Greg Kot, Tribune music critic, reports reasons behind industry's downfall
By David E. Thigpen
In 2000, U.S. record sales peaked at 785 million albums. It was the beginning of the end for the record industry as the world knew it. During the next eight years, album sales fell 45 percent and the pain spread throughout the business. After decades of fat profits and limousine lifestyles, the Big Four record companies -- Sony, Universal, Warner, EMI -- and a tight coterie of radio conglomerates and promoters suddenly found themselves fighting for their lives. In response, they did what any industry in crisis does: laid off thousands of workers. But in this case traditional thinking was precisely the problem. According to Tribune music critic Greg Kot in his expertly reported "Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music," the economic apocalypse that fell upon the record establishment couldn't have happened to a more deserving bunch.
The trigger for the industry's crisis was the rapid rise of digital copying and the sharing of music enabled by the Internet. But as Kot lets the story flow through interviews with musicians, executives and many earnest, well-informed fans, the digital revolution merely peeled back a curtain revealing the rot underlying the industry's traditional business structures. From the unhealthy consolidation of radio to absurdly high-priced CDs to usurious deals with artists to payola and the triumph of lowest-common denominator taste over quality, Kot recounts how the industry foolishly dug in and refused change even as the landscape of record-selling shifted out from beneath its feet.
Confronted with the fact that fans preferred digital music, a business model amply proven by the explosive growth of the pirate file-sharing service Napster, record bosses sued rather than join the future. "The industry responded not with vigorous new ideas, but with strong-arm tactics and threats," Kot writes. "It served fans not with digital innovation but with lawsuits. ..." Of course, digital was and is the future.
The slow reaction of the record companies to digital music left an opening that would bring billions to Steve Jobs through Apple's iTunes and iPods. But more important to Kot's story, a new "wired" generation of Internet-savvy and striving young artists, fanzine editors and scrappy start-up labels walked through the door too. Their work -- haphazard, halting, often unsuccessful but always inspired -- adds up to a movement that is rejuvenating pop and hip-hop -- including talents such as Wilco, Bright Eyes and Arcade Fire.