Interview: Steve Knopper of Rolling Stone and Appetite for Self-Destruction (Part 2)
Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor — (Read Part 1)
In Chapter Two: How Big Spenders Got Rich in the Post-CD Boom, you commented, “The business was evolving from small-time guys who packed their products into crates themselves to an international network of distribution executives with MBAs.”
Followed later by, “Pressured by debt, he and other corporate types started to demand that the music unit function like every other unit.”
What’s the danger in trying to treat music like other products, where if “advertised” enough via MTV and Radio, sales can be hammered out in an attempt to exceed quarterly projections?
Steve Knopper: Well, selling music isn't the same as selling soap. You can't just roll out a product when the timing suits you and you need a hit. We've seen that over the last couple years, as labels have waited desperately for hit artists like Eminem, Guns N' Roses, Green Day and Dr. Dre to finish their albums during the past few crucial fourth-quarter holiday shopping seasons. As I report in the book, it was in the '90s that labels realized they couldn't just sign talent and wait for years and years for it to develop the way they could in the early days of Springsteen and U2, for example. By the '90s they were owned by massive public companies like Sony and Vivendi, and those corporate overseers demanded quarterly results. I believe there is a direct cause-and-effect between that mentality and the one-hit wonders that popped up around that time, from Third Eye Blind to Chumbawamba to the Spice Girls to Hanson to the entirety of teen pop.
“It was no coincidence, then,” you speculated further, “that Napster, the free file-sharing service, popped up on the Internet at precisely this time.”
Why is it, as you wrote, “almost no coincidence,” that file-sharing arose during these times?
Steve Knopper: I guess I meant that consumers were fed up by the late '90s. They had to schlep to record stores to buy $18 CDs when all they wanted was the one good song. For an interminable period, there, I heard frustration from many, many consumers who wondered why they couldn't just buy a cheap single containing that song they liked from the radio. But as I report in the book, the single was gone by then. So given the empowering nature of the Internet, I believe it was no coincidence that some Shawn Fanning or other popped up to give consumers a way of doing this. The demand was obviously there, and it was only a matter of time before technology caught up with it. We've seen this technology-meeting-demand phenomenon more recently in the ticket-scalping market, given the rise of websites like StubHub and RazorGator.
My thesis is pretty simple. “The CD-Release Complex,” as I like to call it, is dead. This abstract system was the backbone of the modern Recording Industry, one built around the idea that music fans discover music through the same mediums that records labels use to promote new music.
And, while this commercialization of culture may have brought music to the masses, it does not seem to coincide with the participatory nature of the Internet.
Instead of just considering file-sharing alone, why might looking at the fall of old-school marketing, the fracturing of the media landscape and the rise of the networked audience provide deeper insights into this “sociocultural evolution” we’re experiencing?
Steve Knopper: That's a very complex question! I'll just keep it simple and say the Internet, then social networking, brought a lot of people together and made worldwide communication easier than ever, of course. And this has led to massive opportunity for entertainment companies. You can reach a fan of, say, Green Day much easier if you can check out the fan's Facebook page and see "I love Green Day" banners all over it. In 1991 such a thing wasn't possible. You had to guess.
On a related note, Bob Garfield of Advertising Age recently commented, “The future is bright. But the present is apocalyptic. Any hope for a seamless transition — or any transition at all — from mass media and marketing to micro media and marketing are absurd.”
Over the last decade, how have these multifaceted problems grown to form a perfect storm, wherein the climate change is far more subtle and sophisticated than anything we could’ve ever imagined?
Steve Knopper: I agree with that quote. Edgar Bronfman in my book has a quote where he says between now and 10 years from now it's gonna be hard, but after that comes a lot more business. I imagine it was the same when the horse-and-buggy industry gave way to cars and railroads. For a long time the coach drivers were probably pissed off and resistant to driving cars. But eventually they overcame their resistance and plunged in and made tons more money. Or they didn't and went broke. It's more complex, now, obviously. Warner tried to adapt by investing $33 million in LaLa and iMeem. As recent news reports have shown, those investments turned out to be a bust. There are still a lot of mistakes to go in that realm. But there are promising trends, like Spotify and Google China and other free-music services designed to make consumers pay for more expensive products like T-shirts and concert tickets down the road. I wouldn't be surprised if in 5-10 years there was a good solid service, as easy to use as iTunes that bundled all this stuff together and made it easy for fans to buy and experience their favorite bands and songs on one comprehensive webpage. But there are still a lot of negotiations and legal stuff to hash through before then.