Interview: Steve Knopper Of Rolling Stone And Appetite for Self-Destruction (Pt. 3)

Read Part 1, Read Part 2, Read Part 4

image from www.softskull.com Recently, I spoke with Steve Knopper, who is a Rolling Stone contributing editor and author of last year's book Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age. His great tome is now available in paperback. This interview is first in a series that I conducted for an essay of mine titled "Chaos We Can Stand" and Knopper was kind enough to share his perspectives on some of the things I've been thinking about.

Kyle Bylin: "When a new technology arrives, it has to get integrated into society somehow," Clay Shirky writes in Cognitive Surplus. Between the traditional record industry and the next music business there is a bit of dichotomy in their attitudes toward technology and their willingness to integrate it in their industries.

The traditional record industry, to say the least, does not take kindly to would-be radicals trying to revolutionize any aspect of the business model that they have spent decades perfecting, improving upon, and protecting. On the other hand, in the next music business, they are urging companies and consumers to stop clinging to old models and embrace what Shirky calls "as much chaos as [they] can stand" in adopting new technologies.

How would you characterize this dichotomy between the traditional record industry and that of the next music business and their perspectives on embracing new technology?

Steve Knopper: I guess I'd need you to define "the next music business" — is it what Radiohead did, what Topspin is doing, what Amanda Palmer is doing, what the Warner Music Group is doing, online retail sites like iTunes and Amazon, the loose coalition of free music available on MySpace, Google, Spotify, etc., or even file-sharing? The traditional record business is embracing some of this stuff, with a few decent moneymaking ideas like  Vevo and playing Amazon and iTunes off each other leading to cheaper online music for consumers.

"But overall, I'd say the record business could really use a high-tech visionary, somebody who understands that the old model is over, and breaking hits Jimmy Iovine-style isn't going to float the business for the next 30 years."

KB: The great paradox, as Shirky views it, is that, "people committed to solving a particular problem also commit themselves to maintaining that problem in order to keep their solution viable." Thus, he argues that we "can't ask people running traditional systems to evaluate a new technology for its radical benefits; people committed to keeping the current system will tend, as a group, to have trouble seeing any value in anything disruptive."

What ways does this paradox factor into the traditional record industry's attitude toward new technology and have they had trouble seeing value in anything that potentially disrupts their core-business model?

SK: Since Napster, record executives, and particularly Doug Morris at Universal, have basically said, "We couldn't see these problems coming; we're not technologists." But in my book I argue that many people at those very companies — the Robin Bechtels and Erin Yasgars of the world — saw the opportunities for working with Napster and marketing music online and were shouting to people like Doug Morris that they should pay attention.

"So, like, listen to your own employees, you know?"

More generally, I guess I'd defer the answer to this question to Andrew S. Grove's book Only the Paranoid Survive. In it he defines strategic inflection points (when an old industry reaches a new technological fork in the road and has to adapt or die) and gives revealing case studies for those who've botched them (i.e., Apple in the '90s, before Steve Jobs returned to the company to develop the iPod and iPhone) and those who've used them to reach even greater heights (i.e., his own company, Intel, and I'd also argue the movie business with VHS).

I think it's a cop-out for record executives to say, "We just didn't see it coming." And that's ultimately why the current leadership at labels — the same people who botched the strategic inflection point during the Napster era — are unlikely to reinvent themselves as technologists or even visionary leaders who discover the new business model.

Kyle Bylin: There is a new, more chaotic brand of digital ecology is emerging, fueled primarily by the audience that scattered throughout the web and gained a deep enthusiasm for music that they didn’t know existed.

How will the record industry's attitude toward technology impact the new digital ecology? Are they hindering the development of the culture that at this point, may be their only savior?

SK: I'd say the record industry isn't hindering new technology as aggressively as it was 10 or even 5 years ago, when its Internet strategy was basically to sue everybody and stamp DRM on all the CDs and digital tracks.

"The problem now is more a lack of
innovation or forward thinking."

Labels are willing to license their catalogs to interesting services like Spotify and MOG but only for a sizable fee (which they don't share with artists), but they're not willing to be proactive and experiment with new ways of doing things (unless you count signing artists to 360-degree deals). EMI tried it for a while when it hired Corey Andrejka and Douglas Merrell but that pooped out when the company ran out of cash. I'd like to see other labels do this — hire visionaries and give them enough rope to try new ideas and even fail with new ideas. The majors are still run for the most part by old-school record guys who were in charge during the mistakes of the Napster era, from Doug Morris to Edgar Bronfman Jr. to Howard Stringer and Rolf Schmidt-Holtz.

Read Part 1, Read Part 2Read Part 4

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1 Comment

  1. Great interview! There are so many valid points about the music industry in this that it is kind of frightening. He raises a good point in the end when he says the part about how the Napster-era executives, the ones who cut off a chance to work with an emerging technology, are at the realms of these companies. A point also raised in Greg Kot’s book, Ripped. If the new era of the music business is supposed to find this model how can people who do not embrace change change these behemoths. The logical answer is surround themselves with digitally aware employees which I think some of them have done.

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