An interview with author Steve Knopper
The poor treatment and commodification of recording artists and creators by the mainstream record industry is well known. “The record industry went through an era of just hand over fist cash. But they made a few mistakes along the way,” says Steve Knopper, author of the book Appetite For Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, discussing the traditional system of an up-and-coming artist with no financial leverage basically having no choice but to sign a recording contract with terms heavily favoring the record companies.
Though as a writer who penned articles under a freelance basis before taking a more stable high profile job, and as a musician who has performed in bands for years, Knopper is able to perform an autopsy on the traditional record industry and speak about what the shift is listening habits means for the artists and creators who write and perform the music…
“I love writing about the record industry and the music industry in general because it’s just like any other business in a way, except that they’re selling records or concert tickets. But there tends to be two key differences; one that traditionally it tends to be a cash business. So an artist plays a show and at the end of the night all the bar money comes in and the artist is handed a wad of cash.”
Knopper, who himself got his start as an obituary writer for a newspaper before carving his niche as a music and technology writer, weaves through the story an a traditional record industry model based on those with the capital writing their own rules watches its pedestal crumble while inaction and other mistakes led to a period of it cannibalizing itself before being swept up in the stormwaters of change.
“The way that the music business traditionally operated was that if you were an artist and you wanted to get your music heard, you had to sign, you had no choice, because you couldn’t press all those records yourself, you couldn’t distribute all those records. You had to have stores, you had to have warehouses, you had to have trucks, you had to have radio promotion, and all those things were expensive. So you needed a label. And that had been how this industry worked for most of the 20th century. It was this whole system where these companies existed to give artists advances to make their records and then hopefully make some money off of that. and ultimately it evolved into this almost plantation system, where artists would give the rights away to all their music, and take these loans from these record labels and go into debt that they could never really pay off unless they became big stars, which was rare. And this is the way the industry worked.”
The late 1990’s brought the introduction of Naptster and file-sharing. And a record industry that had based its marketing and popularity and a younger-leaning audience and their disposable income found that this youth demographic ultimately was more adept at technology and changing trends.
“It is a very youth-focussed business. When Napster put up its flag and kind of declared war on the traditional record business. So suddenly, when mp3s and the internet popped up, starting around 1998, 99, Shawn Fanning created this interface, a piece of software that allowed people to trade files,” Knopper describes. “And the people who picked up on this were mostly young people, people living in college dorms who wanted to fill up their hard drives. Napster put up its flag and kind of declared war on the traditional music business. You know people in the business tended to just say, ‘holy crap, this is like people breaking all the locks on all the Tower Records and stealing all the CDs!’ They just thought, our model is under threat.”
Here is where a traditional business industry that trafficked in creating and selling youth culture became victim to their more conventional assumptions and understanding of how that culture operated. This, on one hand, created a bit of backlash against the industry, but on the other hand, and maybe more damaging, prevented the industry from effectively adapting to these shifting habits, and ultimately finding themselves falling behind.
Hilary Rosen was the head of the Recoding Industry Association of America [RIAA], a group which represented the interests. Her chosen method at the time to try to challenge the shift from buying CDs to file sharing was to sue and intimidate those using sites such as Napster and Limewire.
“The first thing that they did was try to shut this down, sue everybody, take everybody to court to protect their copyrights,” Knopper explains.
This escalated to developing digital security systems to try to prevent the sharing of files. One effort was major record labels encoding CDs with files that would crash any personal computer that the CD was inserted into, something called a Root Kit, in an effort to prevent CD buyers from uploading and sharing files. This would lead to music fans having their computers rendered unusable after trying to listen to a CD they had bought, angering music buyers and furthering the gap between the consumers and the traditional music industry.
Knopper, who had a large speaking part in All Things Must Pass: The Rise And Fall of Tower Records, a documentary on Tower’s monstrous presence in the record business to becoming victim to changing consumer trends and technology, describes the era of this change. “Record stores inherently had to go out of business, or had to shrink considerably, just because of the technology. We went through a transition during this time of people going to a record store and buying physical objects versus downloading music. That transformation was something that was obvious and was going to happen either way. And the question was who was going to make money off of this? Was it going to be the traditional record labels, was it going to be the artists? (He gives off a defeated chuckle here, saying, “It’s never the artists…”) Was it going to be the traditional record industry system, or was it going to be a new wave of tech companies that come in, and that was a big debate at the time.”
“At first the record companies did everything they could to protect their assets and protect the old way of doing things. I think they had to sue, but, and I mention this in the book, I think the record companies made a lot of mistakes on the road to this new world. They shouldn’t have taken this stonewalling approach about this new technology and these new companies, and instead they should have aggressively been trying to make deals with them. It took the industry five or six crucial years before they would even consider that. And when the iTunes store came around and Steve Jobs began making deals with the labels, Apple ended up having all the leverage because the labels were desperate to make deals with them. “
He is clear on the exploitive nature of these labels in balancing the relationship for their own financial benefit.
“Record companies made a lot of money during the 90’s. They could sell CDs for 19 or 20 dollars in some cases and not pay the artists super huge royalties. They could make money hand over fist. It was that kinda era for many many years. And then came Napster and then came the streaming era and you went from selling 19 dollar CDs to 99 cent downloads per song. That was a real problem for the industry.”
Today, both the super passionate music fans as well as the casual listener will listen to a large percentage of their music online. As the industry shifts from devices such as iPods and Zunes and data drives that contain purchased tracks, and instead head in the way of subscription models, it is apparent to say that digital is the new standard of music.
“Streaming has kicked in so thoroughly that everything in the record business is geared toward streaming. Things such as them thinking, ‘You know, how can we game the playlist on Spotify or Apple Music? How can we do promotions on YouTube? How can we encourage our artists to release more songs more frequently and just keep the content going?’
“In the late 90s and early 2000’s they just refused to consider streaming. There’s an example of a Super Bowl halftime show that had Britney Spears and Aerosmith and different people performing, and one digital guy at Sony said, ‘Hey we should try to put out a single with new music from these artists and try to take advantage of all this publicity from the Super Bowl, and we should try to do it in the next day or so.’ And he was basically laughed out of the room and told, ‘We can’t possibly do that. We’d have to crank up our distribution systems, and our warehouses and trucks and pressing plants.’
“That’s such a bizarre thing to think about when today, the feeling is, ‘Of course we’re gong to do that!’. You’re going to have the artists release six different versions of that single within minutes of the performance. So all that stuff has evolved.”
While it took time for the record industry to catch up, and there are still stumbles along the way as they attempt to find a medium and market that will bring them close to the monopoly they had over mainstream music just a couple decades ago, Steve Knopper, himself a musician who has played in bands, describes how this new territory looks from the artist side of the equation.
“I think overall the industry is better than it was back then with the new technology because it’s so flexible and so interesting. There’s so much more you can do with the technology. Records don’t have to come out rigidly on a Tuesday anymore. You can release an album that has 2 songs or an album that has 70 songs. Every artist can tailor their release schedule and their business to who they are.”
Although he does have his reservations, “But there are still problems. Artists are still getting screwed.”
Knopper, these days an Editor At Large for Billboard who spends his days writing on all aspects of the modern music industry, outlines the evolution of the business side of mainstream music, and describes where he feels artists are at now.
“In the early days of the music industry it was very rigid. If you were a new artist, if you were young and new and had no leverage at all, you could only do it one way. You had to make a deal with a record label; you had to give up all your rights to the music. You had to put out your music through this process that could potentially send you into debt. And some artists thrived on that. There were stars that popped up who became super super rich, who were able to renegotiate their contracts with the leverage they had. Artists like Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Nicks were not oppressed by those days in the industry.”
However Knopper describes a newer model, which is artists releasing their music themselves. (He mentions independent record labels like Alternative Tentacles and Sub Pop having been a smaller more DIY model that artists had in the past, but acknowledges that the internet has created an outlet for anyone to release music on.)
“Over the last 15 or 20 years, artists have had much more power and much more leverage. If I’m Chance The Rapper and I start putting my music out on one of many many avenues that are available to artists for free, like Soundcloud or YouTube and then I start to generate some buzz and maybe even make money that way, I may not even need a record label. And then if i’m approached by the record labels and they’re like, ‘Hey, we’d really like to sign you,’ I could say no. That’s when you have some leverage. And when you have leverage you can potentially make a bigger deal.”
Steve Knopper sizes up the current atmosphere for artists and creators. While mentioning a new challenge in the age of freer access to audiences is that artists must compete with the the din of many more other creators also releasing their music onto these platforms and trying to create their own level of buzz, he does express some excitement that artists and performers have access to many more possibilities of essentially being their own record label and potentially reaching large audiences without the traditional record industry existing inside the equation at all.
“It’s not one size fits all anymore. It’s a matter of picking whatever system you want to use and seeing if it works. and that might be a traditional system or it might be something brand new.”
You can buy a copy of Appetite for Self-Destruction here…
or visit Steve Knopper’s website – http://www.knopps.com/
or head to KWNKradio.org to listen to Nocturnal Transmissions and other freeform programming for the Reno area.
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