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BOOK REVIEW

Delivering music, Napster to now

By Steve Morse
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2009
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Step right up. Let’s bash the music industry again, noting its bumbling efforts to crush the consumer-led downloading movement of the last decade.

In “Ripped,’’ author Greg Kot, rock critic at the Chicago Tribune for the past 21 years, provides a well-researched and highly opinionated history of how the formerly all-powerful record and radio conglomerates succumbed to a grass-roots movement to bring music to the people for free.

Kot reminds us of how file sharing turned consumers into music distributors, while CD burners made them manufacturers. Fans reached out to each other by means of message boards, Web pages, e-zines, and blogs, stealing influence away from corporate radio stations, retail stores, and record companies which lost their “exclusive tastemaker status.’’ He does a less effective job of showing how some artists lost royalties through this process, but he points out a number of new acts who made the Internet work for them.

He observes how Pitchfork, an Internet fanzine, became more important than Rolling Stone or MTV in popularizing new music. He adds lengthy comments - sometimes too lengthy, mixing extensive subjective criticism with straight reporting - on new acts that benefited the most from Net support, such as Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, Clap Your Hands, and Girl Talk, as well as veterans such as Radiohead and Wilco, who both learned to use the Web to boost CD sales.

The author also captures the exciting immediacy of Internet-spawned music, contrasting it with the slow pace of traditional record labels. An example of the new world order emerged when rapper Kanye West appeared on national TV in a Hurricane Katrina benefit and said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.’’ That prompted rap group Legendary K.O. to sample West’s phrase, splice in some of his music, and release the work on the Net four days later. The result was 1 million downloads in the next month.

The book, as one might expect, is largely a David vs. Goliath story. Kot accuses music companies of phony “moral posturing,’’ noting that the same industry that filed a lawsuit against Napster’s breakthrough file-sharing technology had been guilty of payola and abusing artists’ rights in the past. The industry filed about 20,000 lawsuits against consumers to stop them from file sharing, but Kot claims it was only trying to take over digital distribution the way it had controlled albums, CDs, and cassettes. The industry, through its Recording Industry Association of America, really blew it, Kot argues, in 2001 when it refused a proposal by Napster to join forces and create a legal online music service. Other free, post-Napster sites quickly showed up, further damaging the industry.

By 2003, Apple launched its iTunes service and sold 4 billion songs in the next five years. But consumers, frustrated by the way industry moguls had chased them in the courts, still sought out free downloads and Apple’s Steve Jobs admitted last year that only 3 percent of the songs in the 141 million iPods that Apple sold were purchased from iTunes. Another source estimates that there’s only “one legit download per 37 unsanctioned ones.’’

Kot is clearly a computer fanatic who sympathizes with illegal downloaders. He incorporates many comments from college students, who were among the most active users, and from computer nerds of all stripes. The book makes for provocative reading, but Kot is above all a music lover and that comes across no matter which side of the issue you’re on.

Steve Morse, a freelance writer, can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.

RIPPED: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music By Greg Kot

Scribner, 253 pp., $25

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