Why digital is good for music

Gret Kot


Kai Ryssdal: Two items from the music world to get us going on this next story. The new video from Madonna's greatest hits album "Celebration" will debut on iTunes tomorrow as a free download. Also tomorrow, fans of Jay-Z can listen to his new album for free, almost two weeks before its official rollout.

For most consumers music is all about digital nowadays. Even if a whole lot of record executives haven't been so eager to embrace it. For them, online distribution is the kiss of death or close it.

But Greg Kot has a different take. He's the music critic for the Chicago Tribune. He also hosts a public radio program on music called "Sound Opinions," produced, as we are, by American Public Media. And he's got a new book out about music in the Internet age called "Ripped," in which he says the digital revolution that has come to the recording industry is far from all bad.

Greg Kot: There is a part of the music industry that is dying as a result of what's happening on the Internet. But I think a new industry is being born, a grassroots industry.

Ryssdal: Walk me through the business model then. These bands, whether they're established or up and comers, they get to go directly to the fans. How does that business model work? How do people make money out of it?

KOT: I think what it comes down to is building a community around what an artist may do. I think what was happening in the past, where everything was being funneled through a few big corporations, a few big record companies, a few big radio stations, fans really didn't feel personally invested in the artist. And what the Internet is facilitating is artists communicating directly with their fans and vice versa. To the point where you have fans participating in the art, whether it's making videos, or doing remixes, they feel part of the equation. And as a result they're investing in the artist in numerous ways.

Ryssdal: Who's doing it really well, though, Greg?

KOT: I think some of the biggest examples, the most well-known examples, are bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails.

Ryssdal: But Radiohead and a guy like Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, they're established artists, right, they've got the fan base out there. How does this work to the advantage of a newer artist, who's just getting started, has a great stuff, but needs that outlet, that distribution chain.

KOT: Well, it's a good question and my simple solution to it is be good. You know, it's very hard to keep a secret on the Internet. If your music is genuinely good, you will not be a secret for very long. I think the key is start small, start with a community base, start with a few hardcore fans and build it from there. And secondly lower your overhead. Keep your operations small and surround yourself with a few invested businessmen. In other words, you still need infrastructure, but it should be a lot smaller.

Ryssdal: So who is good right now?

KOT: There's a ton of people out there that are making music that's amazing. The reason Lil Wayne is one of the rap superstars now is that he was constantly distributing these mix tapes through illicit channels on the Web, and getting this music to his fans. And getting fans excited about him, and his personality, and what he was doing. And I think in the next 10 years we're going to see a lot more stars developing out of it.

Ryssdal: There is an element of the free business model here, right? You give a bunch of stuff away to hope that you attract more fans, who will then after hearing a song or two, maybe pony up $10 to buy the album online.

KOT: Yes, people need to hear the music before they want to purchase, before they want to invest in you. The whole notion that the music industry has been operating under for the last 10, 15 years is that every download represents a lost sale. You know, what has radio been except for a free download? People want to hear the music first before they invest in it. If it's good, they're going to want more of it, not less.

Ryssdal: Does this mean then the increasing nichification of this music, where bands go out and find fans who like this band in particular. Does that mean the days of the blockbuster, globe-shattering bands like U2 and the Rolling Stones are done with?

KOT: Yeah, I'm crying a bitter tear here because those days are gone. I'm saying, what have we lost there? Seeing a mega band in a stadium, that's a good experience for somebody? I've been in the last row for a Rolling Stones show, Kai. It's not a lot of fun back there.

Ryssdal: Greg Kot is the music critic for the Chicago Tribune. He hosts a public radio program on music called "Sound Opinions." Also, he writes books. He's the author of "Ripped: How the Wire Generation Revolutionized Music." Greg, thanks a lot.

KOT: Kai, my pleasure.


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