One of the passions that’s been driving my life for years, and now is starting to take on some of the space in my working life, is music.
And few industries have been changed more by the Internet than music. What is that change? That depends on who you ask. Some people have lauded the Internet as the ultimate democratization of music, a way for artists to connect with their fans without the infrastructure of the music industry; others, the bane of existence for music, where everything’s available in the Wild West for free and “free culture” advocates encourage people to rip off musicians.
So where does the truth lie? That’s the goal of Ripped, written by Chicago journalist, radio host(Sound Opinions on NPR), and music blogger Greg Kot. Kot’s 2009 book attempts to tell the stories of people involved in the music industry and how the decade from 1999 to 2009 has changed what they do. From Napster to Metallica to Prince to Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes to the first music bloggers to the Arcade Fire to Radiohead to the sampling wars, you get a glimpse into the music industry through their eyes.
The strength of Ripped is in that storytelling. Some of the stories are familiar — Radiohead and their decision to go with a pay-what-you-can model for their 2007 CD In Rainbows; the Arcade Fire and the ability of online media to break an act outside of the mainstream. Some of them are less familiar — at least to me.
As someone who wasn’t following this at the beginning, and as someone who was never particularly enamored of Metallica, the story of Metallica’s fight with Napster is a telling one. Lars Ulrich tells Kot that the fight “went sort of askew. I didn’t see that one coming. We’re defintely guilty of taking the leap and asking the questions as we’re falling… It was almost like there were two Metallicas…the Metallica that I knew and that I was in, and then there was the Metallica that everyone was accusing of being anti-bootleg…of being the band that was pro-record company.”
Kot’s great skill as a journalist of drawing relatively brief portraits of bands or labels or zine editors isn’t matched by an ability to draw conclusions or point the way towards something. Perhaps the closest he gets is quoting Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood at the end of chapter 19 as saying “By the time we finish the next record, everything will have changed again anyway, so we’ll decide then.”
Is this an “UGLY”? I don’t know. Maybe we readers should be challenged to draw conclusions. But with little to point the reader in a direction that Kot himself might support, there’s a danger of walking away from Ripped with a series of anecdotes. Well-written and topical anecdotes they may be, but nothing more than that.
Of course, the choices Kot makes in who and what to profile can be interpreted as constructing an argument.
The difficult part — at least in my experience — of discussions around the effect of the Internet and downloading on the music business is the polarization of viewpoints. For some, the advent of the internet age is the ultimate insult to artists. For others, Free (as in Chris Anderson’s book of the same name) is the ultimate opportunity.
While Kot’s choice to not draw explicit conclusions or form an argument removes this book from that polarization, for the average Joe or Jane reading the book, it doesn’t give you a lot of help figuring out what to do.
Buy CDs in a store? Buy CDs from the artists? Share the music? Guard the music? Go to more shows (that one, at least, I can support)? If the answers seem to be different for everyone in the industry, then what hope does the individual who wants to support music and musicians have of staying on the side of the angels?
Ripped is a great read, and I would recommend it for anyone who wants to understand how we’ve gotten to where we are in the music world. But if you’re looking for prescriptions and recommendations — look elsewhere.
- Ripped: how the wired generation revolutionized music, by Greg Kot
- Scribner, 2009, $32.95 CAD
- ISBN: 978-1416547273
Buy it here to show me some money:
Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music