Interview: Greg Kot of Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music (Part 3)
Recently, I spoke with Greg Kot (again), who is the author of Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music (now in paperback and still amazing!), a rock critic at The Chicago Tribune and co-host of the popular radio show Sound Opinions. In this interview, Greg talks about escapism and popular music, the anti-capitalism argument, and the role of creative professionals in society.
It seems like, that when people talk about the architecture of the record industry, they do so in a manner that alludes to this idea that it’s a natural system.
When, in fact, this system is not; it developed over the course of a century and was designed by certain people at a certain moment in history. It was built from the ground up—at the expense of other social mechanisms and ecologies—and then, in the wake of the digital revolution, the record industry used its existence as evidence that this is the way things have always been.
Has this kind of thinking prevented us, mostly the record industry, from recognizing the true potential of music culture online, and caused them to think of music as something that overlays on top of the web, rather than as something that’s vital to the social fabric of it?
Greg Kot: The hubris of the 20th Century music industry never ceases to amaze me. It’s just a grain of sand when set against the vast history of music.
I mean, music played a vital social, cultural and political role long before recorded music was possible, and it continues to play a vital role now that the business model that developed around recorded music has started to crumble. More people are listening to more music than at any time in history, which as a premise for a business can’t be bad. But it demands a different business model than the one that dominated as recently as a decade ago, which was essentially a very narrow pipeline that filtered a select group of music from a select group of anointed artists to the vast majority of consumers.
The music industry was used to being a monopoly, the primary arbiter and distributor of recorded music, and now it’s competing with millions of arbiters and distributors — listeners with cell phones and laptops. That strikes me as a far more natural and organic system than the corporate model that emerged in the last half of the 20th Century. The shelf life of that model was destined to be a short one, since it was so restrictive.
Something that’s always interested me about the file-sharing debates is what I call the anti-corporate argument. As Nate Harden said a few months back, “My generation's attitude toward piracy is not likely to change. After all, anti-corporate rebellion is a time-honored Rock 'n' Roll tradition. It's relatively easy to steal music if you imagine that you are merely stealing from 'The Man'—some limo-riding fat cat, snorting coke off his Rolex, sipping Dom Pérignon.”
I’ve never really thought of file-sharing as anti-corporate rebellion, but as the pure embodiment of consumerism and our credit culture. In that, much like a credit card, file-sharing encourages fans to consume more music than they could ever afford, without ever challenging them to think twice about whether or not they will ever be able to pay artists back for the songs that are now in their possession.
Do you think this idea of “anti-corporate rebellion” is over-exaggerated, and that file-sharing, as a social behavior, is far more complex than that? So to, do you think that it’s more consumerist than anti-corporate?
Greg Kot: There’s an element of the file-sharing community that’s in stick-it-to-the-man outlaw mode, but I’m convinced the majority just get off on the convenience, the instant access. One quote from a file-sharer I interviewed sums it up: “It doesn’t feel wrong.” You’re talking about a non-violent activity largely in the privacy of your own home, or bedroom or dorm room, in search of great music that turns you on – that is inherently a joyful, if potentially addictive, activity. It’s also completely organic: The Internet, above all, is a tool for sending and receiving files. That music files would be part of that culture is only natural.
In Ripped, you wrote, “For decades, popular music has been the art form most attuned and best equipped to offer instant feedback on the world outside the concert hall and the recording studio. In any given year, music offered more than an escapist release. It presented a running commentary on who we are and where we are as a society.”
During last few years, we have arguably encountered some of the most multifaceted and complex problems we’ve ever faced. Do you think music served as an instrument to interpret these times to audiences, or has it served more as an escapist release?
Greg Kot: Both. There’s plenty of escapism out there, but there’s also commentary and substance. I’m thinking of recent albums by Gorillaz, Ted Leo, Shearwater, the Fall and Dessa, that try to make sense of the world around us. It’s an anxious, uncertain time, and this music reflects it. And then there’s the Black Eyed Peas and American Idol for those who just want to switch off their brains and roll with it.
In Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges argues that, “The worse reality becomes, the less a beleaguered population wants to hear about it, and the more it distracts itself with the squalid pseudo-events of celebrity breakdowns, gossip, and trivia.”
Has our popular music culture, due in part to the evolution of commercial radio and the economic woes of the record industry, become pressured, in a sense, to where there is less incentive for artists to raise important questions and interpret this complexity? Or is it also that the audience, judging by the charts, doesn’t want to hear about it anymore?
Greg Kot: It has always been so. I don’t think this time is any more or less vacuous than any other in terms of the kind of art being created. Commercial radio plays a very narrow sliver of music and it presents a very distorted picture of the creativity that actually exists. I mean, more than 115,000 albums/CDs/pieces of recorded music were released last year – that’s a lot of art/creativity that the world isn’t hearing through mass media.
The Internet revealed the lie that commercial radio has become. The charts are less representative of what most people are actually listening to than ever before. There is music that is raising questions and engaging with the culture on a more complex level, it’s just not fodder for corporate radio stations interested in selling advertising to their listeners.