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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Musical Monopoly

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Earlier this year Ticketmaster, the world's largest ticket broker, and Live Nation, the world's largest concert promoter, announced plans for a multimillion-dollar merger. It doesn't take a genius to imagine the offspring such a union will yield: a single entity effectively controlling most major concert venues as well as who performs at them and how much it costs the public to attend. The silver lining? It's the perfect time for Chicago Tribune music writer Greg Kot to unleash his new book, Ripped (though Ripped Off might better have described popular sentiment if this deal goes through).

Within the first few chapters Kot summarizes what happens when record companies-aided and abetted by government deregulation and profit-hungry media outlets-morph into huge conglomerates more concerned with quarterly profits than artists or consumers. Sound familiar? Well, this time the fallout isn't people losing their pensions, but an industry promoting more marketable music, airwaves dominated by a pay-to-play culture and a public offered increasingly limited music options.

Apart from a few lengthy digressions that highlight the author's obvious enthusiasm for his interview subjects, Ripped offers a readable and largely non-hyperbolic account of the ways the Internet has revolutionized how musicians connect with their public. Primacy is given to airing the opinions of those who've spurred on these changes, and those affected by them: individuals like Napster's Shawn Fanning and Pitchfork's Ryan Schreiber who helped build an entire subculture under the auspices of the Net; students and professionals professing guilt-tinged pleasure at limitless free music downloads; and bands like Death Cab for Cutie still reeling from the unexpected ways the Internet advanced their careers. And Kot doesn't restrict himself to the bright young things. Veterans like Prince and Paul McCartney who've embraced this radically altered landscape are included. The Grateful Dead is resurrected as a classic model of pre-Internet direct marketing.

Less numerous are the voices of dissent: Metallica's Lars Ulrich reflects on the band's much-maligned lawsuit against Napster; Dr. Dre appeals for the artist's need to make a living. The issue of intellectual property rights is mentioned in passing, but it's clear from the outset this book isn't concerned with the morality of illegal file sharing. Nor is it intended as a valorous portrayal of the savvy public sticking it to the man-because, as Kot makes clear, there's always another one to take his place. He even alludes to the "in one ear and out the other culture" bred by the fast music circuit. In fact, one of Ripped's most resounding themes is the almost anachronistic assertion that live performances, not MySpace pages, are the true lifeline between musicians and their public. Perhaps change is imminent so some things can remain the same.

Kot comes to Boswell Book Co. (formerly known as Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue) on May 26 at 7 p.m.