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Interview: Greg Kot of Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music (Part 1)


 Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor (@kbylin)Part 2 & Part 3  & Part 4

(Part 1 of 2) Today, I spoke with Greg Kot, who is the author of Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, a rock critic at The Chicago Tribune, and co-host of the popular radio show Sound Opinions.  In this interview, Greg talks about the media landscape, the end of the mass-marketed mega artist, and adds his thoughts to ‘the file-sharing debate.’

Do you think we largely and often times do forget that for every action the Record Industry made in the media landscape there was an equal and opposite reaction from the general public, which only contributed to further evolving the complex system of relationships that had been created in the twentieth-century?

KOT JPegGreg Kot:  I think there is a central motif here: The 20th Century record industry has never been particularly eager to embrace new technology, basically anything that threatened the status quo. It wasn’t so much greed and arrogance that destroyed it as fear of change. They lost touch with consumers, and got comfortable riding a pricey cash cow – the compact disc.

But the system was inherently flawed; it worked for a long time because the industry basically seized monopoly control of manufacturing, distribution and marketing of music. Only the best-financed music stood a chance of getting heard, which usually meant bland releases by multimedia celebrities, whether Britney Spears or Creed. Consumers had no other choice put to play along, and pay what the industry demanded. When an alternative emerged, consumers naturally gravitated toward a market that allowed them greater access to more music at a better price.

In his seminal release Stumbling on Happiness Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert explains that, “When imagination paints a picture of the future, many of the details are necessarily missing, and imagination solves this problem by filling in the gaps with details that it borrows from the present.”

Throughout the vibrant history of the Record Industry how often have music executives tried to protect established cultural norms, position themselves financially and politically, and then failed, simply because they almost always err by predicting that the future would look too much like the present?

Greg Kot: I’m not sure if it’s a dearth of imagination so much as a reluctance to embrace change. When a business is successful and running relatively well, there is always a chance that any change in that system could result in a less successful financial result. As the stakes got higher, that mentality exerted a chokehold on the industry. The industry was reluctant to make the jump from CDs/physical retail/ terrestrial radio/MTV because it had built an extremely successful business on the back of those institutions.

By 1999 the music industry was the biggest revenue-earning entertainment industry in North America. So why change? Why embrace the Futureworld when the profits are rolling in, quarterly profit statements are fat, and stockholders are happy? The businessmen running these companies saw change as riskier than maintaining the status quo (and their jobs). They were wrong.

Within the Record Industry we’ve seen the continuous compression of the creativity timeline. First, due the abandonment of artist development once major labels became publically traded companies and focused on blockbuster albums.  Second, due to the instantaneous nature of the Internet and how it amplifies word of mouth, the growth curve for an artist has compressed from a few years to a few weeks.

Has the continuous compression of the creatively timeline established unrealistic expectations for artists to adhere to and, in turn, does it paradoxically reduce the opportunity for most artists to ever develop to their “true potential?” 

Greg Kot: The career curve has accelerated. It’s harder to keep a secret, to fly under the radar these days, and hence bands with potential and promise get elevated to next-big-thing status based on a YouTube video or a MySpace hit. It’s an unavoidable side effect of viral word of mouth. A lot of bands aren’t ready for that kind of attention so soon, but it’s not the worst problem to have.  The hard part is getting heard in the first place, and always will be. So patience is still key for any band, whether they get propped up too quickly by Internet buzz or not. Potential is only realized through perseverance, and that virtue will be tested in the instant-gratification culture we now live in.

Within the domain of music why is it so hard to tell whether it’s the culture of ‘abundance’ or ‘scarcity’ that’s robbing average music fans of satisfaction?

Greg Kot: Is there a satisfaction gap? Perhaps the consumer who depends on the big media companies to bring him music is dissatisfied by the dearth of choices. But the fan who is active in the niche music communities thriving on the Net is having a ball discovering, discussing and downloading new music. What’s interesting to me is that the curated experience is so readily available for fans who want to find new music on the Web. Yes, this has created myriad little niches without a whole lot of economic clout as measured by the standards of the music biz. But, really, was the success rate much better in the past, when more than 90 percent of new releases by the major labels were considered failures because they didn’t sell enough to recoup their budgets?

To my mind, the sale of recorded music is no longer the best way to measure an artist’s success. Look at Girl Talk and Dan Deacon, two artists I discuss in the book --- if you measured their cultural standing by record sales, they would be completely obscure. But that’s obviously not the case. The notion of building a community around an artist is more viable than ever, and it may have nothing to do with traditional economic measurements like Soundscan, chart position or radio airplay. 

Read Part 2