Lessons in Adaptation and Inevitability from Metallica

This is one that I meant to publish a while ago (I wrote my rough notes for it on December 11, 2012), but life has a way of…getting in the way. It was originally inspired by the announcement that Metallica was opening their library to Spotify, meaning I had access to a lot of quality stuff I didn’t own but enjoyed hearing.

You either get the joke, or you don’t. I’m so happy that I do.

The thing that struck me about it was that one of the classic battles of the 1990s to those of us who paid attention to the entertainment scene in general, was of Metallica suing Napster. They were furious that they were getting cheated, they hated the model and the wanted to shut Napster down. For a lot of people, that battle defined when Metallica went from being a cool band to The Man.

(We won’t mention Pearl Jam’s war with Ticketmaster because quite frankly, I didn’t give a care then and I don’t give a care now.)

Kid Rock fought being on iTunes originally, too, but like Pearl Jam I didn’t really care. As much as I like to play the first minute of Bawitdaba to walk into a room like a bad ass, and I think Kid Rock is a shining example of how to treat your hometown right, it wasn’t a banner fight the way Metallica’s was.

Metallica wanted a throttle hold on their music. They fought the digital revolution as hard as they could instead of seeing where the world was going.

And so what I’m left wondering is, did these fights slow us down? Instead of finding a way to work with the new models that were forming, the bands fought to prevent them. And if anything is true about technology, it’s that you cannot stop its progress.

I lament the fact that maybe—just maybe—streaming music services would have been able to reach maturity a bit sooner. I gleefully never have to buy an album again thanks to my subscription to Spotify, and can listen to anything on my home network easier even than finding a disc, putting it in a player and listening to it.

The Sound of Inevitability?

While it seems like an awfully petty thing to lament not being able to stream music through my computer or phone sooner, let me apply this to a broader point, one that I touched on in “Are We Losing Our Sense of Wonder?”

While Frylock made a great comment to that post saying that resistance to technology lessens with time as each successive generation grows up more accustomed to its exponential rate of change, I wonder if that will hold true from here on out.

Will we see the entertainment industries move more quickly to adopt new technologies, and even champion them to increase access?

Will we possibly see them even pioneer some new technologies that will open us up to previously–dreamed realities?

I certainly hope so.

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6 thoughts on “Lessons in Adaptation and Inevitability from Metallica

  1. Lars Fat-head would have been better not complaining and say “okay, so what can we do to capitalise in this” I’m surprised they didn’t try to ban the word Metal because it is part of the word Metallica. Or using a drum in a certain way because that’s how Fat-head uses it. I went from liking them to thinking they are jumped up money grabbing tw**s.

  2. An interesting discussion. I think, however, that there is a missing link in how you define the central issue:

    The root of the controversy wasn’t so much embracing technology or relinquishing the old record company distribution model. It was an issue of piracy. And you don’t have to be a bloated band or a greedy record exec to know that piracy is wrong.

    Your bigger question seems to be why record companies didn’t recognize certain trend lines and capitalize on the Napster — or more specifically, the mp3 — wave to develop and adopt a free/subscription/utility model for downloading and/or streaming music by that point.

    The easy, cynical answer is that record companies are risk-adverse corporations that do not place a premium on innovation. They are not progressive on any level, and they have always had a fear of change.

    The harder answer deals with just how fast consumer behaviors changed in the late 90s and early 2000’s, and just how ballsy it would be for any record company to forecast and pivot on:

    1. The explosion of quality streaming media (YouTube being only eight years old)
    2. The wide availability of infrastructure to support streaming media (wifi, 3/4G networks, high speed broadband, etc).
    3. The mass-adoption of mp3 players…which, as I recall, were pretty much a hipster thing for at least the first year or two.
    4. Consumer ambivalence for hard copy music and merchandising

    It shouldn’t really be a surprise that Apple and Amazon came out with the best early models. They innovate for a living.

    Today, record companies wield considerably less power than they did ten years ago. There are several reasons for this, but its largely because they have finally awoken to realize that in order to survive, they have to be more in tune with consumer consumption habits.

    To that end, I’d imagine you’ll see a lot of wacky innovations moving forward. I’m not sure how many of them will be brought to you by A&M, but I guarantee you one thing: they’ll be a lot faster to recognize the good ones when they see them in the future.

    1. Piracy is wrong – and is something I refuse to participate in regardless. Apple’s key was figuring out that 99 cents was the price point to break the music piracy angle. I know that movies still have a fair amount of piracy happening, but until they get movie theatres under control…and sadly they are by starting to price it like live theatre, which priced itself into a luxury market long ago (#sadface).

      But I submit to you, if it’s more “the industry” why was Metallica willing to go out and be the spokesmouth for the debate? It cost them a LOT of credibility.

      1. I dunno. I can’t speak for Metallica, and virtually every single decision the band had made in the second and third acts of their career — dating back to the hiring of Bob Rock to produce the utterly toothless Black Album — has befuddled me.

        (To that end, the idea that as of July, 2000, Metallica still had “a lot of credibility” to so many people is something that I find incredibly amusing) 🙂

        Lars maintained that it was an issue of control over where and how his music was distributed. And as hypocritical as this was (Lars – as was every other fan of European metal in the early-to-mid-80’s – was an avid pen-pal tape-trader in his youth), I’m not sure *that* actually alienated as many people as did the nature of the lawsuit, which targeted Napster users. This was the sin.

        To that end, you could argue that both Lars’ cause and the fan backlash were essentially self-centered.

        Nonetheless, Metallica just isn’t relevant to what i believe it your actual question. No single band was able to hamper innovations in the music distribution model.

        But Sony, EMI, Warner and BMG? Very capable. Very motivated. And very resourced.

        1. Good points – but I wonder if the targeting of the fans isn’t still the preferred strategy. Entertainment companies seem to get their rocks off going after single Torrent users instead of locking down the large-scale piracy that enables them. Especially Chinese piracy, and other Asian markets, which is the real drain on them according to what I’ve read.

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