"Rock On" skewers the recording industry
Dan Kennedy took a job at Atlantic Records and found out that working for a big label is not rock and roll. Fortunately, he got a fantastically funny and insightful book out of his experience.
I picked this book up while traveling yesterday, read a few pages in the bookstore, bought it, and have blazed through the first 150 pages in little more than a day. It's one of the funniest and most entertaining books about music, culture, and business that I've ever read.
Like a lot of suburban white boys of a certain age, Dan Kennedy dreamed about being a rock star in his youth, but reality eventually intervened and he got a corporate gig. Only in this case, the corporation was Atlantic Records--Led Zeppelin's record label, as he points out. Or rather, the corporation was AOL Time Warner (this was 2002, before they dropped the "AOL").
What follows is a hilarious and often scathing look at big money rock and roll. For example, if Jewel sings a song about not selling out, then sells it to Schick to promote a new razor, is she a clever ironist or a sellout? Under what circumstances is it acceptable for a hip-hop artist to smoke pot in a conference room? Does the ability to make eye contact in a meaningful way with everybody in a room really guarantee you a seven-figure salary, or is it merely your hair and the fact that you haven't cut it since you discovered Rush?
The best sequence, though, is where Kennedy discovers Limewire and comes up with an idea to help Warner capitalize on the digital era: digital-only contracts for recording artists, with lower up-front payments and first right of refusal for other types of recordings, such as CDs. His boss thinks his idea's good enough that he's called to present it to various corporate heads in New York and--via teleconference--Los Angeles.
Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us readers, his idea is eviscerated by a woman he calls Angry New Media Chick and her sidekick, Loud Man. As Kennedy puts it, "They both make great money, and it seems like anytime they think they're going to have to do more than maintain the company Web site they start screaming dot-com words that the senior vice president co-people don't understand." (Example: "Impossible! Back-end architecture! Cookies and lasers! Server-side technology!") He continues, "And they've got an awesome corner on things, since we're talking about a place where anybody above middle management has to yell to their assistants for help with something as technical as, say, an e-mail attachment."
I would have thought he was exaggerating before I read the Wired interview with Doug Morris in November.