How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music
By Greg Kot
(Scribner; 262 pages; $25)
"A technological freak-out" is how Pink Floyd's first manager, Peter Jenner, described the current state of the music business at the 2006 Future of Music Policy Summit, and this "freak-out" is the subject of "Ripped," the thought-provoking new book from esteemed Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot.
Kot starts by laying out the basics of how the industry's old guard (major labels, record store chains, radio station conglomerates and concert promoters) ineptly fought against the many changes that computer technology (from digital downloading to sampling) brought to music business economics.
He nicely provides an overview of the effects that Napster and iTunes have wrought, revealing various misguided industry tactics such as its self-sabotaging strategy of using independent promoters for getting songs played on the radio to the Recording Industry Association of America's lawsuit against a 12-year-old girl for illegal downloading.
Instead of relying solely on the opinions of music industry insiders, Kot makes liberal use of quotes from consumers to show what the music-buying (or perhaps more precisely "music-downloading") public thinks. It's particularly enlightening to read the "Wired Generation's" attitude about owning music.
One 21-year-old college student asserts that "getting MP3 files over instant messenger is no different than me going to somebody's house and letting them listen to a CD," while a mid-20s zine editor proclaims that "it's to the band's benefit for people to hear their music because we're in a day when nobody buys music unless they hear it first. Because we don't trust anyone, really."
Kot is a music writer, not a business writer or sociologist, so it's not surprising that he's more interested in the musicmakers than the dealmakers. His book's strengths are in his profiles of the likes of Prince and Radiohead and such lesser-known artists as "future shock" composers Gregg "Girl Talk" Gillis and Dan Deacon - all of whom are finding inventive ways to make a mark in today's tumultuous marketplace.
His examination of Montreal's Arcade Fire delineates how the group's DIY rise from obscurity was greatly boosted by coverage from Internet music tastemakers Pitchfork Media.
While the relationship proved mutually beneficial, Kot reveals that the band didn't remain blindly loyal to its early, and powerful, supporter. During the Arcade Fire's breakout year of 2005, the group chose to perform in the larger, more prestigious Lollapalooza over a Pitchfork-sponsored concert for its Chicago-area summer festival date.
Kot also illustrates how the influential band Radiohead masterfully used the Internet to "leak" music and create buzz for its albums long before its landmark "pay what you like" online release of "In Rainbows" in 2007.
Besides admiring the band's innovative strategy (the publicity, for example, also helped concert ticket sales) and the music, Kot points out several shortcomings to the band's online offer (the digital release had a low bit rate, and the name-your-price deal was short lived).
These case studies are all short and succinct, with the book's 250 pages divvied up into 20 chapters. As a result, "Ripped" plays a bit like a collection of singles rather than a full-length concept album. However, Kot seems wise to avoid making grand pronouncements about the music industry's future during these unsettled economic times.
His discussion of Live Nation and Ticketmaster already needs to be updated with their controversial merger plans, and nearly every week there's a story about another performer coming up with a new creative way to launch an album that could serve as chapters in this book's sequel.
However, Kot's years of chronicling the rock world have given him a well-tuned eye for its machinations, which inform this substantive examination of the chaotic music world. By spotlighting a set of entrepreneurial artists who have successfully found ways to connect with their wired audience, Kot offers rays of hope amid the general doomsaying that typically predominates discussions of today's music business.
Michael Berick is a Los Angeles music writer who has written for the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly and LA Weekly. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared on page E - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle