changed a lot, even since the publication of the book. What hasn’t changed is the RIAA’s endless quest to sue file-sharers and poke itself repeatedly in the eye.

Knopper’s point in these chapters seems to be that the music industry’s very legitimate complaint was handled, once again, by all the wrong, heavy-handed, ass-backward decisions that have plagued it since its slow decline began one page one with the death of disco. And, though he doesn’t come out and say it, one gets the distinct impression that these same problems will haunt the industry as we know it until the day it finally withers away to nothing.

And good riddance.

  1. To name just a contemporaneous few: Justin Beiber, Lady Gaga, Black-Eyed Peas, all of which are the musical equivalent of intestinal distress, having nonetheless made both record executives and themselves millions of dollars.[]
  2. There may be sound—no pun intended—mechanical reasons why a vinyl record will produce sound more faithful than a digitization.[]
  3. Knopper dedicates no small space to telling the background of Apple computer, so as to give ample context to Jobs’ pitch to the music industry.[]
§6930 · February 25, 2011 · Tags: , , , ·

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