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J. David Dark

Rock's New Rebellion

Net music and the backlash against commodification.

Sonic Boom: Napster, MP3, and the New Pioneers of Music
by John Alderman
Perseus Press, 2001
224 pp.; $24

In Sonic Boom, cyberjournalist John Alderman recalls a crucial moment in rock history when a band of young upstarts called the Rolling Stones first set foot in the Chicago studio of Chess Records, the label home of various blues legends who helped form the Stones' sound. To their amazement, they found themselves in the formidable presence of bluesman Muddy Waters. But he wasn't there as a creative consultant, a CEO, or a musical impresario. It just so happened that the Stones' visit coincided with the day a decidedly unwealthy Muddy Waters showed up to paint the studio roof. Keith Richards summed up the irony effectively: "Welcome to the music business!"

To be fair, Muddy Waters would gain an income through his music, not least from those record buyers who would begin with the Stones and work their way back to the Delta. And without the promotion, distribution, and recording facilities of Chess Records, his music might have never made its way across the Atlantic to the impressionable ears of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in the first place. Nevertheless, the history of recorded music is a boulevard of broken dreams. Many artists struggle to make ends meet and die broke, even as royalties from their music enrich the canny copyright-holders. As Herbie Hancock puts it in the preface to Sonic Boom, "For the hard work involved in being a middleman, the label is certainly entitled to a decent profit. But not a killing. To make huge amounts of money on the backs of artists who are not fairly compensated sours the relationship and creates bad will that lasts a long time."

With the discussion generated by the Napster phenomenon and the efforts of the Recording Industry Association of America to protect what is now a $15 billion-a-year enterprise, a new awareness is gradually developing among the listening/buying public concerning the small percentage allotted the artist in ...

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