Greg Kot. Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. New York: Scribner, 2009. 263 pages.
In the past ten years, the music industry has seen a revolution in marketing and distribution that’s truly unprecedented. In Ripped, Greg Kot describes the upheaval and tries to make sense of its meaning. He starts by describing the how the industry became, in the 1990s, “Consolidated to Death” thanks to mergers and acquisitions that concentrated the $14.6 billion-a-year industry in the hands of five huge corporations. Since these companies were driven to maximize shareholder value rather than foster musical or creative excellence, this led to pressure on bands to score immediate hits and made long-term career-building an impossibility for new artists.
But while the industry was becoming more concentrated, new technologies were threatened to undermine it. The entertainment conglomerates were successful because they had capital to underwrite expensive recording sessions and costly promotional efforts and the connections to secure radio and video airplay. The rise of the Internet in the 1990s began to undercut this dominance, then with the debut of Napster and succeeding file-sharing sites, completely overturned it.
The Internet changed music, Kot argues, by cutting out the middle-man. Whether this leads to a more diverse, more creative music scene or merely the substitution of one set of tastemakers for another remains to be seen.
On one level, file-sharing devastated the industry by making it possible for listeners to download music for free, rather than buying it. But this was only an accelerated version of music-sharing that had been going on since the introduction of the cassette tape, a process that was made quicker and easier by CD ripping and then moved into the digital age by using the Internet to swap mp3 files.
On the other, it undercut the stranglehold on opinion previously held by print magazine like Rolling Stone. Fanzines had been circulating for years, but they were expensive to produce and had minuscule readerships. Internet critics, on the other hand, were constrained only by their ability to listen to and opine on new music: uploading their reviews immediately and without much expense, they could be read by thousands. This led to a new critical presence, online sites and later blogs like pitchfork.com, which Kot profiles extensively.
Finally, the Internet let bands communicate directly with their fans, bypassing the record companies. The turning point, Kot argues, came in Fall 2001, when the band Wilco streamed its new album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for free on its website after record label refused to release it. Other established artists, from Prince to Radiohead, took similar steps to sell or provide music directly to listeners, and lesser-known groups seized on online radio stations and sites like YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook to get their music to potential fans.
Kot does a good job of chronicling the transformation of music in the Internet era, though there is a strong emphasis on alternative indie rock (Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes, and Death Cab for Cutie are some of the bands profiled) and mash-up artists, to the exclusion of other genres. There’s also the nagging sense that the new musical order will not, when all is said and done, lead to greater freedom for artists or a better selection of music for fans to choose from: it will merely result in the exchange of one set of gatekeepers for another. Does it really make a difference whether it’s an editor at Rolling Stone or at pitchfork.com who refuses to review a new album?
On the whole, it’s a good read that presents an in-depth view of the Internet era, focused on the alt rock scene. If your idea of good music is more Clint Black or Grover Washington (or anyplace in between), you might feel a bit like you’re reading about a foreign country whose language and customs you don’t really understand. For those interested in this kind of rock music and the influence of technology on culture, though, Ripped will be both rewarding and thought-provoking.
In my own reading, I was struck by some parallels and several divergences from the gaming industry, which is similarly concentrated and facing and similar leap to the digital frontier, but which is not subject to the same centrifugal forces as music, chiefly because the industry is organized around major resorts. Since ownership of them is more dictated by financial markets than technology, the Internet has not impacted the mainstream gaming industry to the same extent as music, though its effects on ancillary betting forms, particularly poker and sports betting, has been immense.
I may develop these thoughts further, but 760 words is enough for anyone in one day, I think.