Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Steve Knopper: Appetite For Self-Destruction

The danger of reporting on current events in book form is being irrelevant by the time your book actually comes out. Summing up the troubles of Big Music with an implacable gaze, veteran music-business reporter Steve Knopper devotes his book Appetite For Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash Of The Record Industry In The Digital Age to tracing the industry's blithe obliviousness to the competitive threat of digital media. The underlying assumption is that the battle is over and the labels lost to music pirates and Apple, which is a reasonable conclusion. Problem is, Knopper is too close to the wreck: In his race to the end, he spends too long downgrading from a long-term gaze to a current-events summary.


Knopper begins with 1979's infamous Disco Demolition Night riot, which marked the start of a major industry trough. Thriller provided breathing room and time to overcome the industry's initial aversion to the CD, whose increased profit margins peaked with teen pop's blockbuster ascent. Then the floor gave out, as boy-band fans grew up and triggered a post-disco-esque slump, and Napster alerted the public that there was no reason to pay $16 a CD to finance executives' coke habits. The rest is present history.

Knopper's basic thesis is all but inarguable: The technologies that could've saved old-school executives from obsolescence were rejected in petulant Luddite fits. The realization that greed alone wouldn't save the industry didn't hit until it was too late. (One of Knopper's most intriguing conclusions is that the only winner was Steve Jobs: Pricing songs low on iTunes didn't boost record-company profits, but it helped Jobs sell iPods like crazy.) Knopper is a dedicated reporter, and he's done his fresh-interview homework. The book's first half strikes a fine balance between salacious boardroom gossip, technological history, and tracing the public's changing relationship to the music they were buying. He should've stopped with Napster and the rise of iTunes: The last two chapters (nearly a fourth of the book) dig up the last five years' headlines (including a bit on Radiohead's In Rainbows self-release), accumulating a mess of recent talking points that's a slog for anyone who remembers them, yet too detail-bogged to build any kind of meaningful larger picture. Self-Destruction's final section is littered with phrases like "at the time this book went to press," where a brief all-purpose summary of the current state would've served better. Still, it makes for absorbing, quick reading, and it's fine journalism whose parallels to the overall current economic mess add grim resonance.

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