Next time you’re about to school someone on how the music industry is or is not like the book business, stop what you’re doing and locate a copy of Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, by Steven Knopper.
While you should ideally read the whole thing, at the very least you should flip to Chapter 7 and read it in full before you wax intellectual about all things digitally downloaded. Here’s a key graph:
“These days, [Aimee] Mann uses recording technology that is cheaper than ever and makes licensing deals with major distribution companies simply to put her records in stores and post them on iTunes. She gets to keep control of her master recordings and makes every creative decision about what does and doesn’t go on the record. ‘A lot of artists don’t realize how much money they could make by retaining ownership and licensing directly,’ her manager, Michael Hausman, told ex-Talking Head David Byrne in Wired.”
Why is that a big deal? Because it makes clear that recording artists no longer need partners in order to produce music or deliver it to an audience. Between advances on the recording side, which have made CD-quality audio cheap to produce, and developments on the digital/internet side, which have made CD-quality audio cheap to distribute, there is no longer any obstacle between Aimee Mann and her audience.
Again: because of technology there is no longer any obstacle between musicians and their audience. Which means that record companies — which used to make it possible for bands to tour and record and, most importantly, distribute their music, are no longer necessary. Yes, there are certainly reasons why some bands might want to ‘go big’ and sign with a label, but it’s now an option, not a barrier to entry.
This is the nightmare the book business is facing. Very shortly, with the advent of cheap and reliable e-readers and large digital libraries, the book business will no longer control access, production and distribution. They will no longer be necessary. (It’s even worse for the book business, because the high and low-end means of production for any writer is a keyboard. A keyboard!)
As a footnote, I want to say that Knopper’s book is excellent. He doesn’t pretend to be impartial, but he backs up his arguments and I think he plays fair with the people and the industry he dissects. Highly recommended.