‘If they’re waiting for the next Thriller to come along and save everything, they’re really, really misguided. I hope they’ve figured it out by now.’
This week in the hopelessly antiquated print version of the Voice, I chat with veteran Rolling Stone editor/reporter Steve Knopper, whose new book Appetite for Self-Destruction details the spectacular flameout of the music industry and details what will hopefully replace it. I had to compress our chat pretty intensely to conform to the paper’s hopelessly antiquated space limits, though, so here’s more from Steve on Napster, Metallica, Radiohead, and whether we’ll ever get another Thriller. Guess I already spoiled the answer to that one.
Is it overstating to say that this book’s thesis is ‘the labels should’ve gotten into bed with Napster’? How different would the future be? Would we all still be addicted to Napster right now as opposed to iTunes? How much healthier would the industry be right now?
I’m not sure if that’s the whole thesis of the book, but I do think it’s one of the places–you know the book, it’s a reporting book, it’s a journalism book. But there is that point where I say, ‘This is what I think should’ve happened.’ And I do think so, I do think that, had they done it right–which, the odds were against that, not only because all the record-industry people in charge at the time did not really feel like doing it, they just felt like stonewalling or doing a little bit, but also because the Napster people were kind of assholes. Not Shawn Fanning, but John Fanning certainly, and some of the venture capitalists. The people in charge of Napster were not the easiest people to deal with. But in the unlikely event that all this came out perfectly, I do think that, yes, we’d all be really into Napster instead of iTunes. I love iTunes, but iTunes is frustrating in a lot of different ways.
You spend only a couple paragraphs really on Metallica’s war against Napster–is their involvement in that battle overstated? Does Lars get a bad rap?
I don’t think he gets a bad rap, but yes, I do think their involvement is overblown. At the time I think they were a figurehead. I don’t really think that they were the ones pushing this. We both lived through that time. I think that the record industry went to Metallica and said, ‘Look at this horrible thing, everybody’s stealing music.’ And Metallica reacted by saying, ‘Oh my God you’re right. Let’s go after it.’ But they didn’t see it. They didn’t see the broader view. My opinion is, they were swayed by whatever record-industry people were whispering in their ear. I don’t know if that’s true. And I think they just went too far with it, suddenly they got into a quagmire that they couldn’t get out of. If you noticed, they just sort of stopped at a certain point. They were very, very active, and Lars gave tons and tons of interviews over time, and all of a sudden, it just got cut off. If they really, really believed in that as a cause, they would’ve kept it up.
You talk a lot about subscription services like Rhapsody–write one check every month and listen to whatever and however much you want–and mention the guy who predicts one day we’ll just walk around with a tiny chip containing every song ever recorded. But for the moment at least we’re still into capitalism in America–will we ever give up our personal record collections?
I just think that’s a personal preference. I’m not going to. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I think CDs still have some value, and I’ve been a rock critic for a long time and I have a lot, and maybe I should take ’em all to the used-CD place, get rid of ’em all, put ’em on eBay, whatever, and then buy some supercomputers, or some iTunes credit, and then not have to worry for a long time. That’s tempting to me. But I just can’t get rid of ’em, you know? I’m 39. I went to high school and junior high flipping through the racks of cool record stores, and I can’t give that up.
The book starts by detailing how Michael Jackson’s Thriller saved the industry in the ’80s, and ends by insisting a huge hit like that wouldn’t even help now. Will we eventually lose our superstars, too?
I don’t think there’s gonna be ever again a Thriller-level album. I don’t think there’s gonna be someone who can sell 20 million copies or 10 million copies of a record the old-fashioned way. I do think there will still be stars. I just think stars will be marketed in different ways. Celebrity is more fascinating than ever, and who are the top celebrities? People who have music ties. Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Beyoncé, Jay-Z. Music still can create a great deal of celebrity. But as far as Saving the Major Labels, will a hit save the major labels themselves? I don’t think so. If they’re waiting for the next Thriller to come along and save everything, they’re really, really misguided. I hope they’ve figured it out by now.
The consensus is that Radiohead’s “pay whatever you want” model works great, but only if you’re as big as Radiohead–is there any future in direct, no-promo, honor-system Internet sales for anyone else?
Yes. The key to the Radiohead thing was that it really was a loss leader–well, not so much a loss leader, because they didn’t take a loss–but it could’ve been a loss leader for their tour. They came out with a very successful tour the next year, and that’s where the money is. I’ve been thinking a lot about Springsteen. He put out free MP3s recently. And your first thought is, ‘Wow, Springsteen has never really been that futuristic, that digital, and here he’s putting out free MP3s.’ And then you go, ‘Of course, he’s promoting his album,’ but then you think, ‘Well that’s not gonna sell very much,’ and then you go, ‘Wait a minute, he’s starting a tour at the Super Bowl.’ And that’s what’s really going on.
But I know that’s an example of a bigger artist–your question is more, can you be a small artist and bust into a big artist? As far as how you do it, there’s many different answers. When I was researching the earlier days of the record industry, the pre-Napster days, I was trying to think: What do record labels do? They sign talent. And then they bribe the radio stations, and they bribe the record stores, and they bribe the press with free CDs. And that’s pretty much it. That whole model is completely gone, and I think the new model is still developing. It’s gonna be some combination of what OK Go did, what Radiohead did, what these small novelty bands are doing on Youtube–it’s gonna all come together, but it’s gonna be much more of a complex animal.
The last chapter lists everything the music industry should do, needs to do, to survive. What percentage of that do you think will actually come to pass? How optimistic are you? What percentage of the people you interviewed will still hold the same job five years from now?
I see it shrinking and shrinking. There’s one last thing that the majors are clinging to, and I think it’s a pretty good idea, this idea that instead of just selling one piece of plastic and everything else is peripheral, we’re gonna sell everything. Our model is based on a quantity. When the Alicia Keys album came out, it wasn’t just a CD, it was also ringtones and MP3s and iTunes downloads and LPs and numerous different things. We’re gonna put it on cell phones, we’re gonna do all these different things. I think that’s a pretty good idea, it’s pretty progressive. It’s kind of just too little too late.
I just think that the smaller labels are going to continue to stumble, if they’re not bought outright. EMI seems to be reeling right now. Warner’s stock price is way down, although they’ve had some success. Probably, you’re going to wind up with a couple hit machines: Universal, maybe Sony-BMG. You still are going to need those kinds of companies, that expertise, to find the proverbial Toni Braxton singing in the gas station, discovered by some label talent scout. But those companies are going to make less and less money, and get smaller and smaller, and get less and less influential, and I think that maybe Live Nation or Ticketmaster or my mythical Apple-EMI is going to pop up and change the model and be more nimble.
Another point I want to make is that these labels will always own some really incredible assets. EMI owns the Beatles catalog, so they’re always going to be a player. You or I could own the Beatles catalog and make money. Just not make enough money to have hookers and blow.