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Author Topic: book review: "Ripped" by Greg Kot  (Read 1932 times)
Posts: 42

« on: August 14, 2009, 11:23:03 PM »

Pandora’s Boombox
How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music

by: Greg Kot
262 pp. Scribner. $25

Published: August  13, 2009

I spent countless rapt hours taping my favorite songs off the radio when I was a kid. There were so many tunes, and I had so little money. (And if a motorcycle or a semi went blasting past the house as I taped, then a ballad like “Crimson and Clover” would get some gritty meat on its ethereal bones.) 

But even back then, the record companies considered someone like me a sneak thief, a young blackguard. By taping, I was taking money out of their pockets, bread off the table and cocaine from the noses of their artists and executives.

That battle between customer and music company has only intensified since. The listener screams, “Love!” The music executive screams, “Theft!” And the musician — same as it ever was — screams, “Pay me!” Now Greg Kot, a music critic and co-host of a rock ’n’ roll radio talk show, tells us what happened in  Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, his well-reported book about music in the Internet Age.

Ripped ranges from the days when the record companies gnashed their teeth over the growth of home taping, to music publishers’ blunt attacks on sampling in hip-hop, to the life, death and canonization of Napster, to the iPod and beyond. It also examines the constant  consolidation — in the music companies, in radio, in concert promotion — that helped lead to the industry’s implosion.

Then there are the abject listeners, dissatisfied with the nonfat vanilla being dispensed on the radio and in the record stores — Backstreet Boys, anyone? But once they discover peer-to-peer file sharing and CD burners, there’s no holding them back. The record companies try their strong-arm tactics and lose. They can’t cope with the guerrilla savvy of kids who have computers and a  bottomless thirst for music.

Kot also writes about how established artists like Prince, Radiohead and Wilco (he is the author of a book about Wilco) thrived in the digital age because they didn’t sit around and whine like emo punks while musical civilization as we know it crumbled. He pays homage to acts that emerged during the turmoil — Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade Fire, Conor Oberst — and used it to their advantage.

Still, the most fascinating part of the book is its retelling of how the big music companies committed capitalist suicide. The executives couldn’t get their analog heads around the digital future. If industry leaders had always followed their mistrust of technology, we’d still be listening to music on 78-r.p.m. shellac, or maybe even wax cylinders.

Ripped is another case study in American industrial arrogance, an account of companies that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) learn agility. Instead of adapting to the new reality, they started calling their customers thieves.

But, Kot writes, “the moral posturing was a laughable new wrinkle.  Here’s an industry that had instituted payola, routinely manipulated shady contracts to take away publishing from songwriters, and engaged in questionable accounting practices to deny royalties from record sales to the vast majority of its artists.”

The major labels were never truly interested in intellectual property rights. They were interested in making money, and computer kids ripping music off the Internet meant far less money. Thom Yorke of Radiohead says: “The idea that they are the victims of an immoral act is incredible to me. They claim to have the best interests of the artists at heart. Oh, really? They haven’t had the best interests of the artists in mind for 50 years.”

Kot understands that it’s always entertaining to detail the thrash and roar of a carnivorous dinosaur in its death throes, as small and clever mammals  — in this case, music lovers — win the day.

Some dinosaurs are even contrite.  Edgar Bronfman Jr., the chief executive of the Warner Music Group, said in 2007:  “By standing still or moving at a glacial pace, we inadvertently went to war with consumers by denying them what they wanted and could otherwise find. And as a result, of course, consumers won.”

Dana Jennings is a reporter at The Times.
His most recent book is Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music.
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