The Triumph of Music and the Downfall of Books in the Digital Age
Borders has announced that it is closing it’s doors and beginning liquidation; this of course is already old news in this digital world that killed it. If you are in your twenties or early thirties, or if you were raised in a big city that has sprawling indie bookstores this may not be a big deal. But for me, especially in the 90s, Borders was my gateway to a world of new, quality works.[i]
Comparisons are already being made, predictably, between what is happening with books and the forces that have been transforming the music industry since Napster. Common wisdom states that each will suffer the similar fate of finding a new business model, but consensus seems to be that while this has been bad news for music, it will be good news for books. I’d try to reiterate the logic to this assessment, but I’m not sure I understand it well enough to do it justice. In any case, I believe the opposite:
The new digital models have been a boon to music quality and diversity, but I have slightly Luddite fears that these models will – at least temporarily, but perhaps permanently – have a homogenizing effect on books.
The digital age has been a huge boon to music. And I should point out right away that when I say this I am talking about music, not the music industry. As far as I’m concerned the music industry can go die a slow painful death. My kids can never understand, but when I was growing up most new recorded music sounded pretty much like most other popular recorded music. This is because recording & distributing companies made almost all decisions about what we would hear; for them the key to maximizing profits was not taking chances. Was there some young artist with a new, powerful voice that was radically different wowing them in some Soho bar? Probably. But they never made it to the ears of mainstream America; they certainly never made it mine.
I have said this many times, but most of the artists you probably really love right now would never have existed in the old business model, or if they had their work would never would have made its way to you. 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]
Napster, piracy, and essentially free distribution has been a huge boon to music in this country, because the mission of the industry that once solely supported music was to limit selection, variety and even quality because that maximized revenues for the supporting distribution companies. Stop and think about how weird that is for a minute. It was as if the agricultural industry was run by trucking companies that decided that all fresh fruits and vegetables should be turned into Birdseye-style rectangular-boxed frozen mush, because you could ship so much more product per square foot that way.
Before the digital age, the book-publishing industry was always been the polar opposite of the music distribution industry. While larger publishing companies always had niche-genre bestselling authors it would look to clone, numerically these titles were in a huge minority. Unless you did your book buying in airport terminals or your supermarket checkout line, you always had a huge variety in quality, style and subject matter to choose from when looking for your next read. Take a time machine to the 60s, 70s, 80s or just stay in the here and now – you have always been able to find challenging stream of consciousness prose, ripping horror or sci-fi yarns, technical manuals or how-to books, and everything in between. Unlike the music industry, the book-publishing industry always prided itself on the vast niche selection they fostered.
The difference in the two supporting industries had an effect on potential development of the two types or artists as well. In 1980, a kid with a guitar might have briefly tried to be a rock star, with its fame, money and access to hot models that would agree to date you. But it wouldn’t happen, and invariably he’d stop playing. Young potential writers, on the other hand, always seemed like they would be thrilled just to be published. So many of them kept writing to some degree, even after it became obvious they never would.
When I think of what the digital age has meant to music I think of iTunes. Millions of artists, so many trying new things – or at least things that are new to me. All of them having 30 seconds or more that I can sample, like sliced peaches at the neighborhood farmers market. The result of the digital age of music is that I now spend far, far more money on music than ever before, and this shows no sign of slowing for me – ever. The digital age has been manna from heaven for the music lover. For the book lover? Not so much.
When I think of what the digital age has meant to books, I think of my iBooks and Kindle apps on my iPad. iBooks has very little selection, and most of that is best-seller airport-store stuff. Of course, iBooks is so new that grading the new model on this lack of titles seems unfair. When I go to browse on my Kindle, however, I do find a lot of titles, including ones that are published on-line only by authors that would never have gotten a contract from Penguin. But when I browse through those titles, it seems like the medium that so freed music to have a myriad of voices is doing the opposite with books. Digital distribution in music meant I got to discover world music that had representation from every country I had ever heard of, or sample about 50 styles of blues, all named for some city, state or county. Digital distribution with books – at least so far – seems to mean that thousands of writers have found a way to publish vampire/werewolf lite-erotica with paintings of hot babes with weapons on the “cover.” Is the digital Thomas Pynchon out there, having just uploaded a sweeping and complex tome that both touches and infuriates me with its heady trickery with the English language? Maybe, but I can’t find him because apparently every third lawyer in the country wants me to think he’s the next John Grisham, and after wading through the first 50 web pages of generic, bland looking titles I lose interest.
The age of digital books is coming, whether I like it or not. And even though I am going to miss the tactile experience of a paper and pulp book (the smell!), I can live without it. But the experience of spending my entire lunch hour, walking the stacks at Borders and tasting bits of the amazing diversity they prided themselves on – the thrill of finding a new gem you only found by not looking for it – that is a loss I will truly mourn.
I will end by throwing out this question (plea?) to the folks here – where are people having success finding new unique voices in the online book world? Which trends seem like they might lead to as great or even greater diversity online as we had prior?
[i] Here is a short, off the top of my head list of authors and artists I discovered while spending hundreds of hours browsing Border’s shelves and New Artist listening stations: Louis de Bernières, Cormac McCarthy, James Morrow, Ron Sexsmith, Neil Gaiman, Joshua Redman, Guster, Ben Folds, Billy Collins, Pete Dexter, O.A.R., China Mielville, Jeanette WInterson, Beck, Alan Lightman, Quartetto Gelato, The Shins, Peter Carey, Don DeLillo, Teenage Fanclub, David Foster Wallace, CAKE, Cesaria Evora, Wilco, John Casey, and it’s just hitting me that if I keep this up I’ll be going all morning. (And even with that, these are just the ones I’m sure most people have now heard of.)