Music in the Digital Age

Jerry Lucky Commentary April 2017

Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2017 All Rights Reserved


Last month I wrote about how “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Clearly this is something that has been happening since the dawn of civilization, but I suspect it’s never happened at quite the pace as it is with humans today. The rapid advance of technology on so many fronts is having a dizzying effect on almost every aspect of our lives. That’s certainly the case with music. I wanted to draw your attention to two very profound books I’ve recently read that shed lots of light on this subject.


This first is a book I read a couple years ago written by Rolling Stone writer Steve Knopper entitled Appetite for Self-Destruction – The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age. This book originally came out in 2010 and I have to say it’s an amazing read. Knopper sets up the chapters in a sequential manner based on a year by year look into the music business. The detail study starts in 1979 and carries through to 2007 with the final chapter entitled The Future. Over the course of the books 300 pages we get a sense of all the technological changes that affected the music industry and perhaps more to the point the industry’s reactions to all this new technology.


There are some great stories here. One of my favorite stories is from the year 1983 (I think it was 1983) where the CD was introduced to the heads of the record labels and there was a hewn outcry from them. They hated the idea of the Compact Disc. The meeting actually devolved into a shouting match, the anger was visceral. Now in truth they stayed mad until it was pointed out to them they could actually get everyone to re-buy their record collection. Once they saw the opportunity to make money from this new technology they jumped in with both feet.


There are a couple of themes that run through this book. One of those themes shows example after example of how the music business would make decisions that tended to undermine their future; hence the books sub-title, Appetite for Self-Destruction. It was their own decisions that contributed to their own demise, even if they refused to acknowledge it. Just for example, it was the industry’s push to emphasize the return of the single, which allowed for in some cases to capitalize on huge sales of the single and nearly instant stardom for the artist. But then, the “law of unintended consequences” came into play as those very decisions led to the demise of album sales. Suddenly the industry found itself with boat loads of albums that people weren’t interested in buying…they just wanted the single.


The other theme that comes up over and over again is how the industry was always behind the curve of technology and in some cases the artists themselves. Some would say it’s the conservative nature of industry to be cautious but as the book points out much of that caution simply had to do with greed in that until they were shown how the new technology could make them money, industry leaders wanted nothing to do with it. More than anything the cancer that affected the music industry is that same that has affected many corporate decision making – it is the cancer of “short-term” thinking. Very few industry leaders seem to come climb the corporate ladder with any kind of long-term thinking. Much like our Politian’s, their thinking is only as long as their contract or election status. After that term, it’s a “who cares” attitude.


The other book I read more recently along the same lines written by Stephen Witt is entitled How Music Got Free – A Story of Obsession and Invention. This book was originally published in Hardcover in 2015, then softcover in 2016. This is a more specific book that deals with the parallel worlds of the development of the MP3 file format along with the individuals involved with creating the various peer-to-peer file sharing sites. As such Witt goes into great detail about all the people involved and I have to say the book reads like a gripping mystery or spy novel, except it’s all true.


The book goes into great detail talking about the painful trials and tribulations of the German technicians who created the MP3 file format and more importantly the struggles they endured to bring it to the market. They were stymied right, left and centre by the politics of the day. Then the book will shift to individuals working at a CD pressing plant in North Carolina and how they slowly but surely became enabled in becoming the source of advance pre-release CDs to be uploaded into the peer-to-peer networks. It was quite something to read how all of this came together in the first place.


I was struck yet again how the “law of unintended consequences” can have such a huge impact in our lives. None of the individuals involved seemed to really think their parts through to the point where they saw what they were doing was going to create a world of “free” music. It’s as though everyone involved was innocent of illegal intentions and yet here we are!


If you are the least bit interested in how the music industry works or have ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of the music business I can’t recommend these two books enough. Each of them manages to pull back the curtain to expose some rather unsavory activities that brought us and the music industry to the point we’re at. So every time you read one of those stories about declining CD sales or increasing streaming service sign-ups or anything that relates to the current state of the music industry you’ll very likely see the start or perhaps cause detailed in these two books by Steve Knopper and Stephen Witt. Great reads and highly recommended.

At least that’s what I think.


Jerry Lucky