The Internet versus book publishing: a lesson for musicians

Book Publishing Music Business Internet

Whenever I discuss the Internet’s disruption of the recorded music business here I notice how defensive the comments become, especially from musicians and record label folk. Having gone back to read hundreds of past comments on my digital music articles during the last few days, I see that the response themes lean heavily toward the following: on one side – outrage, denial, justification of the status quo, demands that “someone” do “something” and despair, on the other it’s basically “stick a fork in it, turn it over, its done..”

Of course non of the above is helpful, as what’s actually required is a cold, hard look at the real issues (hint: it’s not “piracy”) and an honest appraisal of what works and what doesn’t work followed by a general consensus on how to actually reconfigure the recorded music business. And to keep this current everyone should calm down about Spotify being available in the USA; streaming services are part of the problem not the answer. NB: By problem I mean the decline in music sales and a reduction, or worse, in musician’s income streams.

One thing is clear – maintaining the status quo will result in disaster for musicians.

Outside of the music echo chamber all businesses have been grappling with the effects of the web, none more so than the book publishers. The parallels between books and CDs, and how consumers now go about getting them, are remarkable. The predictions from Very Serious People ( to borrow one of Paul Krugman‘s favorite phrases,) were that book publishing companies like recorded music companies would go the way of the dinosaurs. Those predictions were clearly hyperbolic as those industries will probably be around for sometime, yet what is different between the two is that the book publishers have fully embraced digital delivery of their products. Yes it took them some time but they finally wised up and started to confront their issues. And that was driven by noticing how their customers wanted to access books and magazines these days – via e-readers or simply via websites.

They may also have taken note of Clay Shirky’s maxim: “the internet is the largest group of people who care about reading and writing ever assembled in history…” We could of course switch that up to: the internet is the largest group of people who care about music and recording ever assembled in history…

I wonder if the music industry will ever push for college courses like this one?

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Carolyn Pittis, the senior vice president of global author services at HarperCollins, told a packed room of students several days into the course. “So it’s very exciting for those of us who spent many years when a lot of things didn’t happen.”

As the students scribbled in notebooks and clicked on laptops, Ms. Pittis recounted some of the biggest developments in the industry so far in 2011. The proliferation of e-readers and the growing digital market share of Barnes & Noble. Amanda Hocking, a formerly self-published author, making a book deal with a traditional publisher. J. K. Rowling’s selling her own “Harry Potter” e-books online. Even the surprise success of “Go the — to Sleep,” a hilariously vulgar children’s book parody that rose to the top of best-seller lists after being widely pirated via e-mail for months.

In the past year, e-books have skyrocketed in popularity, especially in genre fiction like romance and thrillers. For some new releases, the first week has brought more sales of electronic copies than of print copies.

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