In 2002, Warner Music Group’s Atlantic Records gave frustrated-musician -turned-marketing
guy (and childhood Led Zep fanatic) Dan Kennedy his first full-time job. Initially, Kennedy envisioned himself on the “front lines of rock ‘n’ roll,” raging against the Man like it’s 1968. Unfortunately, he arrived at Led Zeppelin’s record label just in time to observe what the end of an era looks like. No all-day coke parties; Jimmy Page and Robert Plant never drop by the office. Kennedy’s stuck producing Fat Joe promo videos and masterminding Jewel commercials.
Noting the author’s McSweeney’s pedigree, one would expect his music-biz memoir Rock On to read like 200 pages worth of Pavement lyrics. Plenty of stylistic bells and whistles do crop up: loose-cannon narrative voice, runaway similes, direct-address chumminess with the reader that’s as charming as it is annoying. Between-chapter digressions are a favorite gimmick: At one point, he explains how the music industry works—by telling a two-page lightbulb joke.
But Rock On is much more effective as a playfully sarcastic coroner’s report on the music business. Kennedy manically dissects his dying company’s rotting innards and exposes the remains of a once-great institution felled by a past it can’t live up to and a future it’s unwilling to embrace. Just as Kennedy gets used to buying $675 Windbreakers, the Hammer of the Gods falls: The heir to a booze fortune buys Warner Music for a cool couple billion. Not surprisingly, it’s soon raining pink slips in Atlantic’s hallowed halls.
The bleaker his situation gets, the more Kennedy’s Starbucks-fueled observational hysterics begin settling into a cool, clear-eyed sobriety. From his boardroom-level view, it becomes clear that upper management, while perfectly capable of adapting to mp3 culture, is just stubbornly resistant to it. After all, selling off the company’s stock to Wall Street is simpler than selling music to iPod Nation’s CD-averse whippersnappers. After Warner has its $750 million IPO yard sale ($50 million of it earmarked for the new CEO), Kennedy submits a long-overdue question to the general public: “Have the executives become the rock stars?”