Is the wage-earning career musician headed for extinction? Probably not. But with an estimated 95 percent of music downloads illegally pirated, it's getting scary out there. Computers, once thought to be nifty tools for calculating and storing information, have evolved, and they're changing the music profession at light-speed. Pandora's ibox is irreparably open, and the music industry is scrambling to get a grip on the new reality.
And just what is this new reality? P2P? Mash-ups? Pitchfork? IP rights? BitTorrent? Got all that? If not, music critic/journalist Greg Kot helps decipher the jargon and update us on the state of pop music in his insightful new book Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music.
To the casual observer, the debate surrounding downloaded music appears simple. Do we stand with the record industry's efforts to quash illegal downloading, or do we believe that our culture is better served by eliminating copyright restrictions on recorded music? With the recent conviction of the owners of Pirate Bay (the world's largest website for illegally downloading music, movies, and software) the debate has been re-energized, and the invective heating up. Some point to the conviction as evidence that the record companies are winning. Others argue that their "whack-a-mole" approach of shutting down illegal sites is futile, and that the industry's heavy hand is turning off consumers.
Yet amid all the hubbub, "Ripped" reveals a third stream may be emerging. Through illuminating interviews with music's movers and shakers, Kot details the way the entire pop milieu is evolving, with new ways of making, distributing, and profiting from music. The dust has far from settled, and recording artists are still smarting from the one-two punch of illegal downloads and a soft economy. But with "Ripped," Kot broadens the discussion and expands our grasp of the issue, providing hope that the future may yet benefit both listener and musician.
It didn't help that the record industry shot itself in the foot just as the computer revolution was under way. Kot sadly explains how industry consolidation led to an overemphasis of the bottom line, disturbing the delicate balance between art and commerce that a label has to maintain to be successful. Record companies abandoned their practice of patiently nurturing a musician's career, investing instead in pop acts with less talent and even less staying power. Success could be momentarily impressive. But the quick flame-out of artists such as Ricky Martin or the Backstreet Boys made for few lifelong fans and less profit in the long term.
It also had another effect. Fed up with superficial stars and excessive CD prices, young people began to look for music that they could connect with – and they found it on the Web. Case in point, Death Cab for Cutie. Kot's take on the band's fan-driven, Internet-up success is an inspired example of how an act can launch itself without the money and machinery of a big record label.
Led by Ben Gibbard, a genuinely talented singer-songwriter, Death Cab struck a chord. "Gibbard's modest songs didn't rock, either," writes Kot, "but they turned melancholy into a powerful muse. The first ones were preoccupied with what might've been, tucked inside a tangle of guitars and sometimes cloaked in reverb, like a fog rolling in from the Pacific on a drizzly afternoon. At their best, they honed in on emotional specifics...."
Young fans loved those "emotional specifics" and began sharing Death Cab's early indie recordings online, the band unaware at first of what was transpiring. "It seemed like magic," bassist Nick Harmer is quoted as saying. "This thing was happening around us that we couldn't really control ... but that's how people were finding out about the band...." In spite of their Internet-driven triumph, Death Cab for Cutie would eventually sign with Atlantic Records, confident that a large corporate label would bolster their success.
Rock star Trent Reznor might beg to differ. Fast becoming a poster child for the "music should be free" crowd, Reznor and his band, Nine Inch Nails, left their record label and now urge fans to download albums free of charge from their website. Kot's telling of Reznor's journey from record company minion to self-sufficient artist is thorough and thrilling. With a brilliant mix of online contests, cyber-clues, fan participation, and additional products for sale (a limited-edition box set alone grossed the band $750,000 in a day), Reznor has truly beaten the record labels at their own game.
Still, if this is to be the new model, many musicians might find it dispiriting to think that getting heard may now depend on playing hide and seek with sound files or deciphering secret clues à la Harry Potter. It doesn't hurt that Nine Inch Nails fans exhibit a tribal-like allegiance and delight in Trent Reznor's arcane promotions, but that's unlikely to be the case with every artist's fan base.
"Ripped" doesn't propose a grand solution to the problems brought on by illegal downloading, but it's the best kind of journalism, even-tempered and provocative, factual and soulful. And if you're on the mature side of 40, reading Kot's intriguing tales of newer bands such as Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade Fire, and Bright Eyes may even inspire you to download some new music. (Legally of course!)
Lorne Entress is a music producer and drummer living in Hartford, Conn..
Further Web viewing:
Greg Kot – www.gregkot.com <http://www.gregkot.com/>
Recording Industry Association of American – www.riaa.com <http://www.riaa.com/>
Death Cab for Cutie – www.deathcabforcutie.com <http://www.deathcabforcutie.com/>
Nine Inch Nails – www.nin.com <http://www.nin.com/>
Michael Masnick, The Trent Reznor Case Study – www.youtube.com/watch?v=Njuo1puB1lg <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Njuo1puB1lg>
How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music
By Greg Kot
272 pp., $25