The Triumph of Music and the Downfall of Books in the Digital Age

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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23 Responses

  1. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Or Borders juist has crappy management

  2. Barry says:

    RTodd: “In an earlier comment Rufus lamented that a musician friend of his has been quite popular, but still has not even gotten a sniff of the big time money. I don’t know his friend, but unless that friend is young, has male model good looks and plays music written to sound just like Justin Timberlake I suspect he may not have had a career at all had the digital age not occurred.[ii]”

    I gather that this has always been the fate of 99% of (trying to be professional) musicians. They can make – not a living, but a hobby, if they are lucky, playing local live gigs, and maybe even cover the gas money for the van to get them there 🙂

    Some teeeeeeeeeny, tiiiiiiiny few were allowed the privilege of signing a record contract, and the vast majority of those didn’t receive much, because they didn’t sell enough albums. Those who did sell enough albums might still find that when music industry accounting was through, they didn’t make much (or anything).

    Making a comfortable living playing music was always on a par with making a comfortable living as an actor, or an athlete.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Barry says:

      Yeah, it’s probably true for most of recording history. I was just lucky to get into punk music really young and most of that was and is still released by independent labels, often owned by the band and their friends. So when you went to see a band and bought their album, you knew the money was going to them. I remember Green Day once saying it took three or four records for them to make as much on Warner’s as they had on Lookout! Bands like Fugazi not only made all their own money from their albums; they also tended to sell their records for a lower price than the major labels.

      Of course, the advantage the major labels had by that point was they’d pretty much bought the radio stations, so there was no way you were going to hear anything cool on the radio. Still won’t, unless you have a good local station. If iTunes is going to be like the best indie station in the world, I’m all for it. So long as people pay for the music. Maybe there’s some justification for stealing from the majors that are paying their artists a pittance per record anyway, but stealing from independent artists really is like saying, “What you do means nothing to me”.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Incidentally, my friend has found an interesting way to capitalize off being in the band- he started his own label to release his friends’ bands and he gets them opening slots at his shows. He also pays them a lot better than the major label pays him.Report

      • tom van dyke in reply to Rufus F. says:

        White boys of a certain age listen to alt-rock, which often is pretty primitive and works fine recorded with stone knives and bearskins.

        Yes, there are some ace musicians mixed in, but white boys need to be damn good on guitar [especially] to stand out because every white boy in America is issued an electric guitar sometime in his pubescence. There are far fewer ace singers and even drummers, and you can pretty much forget keyboards. And bass players are the Special Olympics of guitar.

        [There, I said it! If BHO can say it on Leno, I can say it in a comments section.]

        And I do say all this as a non-famous white boy musician meself. Mostly, the alt-rock segment of the market is small. Form meets function as in cheap movies like Clerks: doing it on a shoestring can be endearing. Rap, the same. There will always be a place for a “people’s music” that requires more feeling than finesse.

        But if you want to make polished music, you need ace musicians across the board, better instruments and more expensive recording gear, etc. Arrangers for the strings, what have you. This is where the record companies and massive overhead come in. You can’t shoot Harry Potter on the cheap.Report

        • Rufus F. in reply to tom van dyke says:

          It’s all true. But I’ve seen a few people make it work who were the very rare ace musicians with the savvy, determination and business sense required to start their own labels and do it themselves. The vast majority of the really great musicians I know can hardly buy their own groceries. But I’ve known a few who made it work. It’s just like any other wing of show business- a few of them have their shit together and an insane level of determination and it pays off.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to tom van dyke says:

          And hiding all the polishing so that the result sounds raw and gutty? That takes genius.Report

  3. Will Truman says:

    I understand your concerns, though disagree with a number of the specifics.

    I think that the lowered barriers to entry will swamp the would-be Grishams in terms of overall selections. When getting a book “out there” costs so little, a lot of people will try their hands at a lot of things. A number of them will be good! The trick will be in finding them. Which is a variation of the problem that occurs in the music industry. The difference is, listening to a bad song takes three minutes from your life. Reading a bad book takes hours.

    So what I think would have to occur is some sort of good filtering mechanism. The question is how this would occur. Who is going to read through muck to find the good stuff? Right now we have people at publishing houses paid to do it. Will something develop in the book industry?

    I think there’s a case to be made it will. The Internet has created so many virtual gatherings that word of mouth will be a lot easier. I mean, here we are on a political blog, and yet Jaybird writes a comic book post and suddenly we find out a lot of people here are fans. So I think a sort of work of mouth will occur where it turns out that people in some sort of forum will find out that more than a couple of them are interested in some post-modern, techno-fantasy novel featuring orcs and halflings alongside humans. Will the author of said book ever make a profit? Probably not. But as you point out, it hasn’t stopped anyone before.

    Oh, and I think the death of the paperback is a wildly off the mark prediction, alongside “nobody will buy PCs because they will have these superpowered cell phones.” The industry will change, and it’s probably the case that eBooks will be more common. But paperbacks have their own appeal in a way that compact discs do not.Report

    • North in reply to Will Truman says:

      I’m with Will. There are numerous internet aggregator sites that sift through the fire hose of news and information on real politic that fountains out every day and present their specific readers with a coherent selection that meets their tastes. I have no doubt that there will come to be literary fishermen (women) who will trawl the masterpieces out of the oceans of drek.

      Besides, when I was a teenager everyone was screaming about how big box stores like Borders were evil empires squashing indi bookstores with their big stompy feets. Now Borders is tits-up and the indi bookstores are still here (some of em).
      Plus there’ll be a limitless supply of all the drek we can ever want!Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Will Truman says:

      One of the nice things Kindle does is let you read a sample chapter. A bad author will be obvious from the get go.Report

      • A bad author with poor narrative, maybe. But what about a bad author whose novels don’t actually go anywhere? Or become extremely predictable about a quarter of the way through? Those are the ones I would be most worried about. Honestly, the money hadn’t really sunk in yet. I keep thinking of eBooks as being a lot cheaper than they are.

        Good point, though. At least you do get to try before you buy. In a better way than with regular books, even.Report

  4. dhex says:

    on the music tip i partially disagree – while opportunities are far bigger because access has been eased immeasurably, digital is a very sharp double-edged sword. more people hear you, far less people give you any money. at a certain point – i.e. popular enough to get some press/buzz, but not popular enough to have already lived off of that wave, it seems to do more harm than good (in a financial sense). the big labels are not doing as well as they did, but a lot more small and mid-sized labels are doing a hell of a lot worse. it’s much harder for an indie (band or label) to really “live the dream”, and it was never easy in the first place.

    those who are swift have found alternate ways of capitalizing on this (namely touring all the time, doing special runs and merch). hell, who’d have thought we’d see the resurgence of cassettes of all things? (i hate this resurgence because i hated cassettes as a kid, but i understand why people do it. it’s cheap, physical and a throwback to nostalgia all in one bite.) we have bands reuniting to do tours decades after they went down in flames, in part because they have been exposed to people who can now hear their entire backcatalog with minimal efforts. it’s not all out of love – it’s because the window is closing (at least until the culture shifts onto something new and the # of people in bands and recording start to drop considerably, which will probably eventually happen).

    on the other hand, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle, and lord knows i love bandcamp a lot, both for transmitting and finding new bands. if you have specialized tastes (polishes monocle) it’s a goddamn wonderland. in the last few weeks i’ve picked up post rock and ambient from britain, idm from san fran, black metal from australia, technoid krautrock from germany, sludge metal from nola, throwback death metal from sweden, and angular post-punk from a few miles away from where i live.

    i still buy a lot of music, but outside of certain bands (either buying direct or picking up merch/album preorders and goodies) i tend to buy about 75% digital. and i go to a lot less shows, but try to buy more stuff the few times a year i can get away.

    the wire has been doing a back and forth on this every month from different guest columnists under the title “collateral damage”. it’s interesting from the position of small labels, record store owners and musicians who live (and mostly die) on the fringes. it’s definitely worth reading if you’re down with the britons.

    • Rufus F. in reply to dhex says:

      I remember one band that was suddenly very big on the Internet because they had some clever videos up on Youtube and good songs, so I went to their website to see when they were touring. Basically they had a page saying ‘Everyone wants to know when we’re touring. We can’t. We have no money. Everyone’s listening to our music online, but nobody’s buying anything from us. Sorry.’Report

  5. ram says:

    I agree. Cool post.Report

  6. ram says:

    U’re welcome RTod.
    You gotta come to Buenos Aires then. Bookshops are while far from desappearing yet. Is the city of the “too many bookshops”. You can dive in search of pearls for hours.Report

  7. DensityDuck says:

    A: Well, you got “feel and smell”, but you forgot “curl up” and “surrounded by”. When you’re making a luddite complaint about ebooks you have to include the full womb-seeking complaint; it’s part of the style!

    B: If you think that the book industry didn’t work just like the music industry then you’re fooling yourself.Report

    • Murali in reply to DensityDuck says:

      But they are different. Music has an informal gatekeeper before things reach the big labels. This informal gatekeeper was basically the aspiring musician’s friends and acquaintances who would politely throw stuff (or up) at him if he or she genuinely sucked. So, in music you never really get to hear the really horrible people who have anti-talent (some people who call themselves have no talent. Some people have a talent for taking even the best composition and ruining it). So, when able to bypass the big labels, you have a bunch of moderately talented people with a larger range of artistic vision. This is an improvement over what was here before because the big labels sharply limited the range of artistic vision out there.

      On the other hand, people rarely give their elf/dwarf porn (sorry erotica) to someone else for constructive commentary. For that matter not even their more respectable stuff, as can be seen from the quality of my guest posts :-(. Never the less, often in the writing industry, things go straight from people’s head to computer to the internet without any informal screening device to filter away poor quality stuff. That’s why the effect seems different.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Murali says:

        “But they are different. Music has an informal gatekeeper before things reach the big labels.”

        And the publishing world has a gatekeeper, too, called “the publisher”. You’ve heard the term “slush pile”, right?

        “On the other hand, people rarely give their elf/dwarf porn (sorry erotica) to someone else for constructive commentary. ”

        You know, people these days can put an mp3 on Rapidshare, post a link on their webpage, and suddenly everyone in the world can hear it if they want. There is no difference between distributing a song and distributing a text work (or an image, for that matter.) It’s all just media, just bits of data.Report

        • Murali in reply to DensityDuck says:

          And the publishing world has a gatekeeper, too, called “the publisher”. You’ve heard the term “slush pile”, right?

          That’s a formal gatekeeper just like the big labels in music. However, music has additional informal gatekeepers which writing doesnt have.Report