Greg Kot interview


Greg Kot is an established journalist for the Chicago Tribune, and has already authored a book on Wilco, Learning How to Die. Kot has just released a book documenting our love of the ones and zeros, and how our “wired generation” changed the model before the industry could. Kot was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail about his book, Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, and where he thinks the current industry stands and could possibly be going. It is available now, and has my full approval as a minimalist, yet well researched history lesson.

What made you decided to cover the subject matter of Ripped? Was it partially inspired with what happened with Wilco and your coverage of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot phenomenon?
Obviously, the means of making, distributing and consuming music are changing radically and rapidly. The Wilco story with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a part of that change, and documenting that period was in many ways the beginning point of “Ripped.” I’d been covering these events since the mid-‘90s for the Chicago Tribune, and I remember talking to record company executives who had no idea what an MP3 file was, much less how it would impact their future and change their lives. That’s a great story. You live for that as a journalist. It seemed natural to cover it in a book, even though we don’t know how the story ends yet.

The book reads like a minimal history lesson from Napster to Trent Reznor’s views, but as to the point as the topics are, mostly every detail was hit, including some ideas and trends I never thought about or paid any attention to. Was it difficult making sure that you were covering every track of the subject, or did initial conversations and preliminary interviews lead to new discoveries and research?
Trying to deal with this issue comprehensively would’ve turned into a book at least three times longer. I wanted to write not just a history, but a history that normal people would actually want to read. Something brisk and informative, rather than stodgy and comprehensive. I wanted to provide an overview, then hone in on a few specific, representative tales. It was instructive to follow the evolution of bands like Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Arcade Fire, Girl Talk, etc. as they wrestled with the key questions of the digital age: How to deal with the culture of free? What is music worth? Do we even need record companies anymore? How do we get music to the fans more efficiently? I had access to those bands over the last 10 years, and their stories gave me a framework for the book.

Has the Internet ruined music for both the industry and the listener? Of the two, who do you think suffers more?
The Internet hasn’t ruined anything. It’s a tool, and it has profoundly changed the way artists and fans communicate. The 20th Century music industry didn’t grasp how the Internet would change that fan-artist relationship until it was too late, and that industry is now in big trouble. But music is in better shape than ever.

From the interviews for the book, is it a general consensus that many artists don’t have room to grow because of how flooded the market can become with new artists every week?
The fact that there is much more music being recorded and released now than at any time in history is a daunting prospect for any new artist. The key question is: How do you get heard amid all that noise? And the simple answer is, “Don’t suck.” A lot of bands and artists release music, but most of it isn’t very good. That’s always been the case: 90-95 percent of the releases in any given year don’t really have any cultural resonance or significance. But if you’re in that 5 percent, you WILL be heard. Maybe not right away, but eventually. The key word I’d add to that is “patience.” A lot of bands and artists get frustrated and go away because they aren’t quickly rewarded. But if you look at the histories of bands that did make an impact, almost all of them had a long period of dues-paying, where they found their voice over time. To work in the arts, you have to be a little crazy, and you have to be head over heels in love with creating things. The process is its own reward. If you make good art, people are going to appreciate it sooner or later. And especially now with viral word-of-mouth, it’s difficult for anyone of worth to remain a secret for too long.

Do you think majors will ever go back to a single basis since that’s what iTunes and Amazon MP3 thrives on? Will the majors only release killer, and lose the filler?
Singles are already back in a big way. They should never have gone away. For years the industry tried to sell fans an $18 CD when the fan just wanted one track, the hit single. But there was no way to buy that single, because the industry stopped releasing them. It’s as if Coke decided to stop selling 12-ounce cans, and insisted that consumers could only buy the 64-ounce bottle. So, yes, singles are the coin of the industry realm at the moment, at the expense of the full-length album. Now that we’ve swung the other way, I think eventually there will be a readjustment, and longer forms of music releases will return. The Internet offers some interesting ways that artists could do that, like releasing discrete packages of four or five songs designed to be heard as a group (the equivalent of one side of an old vinyl album, or an EP), or packaging songs with videos and other viral links to text and bonus content to create multi-media presentations.

The idea brought up by Team Love to listen to records before purchase, this seems to be a trend now with, but some consumers are able to “webrip” audio. Do you think the Team Love model will ever catch on with everyone, or will there have to be technology implemented to prevent any sort of “webrips” to allow for a pre-purchase preview if record labels decide on a “stream only” basis?
These sorts of limitations only frustrate consumers and potential fans, and drive them away. And there’s no doubt that a fan who wants to “steal” something will find a way to do it. You’re going to deal with unethical people in any line of work, and you will lose some sales. But I think if you treat fans with respect and intelligence, as Team Love does, the artists and labels will be rewarded in kind. Letting fans hear the music of a new artist before buying is good business. If the music is good, the listener will want more. They’ll want to go the shows, buy the merch, and support the artist. The key is to treat the fan not just as a consumer, but as a co-conspirator. Bring them into the fold rather than putting up restrictions to access.

Of all the interviews you had done for the book, who seemed, to you, to be the most keen on contemporary and future industry trends?
Of all the major artists, Trent Reznor was clearly the most forward-thinking in terms of dealing with new technology. His business plan for the “Ghosts I-IV” in 2008 was really well conceived, in that it gave fans a series of choices that respect the fans’ level of interest, from casual to hard-core, and priced the music accordingly. Then he allowed those fans to get more involved by soliciting their remixes and video treatments. I think that’s an appropriate model for the future: Artist-curated Web sites that offer fans lots of options for accessing the music and gaining proximity to the artist and the creative process. As for the newer artists, Dan Deacon and Gregg Gillis of Girl Talk have really thought about this stuff and have figured out how to make the new business model work for them. The key lesson for them is that the live show is still the foundation of any kind of viral “buzz.” It’s the one musical experience that can’t be digitized, therefore it can’t be copied and will always have value.

Would you think it would be possible, if artists invest heavily in themselves, that many will leave labels (except for distribution only) and do everything by themselves? (Sort of a full circle to the D.I.Y. ethics of yore.)
DIY is a lot of work, but it’s also much more manageable than it ever was. Artists will still a need an infrastructure around them, but it will be smaller and a lot more affordable, with a lot less overhead. A mid-level or smaller artist doesn’t need Sony to put out his music. He needs a small, dedicated team around him to help him create and maintain a Web site and oversee touring, merchandise, licensing, etc. The big corporate model will still work for multimedia celebrities like Madonna or U2, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for artists who aren’t at that level.

Your book is quite contemporary, but the models are still changing. Based on everyone’s opinion, and the models of distribution and marketing that are discussed in context, what are your thoughts on where this industry will be 5 years from now? 10? 20?
If I knew the answer to that question, I’d be counting my money on some island. What’s so exciting about the time we’re living in is that nobody knows the answers. And that allows us to make up the new rules as we go along, figuring out viable solutions for fans, artists and, yes, even the businessmen. It’s naïve to think that music isn’t a business, and that artists won’t need people with business acumen to navigate the new digital terrain. Of course they will. But the idea of creating a new, more modest business model that is based on community and creativity is very much here, and we’ve only scratched the surface of how to make that work for all involved. What’s clear is that we’ve opened a door to these new possibilities, and there’s no turning back.


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