Steve Knopper’s writing career started at age 13 when he wrote a piece for his high school paper about his fellow students’ taste in music. Since then, Knopper has written or edited several books and been featured in countless publications across the country, eventually becoming a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. He also served as the on-air tech correspondent for Fox News Chicago and appeared as an expert source on several other TV and radio shows. Knopper’s most recent book “Appetite for Self Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age,” recounts the epic story of the precipitous rise and fall of the recording industry over the past three decades.
I recently caught up with Steve to discuss his new book, current industry news and some of the past and present players in the music business.
R&G: Can you give me a synopsis of “Appetite for Self-Destruction?”
Steve: It is a narrative that begins with the adoption of the CD in the early ‘80s and tells the story of digital music in the record industry. It has the whole arc from the CD boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s, when everybody was replacing their record collections, all the way up to Napster, iTunes, the crash, the shrinking of the major record labels in recent years and, finally, a chapter on the future.
R&G: You interviewed over 230 people. Who were the most fascinating interviews?
Steve: Off the top of my head, one really fascinating guy that many people have reacted positively to is James T. Russell. He is the physicist who in the ‘60s first patented the technology that lead to the CD, the digital, optical and mechanical aspects of it. He did not invent the CD, but he was the one who discovered it and was later found in court to be the primary owner of the royalties. Unfortunately, by the early ‘90s when the courts made that decision, his lab, which owned the patents, had long since sold them to two or three other people and they were the ones that ended up profiting. Russell never saw a dime from them. He was definitely a fascinating guy.
R&G: Who on the digital side did you find interesting?
Steve: Al Smith was a senior vice president at Sony. He was an old-school guy who had a reputation from the Napster era of completely stonewalling all new technology. They weren’t so much his decisions, but more the way Tommy Mottola, Don Ienner and Michele Anthony ran the label. I wound up doing three or four different interviews with him. He was a really funny, intense, bigger-than-life, bemused kind of character, one of those old-school, humorous record guys that would just go, ‘Ay ay ay ay’ and yell at people. A lot of people talked about him, and I really enjoyed hearing the stories. I was nervous about using them, but I called him back and said, ‘You know Al, people are saying this, this and this, that you did all these things.’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, I guess that’s pretty much true.’ He was great.
R&G: When you were doing your research for the Napster and iTunes chapters of the book, I imagine a lot of people who are still with the labels wouldn’t go on record.
Steve: Yeah, absolutely. There were a lot of people who wouldn’t talk to me. There were some key figures from the Napster and iTunes era that I really would love to have talked to, like Alain Levy, David Munns and some of the current people from Universal like Zach Horowitz. Even though I interviewed some of them over the years at Rolling Stone and was able to quote them from those interviews, for the purposes of this book, I wasn’t able to get a lot of people like that.