Steve Knopper: Appetite for Self-Destruction

In the hey day of the CD boom, chain store Tower Records was big enough to publish its own magazine, titled Pulse! (The exclamation point was part of the name.) At one point, Pulse! offered supplemental publications for classical music and video.

Pulse! magazine, dismissed as a shopping guide masquerading as a glossy, did report on the industry itself. It was a poor man’s Billboard, since it was offered for free where a single copy of the industry trade cost $7. Nothing beat free, especially for a broke teenager.

The period of time covered by Steve Knopper’s book Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Music Industry in the Digital Age unfolded in the pages of Pulse! as I became a budding listener.

Pulse! entered my life in high school, and back then, an annual classical supplement would give an overview of the year. The compact disc saved classical music, these articles would say, but as Knopper reports, it was really the industry’s means to print — and to spend — money.

Pulse! folded in 2003, and Tower Records would follow shortly after. The iconic yellow and red logo still exists in Japan, where Tower is a cultural force. But the editorial depth the magazine possessed in the late ’80s and early ’90s was a shade of itself by the turn of the millennium.

After 2000, the woes of the music industry would play out in headlines beyond the music press. Napster, the iPod, RIAA lawsuits, label desperation, the rise of social media — the recording industry’s dirty laundry was there for all to see.

As familiar as the major labels’ downfall may be to any music fan in the last eight years, the build-up to that downfall is a story seldom told. Knopper spins fascinating tales of label arrogance, show business abandon and cut-throat office politicking. Sidebars throughout the book also enumerate ways the labels shot themselves in the collective feet — digital audio tape, CD longboxes, big box retailers, rootkits.

Knopper doesn’t take a judgmental tone against the labels, reporting straight-forward the events that cornered them into their current position. At the same time, it’s tough to conjure up much sympathy for the industry, given how poorly it handled itself.

It’s not stated directly, but consolidation, more than anything, killed the recording industry. The further away labels strayed from its core principle — artist development — the more the music suffered.

Knopper mentions new models under experimentation, as the industry attempts to reposition itself, but he doesn’t predict what the future will eventually look like.

I think the recording business will contract further, till the majors become nothing but stewards of catalog. Artist development will transfer completely to independent labels, with mass culture driven by (reality) TV. Picture it: new BravoTV shows called Top Songwriter and Produce My Album.

Appetite for Self-Destruction is a page-turner, an engaging story where Goliath takes itself down. A few Davids helped along the way, but the major label system was too big to do anything but fail.