The Day the Music Died


Many of us carry around tiny, flat devices that hold hundreds or thousands of songs—the equivalent of hauling around crates upon crates of albums or CDs. How did we get here? Who took my Walkman, and why can't I find any Memorex tapes lying around the house anymore? Steve Knopper, Rolling Stone contributing editor, seeks to hold our collective hands and guide us through this rapidly changing music process, which began more than 40 years ago.

With a cast of characters as varied and twisted as a Guy Ritchie film, "Appetite for Self-Destruction" (Free Press, 2009, $26) provides a timeline of events that ultimately led to the downfall of the recording industry as it was known for 80 years. Disco drives up album sales, then dies a fantastic death and leaves behind tons of unsold records. MTV rises from the ashes and, along with Michael Jackson, drives album sales back through the roof. Then comes the compact disc, which many major labels scoffed at, then warmly embraced. Boy bands and Britney Spears give a final grand push toward the end of the 20th century to drive up CD sales for the last time.

Knopper's work is eye-opening, even for people like me who claim to know how the music industry works. If you take one jewel of wisdom away from this book, it is this: The reason many crappy musicians have gotten the limelight, the reason most people turned off their radios and stopped watching the Grammys and instead started downloading music from the Internet, is money.

I had heard of the "payola" schemes of the 1980s, but had no idea of the sheer volume of money that changed hands to get certain music played on the radio, and certain groups out front. Knopper calculates that industry executives spent $5.5 million grooming and promoting Wilson Phillips in the early '90s. Wilson Phillips! So it makes sense that it shelled out even more money for the bigger, long-lasting names in pop music, no matter if the music was any good.

Eventually, the bigger problem came in the form of a CD-R drive and a little program called Napster. Once consumers realized that they could easily download songs and burn them to CD, they stopped buying music in record stores. Knopper examines the fact that, despite the Recording Industry Association of America's lawsuits and Napster's demise, digital downloads prevailed as the most popular way for people to obtain music. There was no turning back.

Knopper reminds us that things might have been different if Napster could have been made into a legal service: "In hindsight, after years of plummeting CD sales and industry-wide layoffs and artist-roster cuts, it's clear that making Napster official circa 2001 would have been a huge positive for the record business," he writes. Instead, in just a couple of years, Steve Jobs and Apple single-handedly took over the music industry.

Many attempted a legal music-download service, but Knopper explains that Jobs' charisma and Apple's design savvy were what ultimately won over the record execs. iTunes, the iTunes Music Store and of course, that cute little iPod were just too much to resist.

In the book, Knopper includes several "mini-chapters" entitled "Big Music's Big Mistakes," which are prime examples of where things went wrong. Mistake Part Four, for example, is "Killing the Single," which explains why digital downloads became so popular. "By the late 1990s, the record business had boiled down much of the business to a simple formula: 2 good songs + 10 or 12 mediocre songs = 1 $15 CD, meaning billions of dollars in overall sales," Knopper explains.

Napster, Kazaa and then iTunes brought the single back, but the author points out that Apple is now enjoying the profits that once belonged to the record industry. Combined with the decline of radio as the point of first introduction for new music—plus the Internet's myriad avenues of discovery—the music industry as a whole has been watered down to the point that artists now make more money from touring and performing live than selling albums.

What does the future hold for the music industry? In a nutshell, record companies have to stop being Luddites and embrace new technology. Knopper suggests ringtones and subscription download services as ways that the industry can stay afloat. But if the record execs are hoping to go back to the way things were 20 years ago, there isn't much hope. Time marches on, and with it, so does technology and progress.


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