Interview: Steve Knopper Of Rolling Stone And Appetite for Self-Destruction (Pt. 4)
Kyle Bylin: In a desperate attempt to preserve existing cultural and social norms or potential damage to the current social institution, the traditional record industry has gone to war with everything from the phonograph to player pianos to home-taping, claiming that these new technologies would effectively kill of music.
All of these innovations, only re-engendered enthusiasm for music.
How might the record industry be better off if they had let any "would-be" revolutionary try anything they like with new technology, without regard for existing cultural or social norms or potential damage to their current social institution? How about the ways they might actually be worse off?
Steve Knopper: I sort of think that ship has sailed — the industry lost its opportunity to do this when it failed to make a deal with the original Napster in 1999-2000. I truly believe this would have captured the tens of millions of Napster loyalists, turned a significant percentage of them into paid customers and eliminated significant demand for post-Napster file-sharing services from Kazaa to BitTorrent to The Pirate Bay. Having said that, I do think major labels should be more willing to try new things. In Europe, yes, they licensed music to Spotify, but in the U.S., they concluded that Spotify can't possibly make any money so who knows when it will launch here. I submit that labels should…
"go full speed in the other direction — trying Spotify as well as a bunch of other things, signing artists such as Radiohead, NIN, Palmer, the Pixies, etc., and working with Topspin and other companies, giving artists liberal contracts and maybe even executive positions to shake things up and make money in a new way."
Warner Music has hinted at doing this — cf. Fred Goodman's "Fortune's Fool" — but if you really take apart their ideas, from 360 deals to ringtones, they're very traditional and stuck in the context of the old record business. The more likely scenario is the live business will continue to thrive (despite the problems of this summer) and the labels will in some way merge with merch/concert/management companies to create a more "360-degree-deal" model for the industry. And then, probably: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…
KB: The argument goes that these revolutionaries wouldn't be able to create more change than the record industry can imagine anyways. So too, they will be "unable to correctly predict the impact of the eventual ramifications because they have an incentive the overstate the new system's imaged value and because they will lack the capacity to imagine the other uses to which the tools will be put."
What new technologies on the horizon have the potential to induce more chaos the traditional record industry can withstand?
SK: I feel like those new technologies have already been introduced — MP3s, file-sharing, Napster, YouTube, etc. Everything else feels like an aftershock. But certainly social networking has potential to change the model, as well as Google's market dominance for media and the newly emerging ways to make money off online advertising, with video, etc. All of these things taken together seem ripe for experiments and taking chances.
KB: Artists too, those of the old and new digital sphere, share in this certain degree of dichotomy in their attitudes toward new technology and their willingness to integrate it into their careers.
Why must artists embrace as much chaos as they can stand with new technology and let it transform their role as cultural creators rather than clinging to out-dated notions of what it means to make art?
SK: I'm not sure that has to be the artist's role. An artist needs to make music. If he or she can create a new technology model for making money off music, so much the better. I admire Radiohead, Amanda Palmer, Josh Freese, Nine Inch Nails, etc., etc., but just because M.I.A. or Taylor Swift or Eminem prefer The Old Way, I don't think any less of their music. Despite all this Internet disruption of the last 10 years, the sad truth is that signing with a major label and using its connections to break hits on the radio is still the most efficient way to go from being a nobody to a superstar in the music business. That will eventually change, and artists will go along with it, but I don't necessarily think it's a job requirement for them to be on the forefront of that change.
"In the context of the record industry, an artist's job is to
make great music. It's a bonus if he or she is a visionary
technologist or online marketer, such as NIN or
Radiohead. But it's not a requirement."
If Eminem clings to his Universal contract and keeps making great radio singles until either he or the entire industry dies, I'm cool with that. "Love the Way You Lie" is a terrific song, and in its way, so is "California Gurls." Sure, the Beatles and others made self-contained albums in the '60s, which helped the business shift from selling singles to selling albums, a revolutionary and profitable change at the time. But plenty of artists back then kept making great singles — look at Motown and Stax and the rest — and I'm very pleased that they did so rather than transforming themselves into technologists or album artists. (Although hooray for Marvin Gaye and "What's Going On"!)
KB: "For every institution that failed, for every business model that outlived its usefulness, new and better ones rushed in the fill the void," Richard Florida writes in The Great Reset. "Past periods of crisis eventually gave rise to new epochs of great ingenuity and inventiveness." He argues that, that crises—perhaps much like the record industry's—"are the times when new technologies and new business models were forged, and they were also the eras that ushered in new economic and social models and new ways of living and working."
How will new ways of working and living, both in terms of artists and industry professionals, and new ways of organizing our industry, drive post-crash prosperity?
SK: I think the way the record industry starts to grow again is through old-fashioned means: touring. (This is what the most revolutionary new ideas in distributing music point to — by Radiohead, NIN, Amanda Palmer, etc. etc., sorry to use the same examples repeatedly but I’m tired!) Or at least figuring out a way to bundle revenues from touring, merchandise, etc., with recorded music and downloads. Eventually something might pop up like Spotify or Rhapsody or whatever cloud service Apple is allegedly working on to rescue the recorded-music model but that will be a bonus if and when it happens.
"For now, artists need to turn themselves
into really good live performers."
This summer's problems are a correction in the live industry, in my opinion, and there is no real technological disruption in that industry, unless you count StubHub and the resale market, which really speaks to an extra source of revenue rather than one that cuts into the primary source. So live music will remain a cash cow, at least for many artists, and they need to figure out a way to use that to their advantage economically.
KB: In the book, Florida argues that Great Resets are "broad and fundamental transformations of the economic and social order and involve much more than strictly economic and financial events. A true Reset transforms not simply the way we innovate and produce but also ushers in a whole new economic landscape." Also, he writes, another key feature is that "they bring about shifts in consumption that fuel rising industries."
Notably, the type of Great Reset that Richard Florida argues for, is within a different context than the record industry, but as an analytic lens, might our industry be going through a "Great Reset" of its own?
SK: Again, I'd pinpoint the Great Reset in the record industry at 1999 or 2000. Now it's just sort of picking up the pieces and figuring out how to salvage what's left. Same is true of the newspaper industry.
End note: His great tome on the record indusrty is now available in paperback.