Review: Appetite for Self-Destruction

How the record industry killed itself
By JEFF TAMARKIN  |  January 13, 2009

HIGH TIDE: Michael Jackson’s Thriller saved the music industry — temporarily.

Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age | By Steve Knopper | Free Press | 320 pages | $26
Like any good murder mystery, Steve Knopper's Appetite for Self-Destruction keeps the tension high and the action swift as the search for a culprit drags on. Suspects are numerous, motives are often veiled and incomprehensible, the twists are unexpected, and the landscape is bloody.

In this case, however, the victim is the music industry, and the perp, it transpires, is also the music industry. Turns out it wasn't murder at all, but suicide. It's a harrowing story but — as anyone who's ever paid $17.98 for a CD that contained just one good song would have to agree — after tracking the major labels' death throes over the course of 300-plus pages, you probably won't be shedding any tears over the corpse.

Knopper, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, tells the sordid saga of an industry that had everything going for it except foresight and common sense. Mired in an old-school business model that had worked for decades — the suits had always piled up outrageous profits at the expense of their own artists and customers — the gluttonous power brokers running the majors finally had the tables turned on them come the 1980s and '90s. Experiencing a post-disco slump at the dawn of the '80s, the high-rollers were temporarily bailed out by the promotional boon of MTV and then one solitary record, Michael Jackson's Thriller, a high tide that lifted all ships.

But that rush was short-lived. The arrival of the compact disc, at first a stopgap, was ultimately a harbinger of the digital revolution that brought an end to the labels' hegemony. Knopper deftly navigates the circuitous trail that took the industry from monolith to shell. As he tells it, the labels at first vehemently opposed the CD, but they reluctantly gave in once the execs realized that the new format would provide an excuse to "rejigger artists' contracts." Reduced artist royalties coupled with a per-unit price double that of the vinyl LP equaled massive profits. The labels, writes Knopper, also saw the CD as "an opportunity to change consumers' expectations about what music should cost." The onset of the boy bands — 'N Sync and especially the Backstreet Boys in the '90s — was another shot in the arm.

But then, in rapid succession, came the Internet, MP3s, and, in 1999, Napster. Created by 19-year-old Northeastern student Shawn Fanning, Napster took advantage of the same digital technology that had spawned the CD by allowing fans to trade music quickly, easily, and for free. Napster's popularity boomed, Fanning became a cult hero, and the labels, their profit margins decimated, declared war.

Unfortunately, they declared war not only on Napster and other file-sharing services but on the consumers themselves, suing thousands for downloading music, a public-relations debacle that ultimately cost the industry more than it could hope to recoup. Not until Steve Jobs and Apple came along in 2001 with the iPod and iTunes did the old-liners agree to join with the digital world. But the business was quickly becoming a ghost of its former self. (In 2007 alone, Warner Bros. Records' stock crashed by more than 50 percent; more than 2700 music retailers have closed since 2003.) The labels are still trying to figure it out.

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