Steve Knopper

A Denver-based writer autopsies the music industry

With the economy in shambles, there’s no reason to think the music industry is going to weather the storm unscathed. But major labels have committed acts of arrogance and outright criminality over the years—and, according to Steve Knopper, those chickens have come home to roost. In his new book, Appetite For Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash Of The Record Industry In The Digital Age, the Denver-based music journalist and Rolling Stone contributing editor details how intellectually empty the industry’s corridors of power have been, and how technological innovators have been forced to bash their heads against the walls. In lesser hands the book might have wound up a dry read, but Knopper turns the industry’s pantheon of suits, geeks, and crooks into a cast of characters both funny and tragic. Due to appear tonight at Tattered Cover’s Colfax location and Thursday at Boulder Book Store to sign and discuss Appetite, Knopper spoke with Decider about digital music’s crazy past and potentially crazier future.
Decider: When did you start working on Appetite For Self-Destruction?
Steve Knopper: Late summer of 2006. I originally pitched it as an entire history of the music business, starting with Thomas Edison. The whole idea was kind of too broad, though, so at the last minute we shifted it to more of a narrow focus. It turned out the rise and fall of record labels in the digital era really had its own drama, its own narrative arc.
D: A lot has happened in the music world since you started on the book. At some point were you forced to shift from chronicling history to keeping up with the industry’s day-to-day developments?
SK: Not much changed while I was writing, say, the chapter about the CD boom of the ’80s. But when I got to the last chapter—which is about the future—that was easily the most difficult and frustrating part of the book to write. I gave myself a deadline of December 1, 2007, but obviously everything kept changing. The emphasis of that chapter is on EMI’s decision to sell MP3s on iTunes and Amazon. But while I was writing that chapter, Radiohead’s In Rainbows came out.
D: It’s almost as if Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, with the way they decided to self-release their albums as downloads, conspired to give you the perfect epilogue.
SK: That’s true on one level, for sure. But on the other level, by the time that stuff popped up, I’d already done tons of reporting on the EMI thing. I had to scramble to get the Radiohead stuff in. Now I look at the book and realize that Radiohead should have been the emphasis of that last chapter. Looking back, though, I don’t think there’s anything I could have done about the timing of that. That’s just the risk you run when writing about the future, I guess.
D: You previously co-wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Starting A Band. How have all the recent changes in the music industry affected new bands?
SK: I wrote that Idiot’s Guide with Mark Bliesener, who used to manage Big Head Todd & The Monsters and Lyle Lovett. We wrote that book in 2004; it came out before MySpace and YouTube. Just in the last four or five years, it’s been a sea change for younger bands. Fifteen years ago when I started working as a music journalist, the only way a small band could get press was to bug people who work at newspapers. Now, if you’re smart and creative, you can do all kinds of things. Once you’ve got that self-generated publicity through MySpace and YouTube and so on, you can use it to get gigs, to sell music, to sell merch. It can be a pretty significant revenue stream, if you’re smart about it. And if your band’s good.
D: At what point, though, does the signal-to-noise ratio become a drawback?
SK: One problem with the new way of doing things is this: If you’re a good marketer, you can sometimes do better than if you’re a good musician. I was talking to James Diener, the guy who runs the current version of A&M Records, A&M Octone. He was saying that major labels right now—and this was a bad change to him, one that he regrets—are looking for acts that are good at marketing, the ones that come to A&M with a MySpace base and have already shown they can do all this stuff. That way it makes the job much easier for the label. He was kind of lamenting the idea that the Bob Dylans who shows up at little cafés and clubs, who knows nothing about marketing, might be slipping through the cracks. They might just go back to their jobs at the gas station or whatever. I think that there is a danger of that, for sure.
D: The argument could also be made that Dylan was always an ambitious artist.
SK: That’s true. Then there’s also the Toni Braxton example, where she was discovered singing to herself at a gas station by some talent scout.
D: Isn’t that what American Idol is for?
SK: Right, exactly. [Laughs.] The calculus of becoming a star. But I do think there are more opportunities for smaller bands to get out there than there ever were. There is that signal-to-noise issue, but it’s still much easier now.
D: You conclude the book with the line, “…in late 2008, it sure feels like the end is near.” Is this the most exciting time in the history of the music industry to be alive, or the most depressing?
SK: It depends on who you work for. [Laughs.] It’s exciting in terms of opportunities for bands and fans, and there’s an incredible power to it. If you work for a major record label right now, though, you’re in trouble. The end is near for you, and that’s bad thing. Even though I’m critical of the music industry in the book, I’m really fond of the old days—that whole, for lack of a better term, hookers-and-blow part of the business.
D: The rock ’n’ roll part.
SK: Yeah, all those executives going out and partying hard with Mick Jagger, trying to get him signed. The whole debauched nature of the business. It was sort of like a Bizarro version of Wall Street. That whole history makes it a very interesting business. I do think something has been lost. Ultimately, though, all these changes will be good for everyone.