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The Last Train for the Coast

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Appetite for Self Destruction

By Steve Knopper
Free Press, 2009

Once upon a time, the landscape was dotted with stores that sold nothing but objects that had music coded onto their surfaces. One could roam aisle after aisle of retail acreage containing materials for their favorite music-playing device, whether it was a vinyl LP (that stood for Long Playing), a cassette containing tape, or even, yes, a CD. For a brief, fertile time, all three of these objects existed together, and the aisles of these stores bulged with bounty. Music lovers’ choices were limited only by the shelf capacity of their residence and the operational condition of their music-playing equipment.

Money was less of a limiting factor in those days, for the music on in all three media was, shall we say, affordable? Why, there was a time when hackles were raised when LP list prices went from $3.98 to $4.98. This state of affairs could have continued for quite a spell, because the companies that merchandised these stores were stable and established, and the stores themselves had names that promised exciting visits: Tower Records, Strawberries, Sam Goody.

But such a landscape did not continue unchanged for long. The businesses that provided the musical products were faced with many choices, and in many, many cases, they made wrong ones – with the result that there are a lot fewer such businesses. What happened ? And why is it still happening? For that particular fairy tale Steve Knopper’s Appetite for Self Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age can’t provide a happy ending.

Why are there not more books on this topic? The travails of the music business have been an ongoing story for some time. There should be quite a literature generated by now; some tell-all books from both casualties and survivors; several narrative histories, and of course the large format picture/celebrity/scandal type volumes listing the “Top 10 Illegally Downloaded Bands.”

But the field is sparse. We have Exploding, the candid, witty memoir of WEA survivor Stan Cornyn, who was actually in the rooms where the deals were done and the chairs were thrown. Cornyn managed to navigate the slalom of corporate politics to contribute to Warner Brothers Music for a long time, and his sustained commitment keeps the narrative moving. Unfortunately, other major players have not contributed.

In 2005, David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard, connecting to and through the Berklee School of Music, co–authored The Future of Music. The shiny little 180 page volume managed to address all the online/cell phone/compensation issues facing the music performer without stomping too loudly on the soapbox. It was really a guidance system for aspiring self-marketers, as proclaimed by its subtitle: Manifesto For the Digital Music Revolution.

Into this not-quite void steps Steve Knopper, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. Among his previous books is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting a Band, a title that takes on a cautionary hue given the environment he paints for us in Appetite For Self-Destruction.

Unlike the books mentioned above, Appetite is actually a history of the digital music industry. We are given a prelude in the tale of how Michael Jackson’s Thriller album kept the retail music business from careening into a ditch while vinyl records were still king. Knopper gives Thriller credit for not only saving pop music from the ravages of disco, but for squeezing black artists (yes, Michael Jackson was still black in 1982) onto MTV, a venue previously uninterested in promoting black music.

Into this setting plopped James T. Russell, an engineer from Portland, Oregon, whose attempts to remove the pops and clicks from his favorite LPs resulted in the first digital music technology, which featured some unwieldy large glass plates and a “mechanical-optical structure” which would only set the consumer back some $20,000. Russell invited reps from Philips and Sony to his lab. Each company had been struggling to come up with a digital technology of their own. Norio Ohga, an engineer who had risen through the ranks to head Sony, saw the promise in Mr. Russell’s system, if not the price point. So did Philips, a huge European firm that had just tanked on Laservision, a videodisc system that failed to include an option to record TV shows.

Sony and Philips each worked on their own versions of a laser-scanned, binary coded audio product. Ohga insisted any new digital media had to hold enough music to contain a complete performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony- so seventy five minutes was adopted as the capacity.

Much more difficult was getting the record companies to come aboard. CBS and Warner were the first. Retailers were hit with the cost of replacing all their expensive LP bins with new storage units. To cover the time it took that turnaround to happen, CD makers created the Long Box: 6 inches wide, 12 inches long. It was impossible to recycle and could only be used to hold CDs. These Long Boxes served two functions: they fit in existing LP bins, and they made CDs (marginally) harder to steal, a huge concern for retailers used to large square LPs.

Knopper leads us through this period with aplomb, with access to just enough heavy hitters from the period to give the story some juice; though some fuzzy memories indicate that the substances imbibed by some of the participants are not conducive to accurate historical reconstruction.

The section dealing with Shawn Fanning and the creation of Napster is where the book really starts plowing some new furrows. The development of MP3 technology is woven from various strands of independent researchers, and Knopper leaps around the globe to assemble the tale so that even the most techno-phobic can get wrapped in the narrative.

The arrival of Steve Jobs takes the story on to the iPod. There are numerous biographies of Jobs available, but one can read about his behavior in a room full of record company executives and understand how he was able to tow the entire music industry into the age of iTunes with a speed and a certainty that is still rippling through the music industry.

This is a complex voyage to describe, and Knopper wisely invests much energy in a simple strategy that keeps the reader’s focus on the book’s title. In what he calls “Big Music’s Big Mistakes,” the author chronicles 8 decisions that led to the shrunken husk currently occupied by the retail music business:

1. The CD Longbox
2. Independent Radio Promotion
3. Digital Audio Tape
4. Killing the Single
5. Pumping Up the Big Boxes
6. The Secure Digital Music Initiative
7. The RIAA Lawsuits
8. Sony BMG’s Rootkit

Each item on this list could easily merit a book on its own. My experience working for both Tower Records and Sam Goody through the ‘90s gave me extensive exposure to Items#1, 3, 4, and 5.

I personally contributed to the death of hundreds of CD longboxes. These were otherwise useless folded pieces of cardboard that allowed merchandisers to display CDs in browsers originally built for the much larger, thinner vinyl LPs. From 1983, when CD sales were 17.2 million, until 1990, when sales hit 286.5 million, forest after forest died to create these 24 cent marvels of cardboard waste. The last longbox was carted to a landfill sometime in 1993, giving a clear early sign that the music industry was unwilling to respond to anything quickly.

Digital Audio Tape (or DAT) was another indication of the power of paranoia within the recording industry. Originally designed as a hiss-free alternative to regular cassettes, DAT tapes crept into the marketplace in 1987, with players selling in the $1,000 to $1,500 range, but fears of piracy caused industry leaders to force hardware makers to add a device called a Serial Copy Management System, that would allow only one copy of a recording to be made. And that copy could not be copied. Then Congress passed the Audio Home Recording Act in 1992. By that time the bloom was off the DAT rose, and the machines and their tiny libraries vanished from stores. One sneaky footnote to all this: in waving through the Audio Home Recording Act, Congress allowed that people with computers had a right had allowed people with computers the right to back up data on CD-ROMS. This allowed PCs to include recording devices, a feature that led to the tangle that produced the last three items on Knopper’s list.

Indeed, the author’s treatment of Items #6, 7, and 8 is compelling and inspires Knopper to untie some very tangled ropes. The Secure Digital Music Initiative was a $10 million think tank started by music big wigs that attempted, among other misguided initiatives, to set up a legal version of Napster.

In explaining the RIAA Lawsuits Knopper writes:

In July 2004, when University of Kansas student Charli Johnson found out the music industry was suing her for illegally trading 592 songs on her campus computer, she did the first thing that came to mind: “I started to cry.” Then she called the Recording Industry Association of America and pleaded for a settlement. No problem, its lawyers said. That’ll be $3,000.

After profiling a few more cases, he continues:

The lawsuits continue to this day with numbing regularity—725 here, 210 there, at least one new wave a month. The industry shifted much of its attention to college campuses in early 2007, because students using their schools’ free high-speed internet access were a particularly egregious threat.

Despite a switch to ‘prelitigation letters’ intended to scare off file-sharers in advance,

in the end the lawsuit campaign has had little impact on the amount of copyrighted music that is illegally downloaded. Nine million people in fall 2007 were trading files via peer-to-peer services, according to BigChampagne.com and 70 percent of that was illegal music. One major label executive believes the suits have been nothing but a costly public relations debacle.”It seems the punishment is way disproportionate to the crime,” this source says. Everybody would love it if it knocked piracy down. It doesn’t. It costs money. It isn’t effective.

The Sony BMG Rootkit described in #8 is basically a series of files that tricks a computer’s operating system into overlooking worms, viruses, and any other nasties a hacker might want to conceal inside a user’s computer. Between January and November 2005, Sony BMG released 4.7 million CDs containing rootkits. The intent was to cut down pirated CDs. The result was that computers slowed down, crashed, or wound up with unworkable CD drives. Thanks to some consumers digging out the files from the registry and posting them, the record companies were eventually brought to task. Fifteen class action lawsuits shook Sony BMG to its core and soon all copy protection schemes came crashing to earth, as Knopper puts it “tainted with the stink of rootkit.”

Of the eight BM’s, #5 (Pumping Up the Big Boxes) strikes closest to this reviewer’s experience. Tracing a lengthy retail music career through New England Music City, Tower Records and Sam Goody, I came up against the strategy that ultimately toppled the house of cards that contained such worthies as HMV and Virgin Megastores. In simple terms:

Best Buy started selling CDs at all its stores in 1986 as a way of supplementing its core business, stereo equipment. Best Buy’s CD sections took off as CD sales exploded; its stores were stocking 40,000 to 60,000 titles by the mid-1990’s…

The chain demanded $40,000 to $50,000 from labels to push CDs in house ads and on displays and racks, sources say. This practice changed record stores forever.

But label distribution execs didn’t want to kill off the Tower Records or the Sam Goodys. So they came up with something called the “Minimum Advertised Price,” or MAP. Any store that sold CDs above a certain price got newspaper or TV ads. In 2000, the FTC accused the labels of price-fixing. From here the author loads up his guns:

Further humiliation was in store for the labels. Forty –one states, from New York to Arizona, filed suit, alleging price-fixing and collusion. The labels’ lawyers had no choice but to settle. Although they didn’t officially admit any wrongdoing, labels agreed to pay $20 to anybody who bought any of the 4.1billion CDs sold between 1995 and 2000. They also agreed to donate 5.5 million CDs—worth about $75.5 million—to schools and libraries around the country. Would these free CDs include big sellers like Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce? Not a chance! In 2002, The Louisville Free Public Library in Kentucky was not exactly thrilled to receive as part of this settlement 171 free CDs, including Martha Stewart Living: Spooky Scary Sounds for Halloween, Linda Eder’s Christmas Stays the Same, Lee Greenwood’s American Patriot and six copies of Ricky Martin’s Sound Loaded. “It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick—but not much,” Craig Buthod, the Louisville library’s director said at the time. “I’d have to say this looks like leftovers.”

What remains of the retail music scene also looks very much like leftovers, with major chains like Tower, Musicland, HMV, and Virgin melting into the landscape they once dominated. That retail model lives on at places like Best Buy, and some bookstore chains that are able to wrap much stronger enterprises around the deserted aisles that used to teem with so much life, and so many choices.

Is the self-destruction finished? Has the entire structure toppled? Have we settled for downloads so technically compressed that all drummers finally do sound the same? Or can the music industry find some minds with rapid response times to respond to change before the last retail space becomes yet another Cellphone Center?

I’d like to read the ending to THAT fairy tale.

Brad Jones uses his retail job to fund his career as an obscure jazz saxophonist. He’s performed over 1,000 improv shows as a member of the Proposition Theatre in Inman Square and was a founding member of Boston’s Next Move Theatre.

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