Ever wonder what it would be like to work your dream job? When Dan Kennedy was hired at age 35 by Atlantic Records in 2002, he imagined he'd be living a rock-'n'-roll lifestyle. Instead, he was confronted with the sobering reality of the record business—sales were down, layoffs up, and the clueless label heads couldn't even open an email attachment. Kennedy's new book, Rock On: An Office Power Ballad, is an honest and flat-out hilarious reflection on his 18 months in the biz working as Atlantic's director of creative development, from writing pitches for Phil Collins to mistaking Duran Duran's manager for one of the band members. Fast forward to 2008: With records sales down 15 percent from the previous year, are labels on their way out? WW spoke to Kennedy, currently a McSweeney's magazine contributor who lives in New York, about the difference between keeping it real and living a lie before he reads at Powell's on Thursday, Feb. 28.
WW: When did you get the idea to start writing the book? After the Phil Collins assignment?
Dan Kennedy: It really took me a long time. I don't think I got it until six months in that I was, like, you know, this is really a front-row seat to something that is happening at this point in pop-culture history.
Did you find it hard to describe some of the stuff you saw in the office? Some of it seems borderline clichéd how incredibly out of touch your characters are.
I really didn't think this stuff existed except in Hollywood screenplays. And then you're sitting there going, well, nope, I'm staring at the boss wearing sunglasses in the conference room and calling the product manager "baby."
The book is coming out at a really opportune time, considering how quickly record sales are plummeting. Do you think there's any way to save the industry?
Absolutely. This stuff isn't rocket science—it's a pretty basic business model. Any economist would say what seems to be the problem. You have millions of people who want MP3 files—just serve them some. Steve Jobs came along and said, "Well, what about if we serve them up for a buck a pop?" and he sold $3 billion worth. The problem is, the guys at these major labels are going, "Well, a dollar a song is great, but we really liked it when it was $21.99 for three songs and a bunch of filler, and that's how we all got three houses." These are guys that need to ask their assistant for help with an email attachment, and their consumer is a person who can burn a CD these executives are still trying to convince them costs $21.99, $12 of which is manufacturing, and that their favorite bands never saw a dime of the royalties for the most part, anyway.
So, it's not like the industry is totally dying. They are still making tons of money, just not as much as they were accustomed to.
That's exactly the situation! If you and I had a lemonade stand, and we were able to get $17 per cup of lemonade for the last, um, 18 years, and then suddenly people caught on and they were realizing it doesn't cost that much for a cup of lemonade, they were finding other options, they were getting a sip of lemonade for a nickel and a cup for a $1.50. But these guys are like, "Wait, wait, hang on! Send someone over here to crush the dollar-a-cup stands. Fuck it, we've gotta get people back over here to the $17-a-cup shit."
Do you think independent record labels are picking up the slack?
The thing about the independents is that they've been doing something that they love to do for all the right reasons for a really long time, and that's always going to win. Jonathan [Poneman] at Sub Pop, I'm sure, walks down the street several times a week and goes and sees a band he likes. The guy running whatever major [label] takes an executive helicopter to a party in the Hamptons. Sooner or later that's going to bite you in the ass, and the guy who's doing what he loves because he loves doing it is going to finish the race ahead of you.
Toward the end of the book, you meet with label execs and they talk about selling a "lifestyle" instead of music.
I still don't quite get what that means, but that same person [told me they] are very excited when someone tells them about a new band and they find out that new band is selling $800 a night [worth of] hooded sweatshirts. To which I say, hmm, is that something for a record label to be excited about or is that something for the Gap to be excited about? I got really tired of rich white guys with two assistants and an office the size of my entire apartment telling me it's a really tough time for music. You try telling the 600 kids lined up out in front of the club to see their favorite band tonight that this is a tough time for music and they will look at you like you're old and like you're mental.
Dan Kennedy reads from
at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 7:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 28. Free.