Print Protectionism Rules The Day…For Now

So Amazon came out with a statement a week ago detailing its position on ebook prices and, not insignificantly, it’s belief that authors are being short changed on royalties by publishers. Not surprisingly, it was met with a collective shrug by the mainstream industry, if not outright contempt. One thing this has done, however, is bring the belief that publishers’ actions on ebooks are all about protecting print out of the implied shadows. Here’s a variety of quotes from various sources critical of Amazon in response to their statement. Read on:

“Amazon doesn’t quantify what lower e-book prices would mean for sales of physical copies of the same books. Authors who work with traditional publishers like Hachette tend to make more, per copy, from hardcover sales than from e-books. If cheaper e-books draw people away from hardcovers, that could hurt these authors financially.”

“If lower e-book prices were to eventually destroy the market for physical books entirely—or even shrink it enough so that it wouldn’t make financial sense for traditional booksellers to publish them—that would help Amazon consolidate its power, which would ultimately be dangerous for authors.”

Literary agent Brian DeFiore in The New Yorker

“Lower e-book prices aren’t necessarily the best thing for writers. We get a percentage of the price as a royalty. You also have to take into consideration the price of the hardcover. Yes, it’s cheap to make a digital book but it’s expensive to present a book in hardcover.”

Roxana Robinson, Authors Guild President in Wall Street Journal

“Amazon’s assumptions don’t include, for example, that publishers and authors might have a legitimate reason for not wanting the gulf between eBook and physical hardcover pricing to be so large that brick and mortar retailers suffer, narrowing the number of venues into which books can sell.”

John Scalzi from his blog

“It is true that ebooks live in a world where they compete with other media. It is also true that the they live in a world which includes print, also an important component of a publisher’s and an author’s economic world. This analysis is very short on measurements of the impact on print sales of lower ebook prices.”

Michael Shatzkin from his blog

“Their figures consider a world of ebooks only. Their “total pie” is really just a piece of the pie. But publishers and authors are looking to maximize revenue across all formats. “Total revenue” on an ebook is only part of the “total revenue” for a new release book, and the hardcover edition still generates substantially more revenue per unit.”

Michael Cader from Publishers Lunch via Joe Konrath

“Even if ebook prices are the focal point of the dispute, that does not mean (Hachette) should not be looking at the effect across their total business, and their total account base.”

Michael Cader from Joe Konrath’s blog

What do all these have in common? The belief that the ebook is not only inextricably tied to print, but must, in some way, be handicapped to shield the older, more expensive and inefficient model. So what we’ve got here is the key issue in modern publishing, do you believe that digital must necessarily be hamstrung in some way to the benefit of print?

If you’re a Patterson or King or someone who gets the benefits of large numbers of hardcover sales in physical bookstores, that answer seems to be a resounding yes. But if you’re not one of those very select few, the question becomes much more difficult to answer. How does it benefit the midlist author or the debut author to have your ebook prices placed higher to support brick and mortar hardcover sales that benefit a much smaller number of superstar writers almost exclusively, and very likely, not you? As for the indie authors, it clearly doesn’t seem to benefit you to link print and digital in this way at all.

There appears to be two schools of thought on this. One is that print must be protected from lower priced ebooks because they will hurt physical stores, shelf space will decline and Amazon will reign hellfire over the industry forever and ever, which will result in damage to all authors in the long run. This is a call for all but the publishers and most fortunate authors to sacrifice in order to preserve an ecosystem that doesn’t really help them. You must sacrifice now in order to prop up a network where, unless you’re extremely fortunate, you must sacrifice in perpetuity, essentially.

The second school of thought is that ebook prices must necessarily be higher (and royalties lower) because the revenue generated pays for the totality of the book. This line of thought is that profits from ebooks aren’t really profits at all but a portion of the total revenue of a book that includes high print expenses that must be paid. This is a call for authors to sacrifice on ebooks to pay for the publishers’ print expenses even though they’re already being paid for that with a royalty structure on print that was designed and implemented to cover all the costs of bringing the book to market. You’re basically donating 75% or so of your digital proceeds after the retailer’s cut to your publisher for generating and uploading an epub file.

Either way, the presumption is that ebooks can’t be allowed to grow independently of print. They must either be restricted to prevent the erosion of print sales or a large portion of their revenue must be siphoned off to pay for the print infrastructure. There is also the assumption baked into this that the future of bookstores depends on the continued furtherance of $25 or $30 hardcovers. Also that any contraction in the print market (and conversely any unchecked growth in ebooks) will lead to Amazon consolidating even more power. Both assumptions rest on the belief that ebook and print revenue exist in the same continuum as hardcover and paperback revenue did in the past.

Here’s the thing about that, paperbacks didn’t undercut hardcovers because they were windowed. Windowing doesn’t work with digital. So the only means they see to prevent hardcover sales erosions is to actively lessen the sales of ebooks. Presumably, I would think, once the hardcover cycle runs it’s course, the high ebook price should come down to old mass market paperback levels, if not less, but that’s not really what we’re seeing.

All of this rests on the belief that digital sales can be essentially capped at 30-35% of the industry. And further, that print, particularly pricey hardcovers, won’t erode anyway due to other factors irrespective of ebooks or that the large and growing segment of the industry that simply doesn’t care about the hardcover/bookstore ecosystem they’re essentially locked out of won’t undermine the higher ebook prices to the point that publishers lose out on both print and digital sales.

Protecting physical bookstores is also a tenuous ideal from this two-pronged perspective. One, ecommerce is not going away. In fact, same day delivery is being rolled out by multiple players, not just Amazon. That has nothing to do with the price of ebooks but a more existential question on the nature of consumer shopping choices. Two, print on demand technology will become better, cheaper and more pervasive, possibly even resulting in kiosks that have the potential to do some of the same things Redbox did to video stores. When was the last time you visited one of those?

Are publishers going to withhold books from these kiosks? Will they demand near-hardcover prices for the trade paperback products they produce? Are they also going to demand higher prices for print books sold online? All of these elements will eventually erode bookstore sales and if publishers’ interests rely on protecting those stores, then these acts would be totally consistent with the higher ebook price strategy. It also means that publishers would be intentionally harming virtually every new publishing technology that increases efficiency, lowers prices to readers and increases sales in favor of their one preferred sales channel and format. One that, it can’t be understated, makes books more expensive, more inconvenient for readers to buy and less lucrative for writers overall.

If you’re James Patterson, Stephen King or Douglas Preston, these strategies may make some sort of sense in the immediate term. If you’re any of Hachette or any other large publisher’s thousands of non superstar authors, however, this doesn’t make a whole lot of long-term sense. Remember, you’re not just making less money on a contracting print market, you’re covering the publishers’ revenue declines in that respect through lower ebook royalties. The only way declining hardcover sales and rising ebook sales harms these authors is if the publishers are saddling you with a much-too-small cut of ebook proceeds. Amazon is right in this respect. If publishers were paying writers fairly on ebooks, then you stand to make more money on more sales at cheaper prices for readers. Their strategy is going to make you less money on fewer sales at higher prices to readers. The fact that there’s one single non-superstar writer who signed on to that Authors United letter is another illustration that, much like politics, dogma can and does lead some people to make choices that run counter to their own economic self interest.

Also consider, much like ebooks, independent authors will jump all over POD kiosks and the opportunities they bring. After all, when you’re looking at a physical store ecosystem that actively discriminates against you, protecting their margins or even their very existence is likely a non-factor in your choices if not a potential negative to you to do so. This is something bookstores would do well to keep in mind. Continuing to block, ignore or alienate indies is creating an entire giant class of increasingly successful writers who are ambivalent to your problems if not outright hostile to you. You might want to knock that off.

Basically, this strategy that the big publishing houses are engaging in is not in the best interests of readers or the vast majority of authors. The concern that Amazon will dominate everything is a very real one, but this isn’t a particularly practical way of dealing with that. I want a diverse ecosystem as well but asking me to sacrifice to the benefit of organizations that aren’t willing to do so in return isn’t going to work for me. Amazon’s market force is a different problem in need of a solution as innovative as the ones Amazon has used to gain that position. I think it’s fairly safe to say any such innovative competition is not going to be any more friendly to the publishers’ 20th century business strategy.

Let’s say I self publish a few books and my sales take off. A publisher comes to me with an offer. Ignore for a moment that the advances being offered barely cover a few weeks worth of sales in some cases, let alone life of the book. Let’s say I sign it anyway. That offer would require me to pull currently good selling material from the market for months in some cases. When they do return, my ebooks are now two or three times the price, the share of which I receive is less that what I was making per book on my own. I’m locked out of doing anything about it. I’m also hoping that bookstores stock my books in a way that generates sales rather than just another title on just another shelf and that declining physical sales doesn’t cost me even more money. I can’t get my books into libraries without the crazy high prices and restrictive terms publishers impose on them. I can’t take advantage of POD opportunities without my publisher’s approval and even then only on terms they set. On top of that, I have little means of having a viable route to rights reversions should everything go south. I have to hope I get lucky enough to generate hardcover sales (if I even get a hardcover print run) at a high enough volume that my next contract can get more favorable terms or a bigger advance, if there’s a next contract at all. The icing on this particular cake is that my material that was finding a foothold on my own may now be stagnant and trapped with that publisher for at least 35 years unless I can afford a good lawyer and a drawn out legal battle to get my rights back. And all because my publisher chose to emphasize its most difficult, expensive and inefficient product line for a litany of reasons that have little to nothing to do with benefitting me. Why would I sign that? Why would anyone?

I’m of the opinion that, if I were to sign on with a publisher to handle my print business, I absolutely do not want that same entity to also be in control of my digital business. They will almost inevitably do just as these publishers are, handicapping the digital to prop up the print. What should be happening here is another round of disintermediation, this time separating the print and digital products entirely. Focus on finding a way to maximize print that doesn’t involve sacrificing digital. That could mean exploiting POD technology and finding ways to actually cut the cost of physical books to readers (and bookstores), not raise the cost of ebooks. Can it be done? Maybe, maybe not. But what you won’t be doing is handicapping the emerging market that customers’ dollars are flowing toward. $30 hardcovers of mainstream genre fiction is not a long-term growth market, just as $20 compact discs weren’t for the music industry and multi-thousand dollar print ads weren’t for the newspaper industry. Their respective businesses may have been dependent on those things at one point, and they may have seemed reasonable at the time, but they weren’t a strength, instead a major weakness making them extremely vulnerable to technological change and shifting consumer habits.

The music business lost nearly half of its CD sales revenue in a just few years. Newspapers lost near half of their print ad revenue in just a few years. Sometime in 2025, will this paragraph be finished off by saying book publishers lost nearly half of their print revenue in just a few years? Those other two businesses refused to adapt, engaging in protectionist strategies under the mistaken belief that digital alternatives would top out at a lesser market share and the physical product would still retain primacy. Sound familiar?

Ask yourself this: if I sign on with a publisher whose entire strategy is to use digital to support the furtherance of print, what happens to me if print drops precipitously anyway, as there is clear precedent for? How you answer that question may well determine which writers still have a career a decade from now.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Sharing stifles creativity? Why this guy is just flat-out wrong

So I read this article today with this guy whining about piracy, file sharing and the music business and I’m compelled to make a few points. No sense in beating around the bush, let’s get started at the beginning, with the headline.

“How a generation’s freeloading has starved creativity”

Starved creativity? The last I checked, there is more music being produced today from a wider range of artists with a more diverse sound than ever before, and that’s expanding. There’s more books being written and available by a wider range of authors with more diverse styles than ever before, and that’s expanding. Creativity hasn’t been stifled at all. It’s been unleashed in a major way. The studio system (and the traditional publishing industry among others) is what stifled creativity. If you want to argue that the changes have stifled these old school media conglomerates’ ability to dominate their respective industries, I can get behind that. But it has in no way stifled creativity. Just the opposite, in fact. It’s generally a bad sign when the headline of your piece kicks off with unsubstantiated bullshit. You’re basing your argument on a false assumption right off the bat, and an easily refuted one at that.

“Things changed for me when I got a job in a Brooklyn café in the late 2000s. Many of the most respected and critically-praised bands of the day were customers there, but my excitement at getting to know them was dimmed when I realized that rather than enjoying the fruits of their success, they were, well, just as broke as I was.”

And if you’d gotten that job in the pre – Internet ’90s, they’d still be just as broke as you were. Same goes for the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s etc, etc. Conflating that with the coincidental emergence of file sharing is a mistake. He goes on:

“Apologists for digital piracy advanced one fantastic new rationalization after another—that artists would actually be helped by their rights getting trampled; that old-timey models like touring and merchandise would magically become a cash cow; that you could solve the whole problem by just letting fans “pay what they want.”

If you retain control of your rights, you have the choice to allow sharing of your music or not. Unless you’re signed on with a big label, in which case you have no choice in how you’re music is distributed or shared. That’s evidenced by this guy, the musician Kaskade, who is directly opposed to his label suing for copyright infringement but he has no legal right to stop them or to determine what he considers an acceptable use of his own music. In that sense, you’re correct that artists’ rights are being trampled, by their own labels.

Touring and merchandise are old timey? How much do you know about the music industry? Touring and merchandise were where artists made their money in the past. The labels made their money from album sales (whatever format) with contracts structured so that even some of the most successful bands ended up owing money to the label when all was said and done. If touring and merchandising aren’t cash cows, then why are record company contracts increasingly demanding large cuts of any revenue bands earn from both of those areas? Bands are broke because of the labels and their exploitative advance structure, their accounting practices and increasingly grabbing revenue from touring and merchandise that bands themselves generally controlled in the past. These aren’t problems the internet or file sharing created, this is the result of the standard operating procedure of the labels.

The book industry isn’t quite as exploitative as music, but they’re not far behind. They, too, use an advance system and accounting practices that virtually guarantee the majority of books never get to the point of earning royalties above the advance (and not because advances are high or because the books themselves aren’t largely profitable). They, too, try to lock up other rights so authors can’t generate any other income streams on the material, even when they have no intention of exploiting them.

Did you see the recent UK report that showed writers’ incomes shrinking? Most of those writers were longtime traditional writers. Publishers have been establishing a low rate for ebook royalties that pay them more but authors less than on a regular print edition. They focus their sales efforts on ebooks and high discount print books, both of which cut authors’ compensation per book dramatically. The internet isn’t causing these authors’ incomes to shrink, their own publishers’ actions are. And not coincidentally, the publishers are reaping sometimes record profits.

And fans have always paid what they want. If they want it new, they’ll buy it. If they don’t, they’ll get a copy from someone or they’ll buy a used cd for a few dollars. Today, they may download it. They used to record it from the radio or television. But if you only offer one full price option, and somehow magically eliminate any possibility of obtaining any other copy, you won’t see more sales. You’ll see significantly fewer. Not to mention a whole lot of pissed off people with money in their pocket that might have decided to spend it with you now and in the future.

“The people who fought against copyright in this battle would have to confront the fact that they were never carrying the flag for freedom or “openness”, but for aggression, entitlement and selfishness.”

Like it or not, we live in an increasingly on demand world. You can call it entitled and selfish all you want. It’s not going to change it. The people you’re trying to sell to want what they want when they want it. The technology exists to give them exactly that. And everybody knows damn well digital distribution is far cheaper than physical, so prices must reflect that. There’s a huge stream of people looking for music and books 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Not providing what they’re looking for in the price range they’re looking for, that they can access in the way they want to is their failing, not the internet.

Even then, people will still seek out free alternatives. I downloaded my first song in 1998 on AOL dialup. I had been a huge music collector for a full decade prior to that. At no point in those 10 years pre-internet, was I ever not able to get a copy of any damn thing I wanted for free. The internet didn’t invent this behavior, it’s been with us for a long, long time. What happened to the music industry as technology proliferated to allow people to make and acquire copies of music on their own? It grew exponentially. When did it shrink? At the precise time they chose a strategy that openly attacked the sharing of music. That’s not a coincidence.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking the torrent-indexing websites that popped up in my search results are just rambunctious, boundary-challenging adolescents swapping files with their friends, as Napster disingenuously spun themselves.”

That’s precisely what most of the people using Napster (and later Limewire) were. The music and film industry stomped on them, leading to the development of torrents that let little pieces of files be downloaded to and from multiple sources so no one except the few souls who seed ever actually made a full file available for download. It drove them from their own communities into the arms of the profiteers like Megaupload. The persecution of which, by the way, regardless of what you think of them, is a disgusting abuse of law and power. Read up on it.

It’s a bit like the gateway drug problem, I think. These sites make millions precisely because the actions of industry drove sharing amongst individuals underground. Without those acts, people would be openly sharing within their own communities now instead of enriching parasites. If there’s any gateway effect to marijuana ( and I don’t think there is) it’s caused by the prohibition. The only place you can get pot is from that sketchy guy on the corner who’s also got meth, heroin and some blow. Take out the prohibition and exposure to genuine bad elements drops dramatically if not altogether.

Black markets come about when there’s a gap between what a sizable portion of the public wants and what’s available to them. Drive off the safe alternatives and you’re left creating many more problems than you solve. I don’t get down with media companies decrying the black market when their own actions created the problem and made it exponentially worse.

“The big question is: how would things look if the illegal free option weren’t as convenient? Would Hollywood not be quite as dependent upon comic book blockbusters and take a few more chances on new stories? With stable promotional budgets for record labels and studios, a few more daring artistic voices might find an audience, and charge their way onto the pop culture radar, and even change the way some of us think about the world.”

Hahaha! No. I’ll tell you what it will look like, exactly like it looked in the late ’80s, stagnant and repetitive. The only time new voices got through was after an independent movement somewhere built the momentum for it. And then, the labels would descend, sign up every band that remotely sounded like the new in-thing, saturate the world and squeeze every last dollar out of it before moving on to the next hot movement (see: Seattle in the ’90s).

On top of that, with increasing digital sales yet no free option, discoverability, which largely happens word of mouth from sharing, would take a huge hit. Sales of all but the biggest names would plummet and we’d be left with far fewer risks being taken and far less unique voices ever getting a chance. You know, precisely what was happening before the internet came along.

“Forging an internet that takes individual rights (including privacy), cultural diversity and sustainable progress seriously also requires that consumers get on board.”

Ah, yes. Please pay considerably higher prices so we don’t actually have to adapt or alter our ridiculously outdated and inefficient corporate structure, or even pay lip service to giving you what you actually want for those higher prices. Get on board, already!

“We are all entitled to fair compensation for our work.”

I see, customers are entitled in a bad way for wanting what they want for their money (or not) but labels and artists are entitled in a good way for wanting what they want for your money. Nobody is entitled to make one red cent. You have to convince people to want to pay you willingly. That means convenience, price, format, restrictions on use; everything must be done to appeal to the guy holding a credit card and deciding if he wants to use it. “Hey you! You’re gonna pay more and we’re gonna tell you what you’re allowed to do with it and you’re gonna thank us for it” is a bad strategy.

I do agree in one way with being entitled to fair compensation. But that argument isn’t directed at the internet or consumers. It goes to the media companies. Stop ripping off your artists! You think artists aren’t being paid fairly? Changing conditions so media companies make more money isn’t going to change that. It’s just another version of trickle down nonsense. The labels make more money and those musicians in your coffee shop, they’ll still be just as broke. The copyright argument with file sharing has nothing to do with rewarding artists, it’s all about further enriching large media conglomerates.

“Just as US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr said of taxes, consider it ‘the price we pay for civilization.’”

The price consumers pay, you mean, in high prices that have no bearing on production costs or market value? Or the price artists pay in exploitative contracts and shriveling compensation from their corporate “partners”? The media conglomerates here don’t pay any price, for civilization or otherwise. They simply reap the rewards of squeezing the only two irreplaceable cogs in the industry machine, consumers and creators.

Why should we as artists have to accept pittance payouts? Why should consumers have to pay more for less? Why shouldn’t these corporations have to alter their business models, ones that developed in a different time and a different set of conditions, to meet the new realities? Why should we have to severely restrict the conduct of people that has far pre-dated the internet and file sharing?

You are conflating the business difficulties of large, once dominant corporations that are becoming increasingly obsolete with a decline in the industry and creativity itself. That’s a mistake. We don’t need record labels. We don’t need publishers. Before much longer, we won’t need film studios either. What we need are artists willing and able to create and customers willing and able to buy. Restrictions and higher price points to support corporate bottom lines achieve neither of those ends.

Piracy and file sharing isn’t the problem. The old industry titans who choose to stand in the way of what artists want, what consumers want and what civilization in general wants; they’re the problem. Advocating for a system that enriches them by taking money out of the pockets of both artists and consumers achieves nothing.

As a final point, there seems to be a thread to the piece that assumes people getting music for free is not good for commerce. Well, take a look at The Live Music Archive. There are over 6,000 bands and 130,000 separate concerts available for download or streaming absolutely free and totally legal. Concerts range from 40 years or more ago right up to yesterday. Many of the artists in here are very well known, many are unheard of independents. But they all allow fans to bring equipment, record their live shows and freely distribute them however they choose. In fact, the one thing they are prohibited from doing is selling them. And the community itself polices that kind of conduct very nicely. There’s a huge sub-industry in music totally outside of the major label system that not only encourages the free sharing of their music, but thrives on it. The most famous band to take this track is the Grateful Dead, who pioneered much of this and parlayed the touring and merchandising you dismiss into being one the highest grossing bands of all time, almost totally outside the label system. Their big label studio albums were almost an afterthought to their career accomplishments.

And as for bit torrent, which you sited as a particularly egregious tool for piracy, look at this. Etree.org has a huge, ever changing list of torrent files for concerts totally free and legally available for download. Bit torrent is far from simply an elicit tool for piracy. It’s used here to great effect to freely distribute music from bands who aren’t cowering in fear of consumers or sharing, bands that are building careers one fan at a time, without so much as a dime of support from the label system. I’ll guarantee you’ll find a wider array of music styles and talent here than any label-driven alternative. Giant media companies, as more of us are learning every day, aren’t the only way to pursue a career in the arts. They’re likely not even the best way.

There are problems with the internet, legitimate problems with piracy, too. But what you advocate benefits a portion of the industry, who also happen to be the richest, most entrenched, afraid to adapt element of it and does nothing to further anyone’s ends but theirs. Take a wider view of things. Track the problems you site deeper than simply, “Oh, Napster caused this” and you may find issues like artist compensation and stifled creativity far predate the internet itself. And who was running the show back then? These same giant media conglomerates. Huh.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Steal Your Face! The Grateful Dead disproves the notion that sharing is destructive

Get a load of this. Sometimes, I actually enjoy these little screeds that turn up now and again about copyright and the great internet menace. I especially like the parts where the writers pretend like anybody on the industry side really gives a shit about artists. Does anyone really believe the RIAA, MPAA or publishers’ interest in stamping out what they call piracy has even the slightest thing to do with protecting artists? That line is the media conglomerate equivalent of the great political deflection “won’t somebody please think about the children?” These are, after all, entities that have done some amazing work creating innovative accounting tricks specifically to screw over the various artists they claim to want to protect. In reality, their position can be far more accurately described as, “How dare you steal from the people we’ve been stealing from!”

But that’s neither here nor there. Those folks are the real crooks in this debate and just about everyone who doesn’t have a direct financial interest in allowing the continuation of their money grabs from actual content creators knows it. What I’d like to discuss is the principle reason I simply don’t believe that sharing is piracy, and further, why I don’t believe it’s harmful but in fact can be beneficial. All I have to do is look at the wall of shelves filled with cassette tapes in my house, and I see right through the corporate bullshit that has defined sharing as a steeply punishable crime, and re-christened the activity with the much more ominous and deceptive term “piracy.”

Admittedly, cassette tapes are very much a technology of the past, but this is the past I’m talking about here, how casual sharing has always existed ever since there was a widely available means of reproduction accessible to regular people. Far from destroying legitimate markets for creative goods, sharing has been very likely the principle means of discovery for consumers, and I believe it has done more to create demand for artistic works, as well as putting money into the pockets of both artists and media companies, than all the marketing dollars in the world.

To begin, there is absolutely nothing illegal about any of the two thousand or so tapes in my home. Every one is a copy of a live concert recording of bands that explicitly allowed that activity. Every one was either given or acquired by me in a straight trade of other concert recordings with no money changing hands, a behavior also sanctioned by the bands in question. It’s a large and varied selection of some of the best musicians we’ve ever produced, and all indisputably the result of legal, sanctioned sharing. I say this to head off anyone throwing accusations of piracy at me for this collection. But sanctioned or not, I still don’t believe it’s piracy, and I know that it’s far from destructive to the artists.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had been turned on to the Grateful Dead by a good friend when he gave me a few copies of some bootleg tapes of their concerts. This set off a life-long interest in music for me that has directly led to my spending tens of thousands of dollars on CDs, concert tickets, books, tee shirts, even digital music, thus far. I’ve been so appreciative of that act that I’ve returned the favor many times over by giving copies of some of this music to many different people over the years, turning numerous people into fans (and paying customers) for a wide variety of bands.

A few years ago, I turned a friend of mine on to a bluegrass jam band called Yonder Mountain String Band by giving him a copy of a concert recording I had acquired. Yonder also allows taping and the free sharing of such recordings. Since then, he’s bought their CDs, bought tee shirts, hats and seen them perform live at least three dozen times at venues up and down the East Coast, tripling the amount of times I’ve seen them myself. And that’s just one instance with one person and one band. I’ve turned hundreds of people onto hundreds of bands over the years. None of it would have happened if not for that first person handing me that first Grateful Dead tape twenty years ago. I can’t even begin to estimate what the total dollar figure that resulted from my sharing of this material would be, but my best guess is well into six figures, possibly more. Without that first tape, without that sharing, none of that spending exists.

Let’s discuss the Grateful Dead for a moment because, above all else, they are a fascinating case for how open sharing can generate buzz and a paying fanbase, turning a band that the mainstream music industry had little use for into one of the most widely recognized, influential and highest grossing music acts to ever grace a stage anywhere.

The Dead released 22 total studio and contemporary live albums during their 30 years. By contemporary, I mean live albums released as they went along in their various incarnations at the time. They’ve since released over a hundred live recordings from their archives, but the 22 albums I’ve sited are the only ones fitting the standard music industry album release pattern. Of those, only one ever reached the top ten on the charts, that being the 1987 album In The Dark, which peaked at number seven. Only three others even hit the top twenty. As for singles, the Dead had a grand total of one Top 40 hit, Touch of Grey, from In the Dark, which peaked at number nine. Not exactly the kind of success you’d expect to see from a band that ended its run as one of the highest earning bands ever. And unlike the current top grossing bands who charge absurdly high ticket prices, the Dead’s concert tickets were always affordable. I still have my stub from the very last show they ever played at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1995. I had field seats, row 30 from the stage that day, generally pretty fantastic seats. The price printed on the ticket was $33.50. Today, those kind of seats for a major rock band would easily be ten times that, maybe even more.

So if mainstream commercial success was virtually non-existent, how were the Dead able to build the empire they did? They built a large, enthusiastic community of followers unmatched in music history. Name one other band that had a following of tens of thousands of fans who would tour the country with them. Every show. Every tour. Every year. A Grateful Dead show produced a literal village at every venue they stopped at. Bands like the Dead-inspired Phish from Vermont, managed to replicate some semblance of that, but no one has ever fully embraced the notion of community like Jerry Garcia and the boys. It was those bootleg tapes I referred to earlier that were instrumental in building that community. They ended up with a large group of fans who were virtual archivists. I, myself, have over 500 Dead concerts on tape spanning the late ’60s right up to their final show. Honestly, that collection is one of my prized possessions. I’ve since digitized many of them, and I very rarely listen directly to the tapes themselves anymore, but I still can’t bring myself to part with them, and I’m pretty sure I never will. At least not willingly.

Dead fans were a unique group, most possessing an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the band and its music. All of that stemmed from the enormous community they cultivated. And that community, in turn, grew out of the free and open sharing of their material. The Dead became immortalized not by selling records, not by an association with a giant record company, and not by any massive marketing effort. They did it by cultivating a community of fans based very much on the concept of sharing.

While it’s very true that times were different then, and that there are some very real issues with downloading that need to be addressed, I’ve always believed that their approach held many lessons that directly apply to today’s artists, musicians and writers. For instance, the Dead would allow the free distribution of concert bootlegs under one condition–no one tried to make money from them. I saw nearly twenty Dead shows in my time. Only twice did I ever see anyone trying to sell tapes in the parking lot. In both instances, the seller was essentially shamed into shutting down by the fans themselves. The band built such a strong community that they didn’t even have to police the distribution of those tapes, the community did it for them. How many of today’s artists have that kind of mutually beneficial relationship with their fans? I can’t think of one.

Sharing isn’t piracy, and it doesn’t have to be destructive. The Grateful Dead have proved that. Completely outside of the recording industry machine, they built a stunningly successful commercial entity. They did it by building a community with their fans, encouraging the free and open non-commercial sharing of their work, keeping the prices for their material affordable and by retaining all the rights to their recording masters and publishing rights. Seems to me like there’s a lesson or two in there that might apply these days, don’t you think?

Self Publishing and Market Disruption

Yesterday morning in my Twitter feed, I ran across this piece by self-published author Catherine Howard.  In it, she asks the hypothetical question “do ebooks sell simply because they’re cheap?”  I say hypothetical because low price is certainly a factor but not the only one.

Price point is something I, as a self published author, have considered quite a bit.  I have reached the same conclusion Howard has.  My books are cheap enough that people can be enticed to give them a shot for the cost of a cup of coffee.  If they don’t like it, they don’t really lose anything.  If my price was $12 or $15 and the buyer thinks the book sucks, they’re far more likely to feel ripped off.  My thinking on this is keep the cost low enough to encourage exploratory reading by buyers with as little downside to them as possible.

Plus, my expenses in producing a book are basically limited to my time and little else.  Howard makes a good point that traditional publishers cost structure, even for inexpensive to produce ebooks, are infinitely higher.  They’re not simply making a profit on the book in a vacuum, they’re supporting an entire corporate infrastructure.  Where $2.99 works great for me, and Howard as well, apparently, a large traditional publisher with many mouths to feed has to set a price point much higher, sometimes five times higher.

This echoes some of my recent sentiments on the state of large publishers.  What we’ve seen across the spectrum of information and entertainment, be it books, news, music and even movies and television shows, is a democratization of opportunity.  Large prohibitive production expenses in the past have effectively limited competition to a relative few players, creating a manufactured scarcity that drove higher prices.  Add to that the controls over distribution and marketing, largely supported by previously high costs for both, and you can see the forces pushing higher consumer pricing.

All these costs, that were once significant barriers for entry, are no longer any such thing.  Howard mentions easily covering her expenses for copy editing, proof reading and cover design in her piece.  But for someone like me, with a background as an editor and publisher with production and design skills, I don’t even have those modest costs.  Therefore, I can produce and sell an ebook for $2.99 very comfortably and profitably.  A traditional publisher, however, cannot.  They need much higher prices to support their infrastructures.

This is a very real problem for them as it’s a trend that isn’t going to turn.  If anything, as print book sales decline in the coming years, as they no doubt will, traditional publishers are in serious jeopardy of suffocating under their own weight.  The need for publishers to adapt is paramount.  They simply must alter their business models in such a way as to bring down prices, not drive them higher.

I watched first hand as the print news and periodical business failed to adapt to the changing reality, and that segment of the industry is in virtual ruins, having lost at least half of their once ample business in less than half a decade.  The music industry followed much the same course, sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling “Nah, Nah, Nah” as their cost-heavy infrastructures quickly became an anchor around their neck. 

Instead of adapting, the music industry tried the litigation route, trying to stifle technological innovation as well as threatening and suing their own customers.  The news business tried to slap the same content in the paper online thinking they could simply sell ads against it just like they’ve always done to great success in print.  Neither tack worked as both businesses have suffered massive financial losses as well as a steep drop in relevance.

The book publishing industry is only now entering the period of its disruption. The ebook boom has barely even gotten off the ground.  Publishers would be wise to heed the lessons taught by the music and news business.  Don’t be fooled by the fact that you’re legacy business still sports large libraries of maketable material and controls the vast majority of the most popular writers.  That is little more than carryover from your dominant positions of yesterday.

Competition has and will continue to explode.  You’ve almost completely lost control of your once dominant distribution channels.  The created scarcity you benefitted so much from simply doesn’t exist any longer.  The cost structure for the new leaner, more efficient competitors you’ll face transforms your vast infrastructure from a strength to a weakness.  And, as more and more writers see the potential upside of publishing themselves, you’ll undoubtedly lose ground on your stable of popular writers.

Adapt and do it now.  Certainly, there is still money to be made in your traditional ways at this moment, but unless you want to find yourself in five years sitting back nearly helpless and behind the curve while your business continues to dwindle, changes must be made.  Of course, if publishers fail to do so, they’ll have lots of company.  Music companies, news companies, and soon, film companies who are following in the failed footsteps of their music brethren, will be there with you to share stories about the good old days.

Published in: on September 27, 2011 at 11:15 am  Comments (2)  
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Jack White, The Internet and Public Discourse

So I’m tooling around the net the other morning looking for Jack White tour dates (unfortunately finding none scheduled) and I ran across this interview with the man himself, posted a few months ago on spinner.com. There are a few things that struck me in this piece, most notably the discussion of the impact of the internet on public discourse. But before I get to that, on another note, there was this quote that particularly appealed to me:

“Someone just asked me if I’m ever going to make (a solo album), and I said, ‘Of course I’m gonna make one one day.’ I mean, I never really plan that far ahead. My calendar is always open. Everything I do is something that just got decided a week before. Yes, I could be making a solo record in a couple months, or I could be making White Stripes record or maybe even a third Dead Weather record, I don’t know. I don’t tell the music what to do, I don’t tell myself what to do. That would be an injustice to what I’ve dedicated my life to doing. That’s the funny thing, most people go to work and say, ‘I’m going to do this from 9 to 5 and these are my goals, these are my short-terms goals, these are my long-term goals.’ I’ve never had that.”

And I thought I was the only one. It is a little bit reassuring that the complete lack of planning ahead more than a month or so can lead to success. I’ve always been much the same way; the things I do just sort of come out of thin air as opportunity presents. And 9 to 5 is most definitely not the way I want to live my life. It’s just so damned limiting.

Anyway, back to my main points. The discussion about how the anonymity of the internet breeds a certain kind of cowardice, particularly in the people who troll comment boards and spew harsh, venomous opinions, hit me.  His point obviously being that the detatched nature of communication on the internet allows certain people to say things that they would never dream of if they had to attach their identities to it, or condemn with a severity they would never use if they were to actually speak to the person being villified to their face. Here’s a quote:

“…we were having a conversation with some journalist about the way the Internet breeds cowardice nowadays — how everyone has a fake name, no one shows their face, everyone is extremely judgmental, extremely harsh to each other, commenting and blogging all this stuff. The world is their oyster now, they can type whatever they want, and they don’t present themselves as a human being, they present themselves as an avatar and as a screen name, and that’s cowardly.”

While it’s hard to disagree with what White has to say on the matter, what I found particularly interesting was to scroll through the comments section following the article, just to see what kind of response would turn up from the very people at whom White took his shots. I wasn’t disappointed. Here’s a sampling of some of the comments, each posted under an indecipherable screen name : (By the way, I cleaned up some of the ever-present typos that show up in these kinds of comments. If you’re going to rip someone, at least do it competently.)

“Oh, spare me the ‘Jack White is a genius’ crap. White is a 3rd rate musician. His music is largely derivative and immensely irritating to boot.”

“Never heard of this self-promoting jerk and couldn’t care less about him.”

“White stripes are just awful. I’ve heard their stuff , it’s really crap, I swear.”

“This is one of the sloppiest, untalented, overrated bands I’ve ever heard. A couple of 15 year olds in a garage band sound better than this rubbish.”

“This guy’s guitar playing is almost as bad as his singing. His songs are lame, too. How in the world did he get famous, anyway?”

See what I mean? Now, I’m not unfamiliar with criticism, sometimes a bit harshly, but usually I base my opinions on something more than simple insults and vague notions on someone’s capabilities. Then, there’s this guy. He actually posted under a name, which is more commendable, but is it a real name? Who can tell?

“There has never, ever been someone who has managed to make it despite having such utterly mediocre skills as this guy…. he excels in 1 way, greatly, & that is shameless self promotion… yeah, who wouldn’t be a “tireless” worker if you’ve fleeced your way into the game…. not a good guitar player, not a good songwriter, not a good singer, but made it anyway…. Completely clueless people made this guy, nothing more… Serious guys with serious chops laugh at this guy.”

Really? No one ever has become successful in the music business with mediocre skills? Not that White’s skills are mediocre in the least. I completely disagree with the sentiments that his guitar playing and songwriting aren’t good. Both are distinctive, unique and exceptional, in my opinion. And I have a strong musical basis to back that up. But I guess I’m just clueless. And as for the self-promotion part, show me anyone in virtually any field who’s reached a level of success, and I’ll show you someone who is a self promoter, shameless or otherwise. You simply don’t get anywhere, particularly in a field of creative endeavor, without being so. But I suppose serious guys with serious chops are too busy laughing at those who do make it to promote themselves and their work.

And for last, my personal favorite, from a screen name of Hugh Jassol, which is likely fake given the fact when you say it really fast, it sounds a lot like this guy’s personality must be, huge asshole. He had two:

“That ‘distinctive sound’ is the sound of minimal talent. Actually, it’s the sound of suck.”

“What passes for talent today is a joke. Jack White isn’t qualified to carry Jimmy Page’s guitar case. His one hit, ‘Seven Nation Army’ is just one crappy hook, over and over, with some shi##y guitar playing and his singing sounds like a guy with a really bad sinus infection. The only reason he’s making a living in music is because of people like you who have tin ears and no taste whatsoever.”

To the first comment, I say maybe Jack White has a point. Even if you don’t care for his music, how many people are going to meet White and say, “Hi, you’re music is the sound of suck.” Sure, there may be some, but probably not many. The second comment is the more interesting for a couple reasons. One, in the interview, White himself references Seven Nation Army, even saying, “nobody thought there was anything interesting about that song when we recorded it.” Hits are subjective, having more to do with the opinions of people outside the group than the artist’s desire for a particular song to be a hit. Of course, Huge Asshole, er, Hugh Jassol covers this by writing off the fans, as well, as people with tin ears and no taste.

However, he also references Jimmy Page, which brings up an interesting example of just how off base this guy is. Go rent the documentary “It Might Get Loud” on the history of the electric guitar. In it, Page, White and Edge from U2 form a triumverate of approaches toward the guitar. It’s well worth a watch, or two, or three. There are several sections during the film where the three sit around together and jam. During these, White comes off as far from unable to carry Page’s guitar case. They appear almost equals at times, with Page absorbing and learning from White just as much or more than the reverse. In fact, It’s Edge that comes off as the wanna-be poser, clearly out of place in the company and confused on how to play with the other two.

Which doesn’t really surprise me. I’ve never much cared for Edge. I mean really, Edge? I understand Slash. That guy just looks the part. Wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley. And his guitar style suits the name, as well. But what about this guy says “Edge”? Maybe its a marketing ploy, maybe he uses Edge shaving cream to keep his goatee trimmed up nicely, I don’t know. What I do know is that a guy who has a neatly trimmed goatee, wears wool hats and fancies himself a guitar hero when 95% of his sound is coming from the fancy electronics he owns is kind of a douchebag. So again, maybe Jack White has a point, to a degree. Would I say that to Edge (gag) if we ever met? Probably not, but people writing things they wouldn’t otherwise say isn’t an invention of the internet, nor is it new. From Theater and book critics in the late 19th century, to the letters to the editor that were so prevalent before the digital age, to pamphelteers of all causes, and even a convention such as the Dear John letter, people have been writing things they wouldn’t say to someone’s face for as long as there’s been a written word and paper to print it on. What the internet does do is provide a much greater platform from which to throw it out there.

And as for the “hiding behind a screen name” part, I’ve got an answer for that. Edge, if you’re out there somewhere reading this, and you have a problem with my calling you a no-talent douchebag who can barely strum a few chords, my name is Dan Meadows, I live in Chestertown, MD, my email address is linked to at the top of this page. Drop by any time, and I’ll be happy to discuss my misgivings about your musical stylings. So much for anonymity.

To sum up, everybody has opinions, some of them well-founded, some off-the-cuff, some just flat out nasty for whatever reason. Putting those opinions in writing isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even on a platform as broad and diverse as the internet.  People have been doing it for as long as there has been communication. I’m reasonably certain there were Babylonians laying down some smack in cuneiform. But if you’re going to criticize, stand by those opinions, don’t hide behind a fake name and an IP address. And to do that, it usually helps to have a foundation for those arguments.

I’ll make one more, much briefer point about the White interview and its reference to sensationalism. To quote:

“…people take things out of proportion all the time. I’ll say something like, ‘I don’t play video games,’ and the headline would read, ‘Jack White Hates Video Games.’”

Okay, makes sense. But consider, a goodly portion of this article is a discussion on how the net allows a certain type of cowardice to develop, the harshness of tone that comes with that, and how that contrasts with the positive aspects of it. It was a lengthy and well-developed point of view on a contradictory, and complicated, circumstance. So what’s the article’s title? “Jack White Doesn’t Suffer Internet Cowards Gladly” or, perhaps put more simply, “Jack White Hates The Internet.” Interesting, no?



Published in: on November 9, 2010 at 4:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The End is Nigh

I come to you with a heavy heart this morning.  The end of days is fast approaching.  Earthquakes, floods, disease and other natural disasters plague the Earth.  Everyone knows about the Mayans and the quickly approaching 2012 apocalypse.   And today, there’s word that country music legend Willie Nelson cut his hair!  This is truly a harbinger of the end times, a biblical-level event.  War, Famine, Pestilence, Death and a short-haired Willie; has to be the five horsemen.  Willie’s braids brought comfort to so many over the years, kept the IRS at bay and showed that even a man in his seventies, despite societal conventions,  could rock some long hair with style and grace.  Now, the red-headed stranger has a doo that looks like some kind of bobbed thing out of Ally McBeal.  Is there no God?!?  I’m sorry to have to lay this on you, but you’d better get your affairs in order.  I’m going to go drown myself in a Whiskey River of old albums and weep for Willie’s lost locks.  The end is near.

Published in: on May 27, 2010 at 3:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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Publishing Links For Today: Ad Annoyance and Litigation Abounds

Here are a couple themes for today:  One is the premise that improving ad spending online is simply a matter of changing the conditions.  And the other is increased legal challenges that protect larger media companies but work to the detriment of the rest of us, their customers.

Right upon the heels of unveiling the largely popular iPad, and a new operating system for the iPhone, Apple has rolled out an ad service platform called iAd. Basically, this is a pretty self-serving attempt to eat away at Google’s dominance in online advertising dollars.  Here’s a quote:

“In his presentation, (Apple CEO) Steve Jobs expressed a sentiment that even many mobile ad evangelists concede as well: “We think most of the mobile advertising really sucks. We thought we might be able to make some contributions.”

But the main contribution Jobs is talking about involves making the iPhone app experience a little less vexing. As Apple explains in its release, when users click on mobile ads, they’re almost always taken out of their app to a web browser, which loads the advertiser’s site. Most of the time, that process completely cuts users off from what they were originally doing in the app. So, iAd’s solution is to offer advertisers a full-screen video and interactive ad content without ever leaving the app, and letting users return to their app anytime they choose.”

Makes sense, but leaves out the one little sticking point that I have never been able to get past:  Readers actually have to click on an ad for it to be of any use.  As we’ve seen with so many of the advancements in technology over the past decade or so, people don’t like ads.  And they especially don’t like them we’re they’re shoved in your face.  DVR’s became so popular so fast largely because it allowed viewers to cut out the commercial breaks.  Personally, I’ve moved on to watching TV shows on DVD or in other digital means simply because the experience is far, far superior without the intruding block of ads every ten minutes or so.

We also saw it with pop-up ads, as web browsers starting building in blockers specifically to head off those annoying little things before they even opened.  The reason the cost rate for online ads has been steadily dropping is not because of a lack of possible customers, but because very few people actually click on the ads, or even recognize that they are there.  Advertising worked so well in outdated models like print because we couldn’t avoid it.  The new platforms allow us, the reading, consuming public, before-unheard of power to stay away from annoying advertising.  Like most industries today, the internet has forced what should be a shift from the way things used to be done for advertisers.  But has it?

Read any article anywhere about online advertising, and all anyone is talking about is better targeted ads, that is companies harvesting your personal browsing data so they can throw ads for things they think you might want at you at every turn.  Does anyone out there really think people want that?  How many people are going to leave an iPad app they are currently using to click on a full page distraction of an ad, no matter how flashy and interactive it is?  Superbowl commercials are the holy grail of advertising, sometimes seeming almost a bigger show than the game itself, but if the audience actually had a choice between watching a random camera sweep over the crowd or the newest Pepsi commercial, what percentage do you think would actually choose the commercials?  This is a major problem.  Times have changed.  When people want a product, they’ll look for it.  Experience and technology have proven time and again, that when given the opportunity, people would avoid ads in a far larger percentage than will welcome them, no matter how targeted they are.  Advertisers, like publishers, had better adjust and soon, or else they’ll end up spending large amounts of money on promotion that really is just going in the pockets of the people selling you the platform.

My second point for today is about lawsuits.  There are two that caught my attention recently.  The first is a legal challenge ensuing over Great Britain’s recently passed Digital Economy Act.  I’ve touched on this previously here. To it’s credit, a major ISP in England, Talk Talk, has come out strongly opposed to some of the provisions in the new law, specifically those requiring the disconnection of service for people accused of copyright infringement.  I had a problem with this as well, primarily because it puts the burden of proof on the accused to show that they are innocent.  Here’s a quote from Talk Talk:

“If we are instructed to disconnect an account due to alleged copyright infringement we will refuse to do so and tell the rights holders we’ll see them in court.”

Here, here.  If only all companies had the balls to stand up to this kind of legislation bought and paid for by industry to protect its own interests at everyone else’s expense.

Speaking of which, the movie rental kiosk operator Redbox has recently filed suit against Universal Studios and Twentieth Century Fox on the studios’ new policy of requiring the $1 rental places to withhold new releases for 28 days, ostensibly to support flagging DVD sales.  The online, mail-order rental company Netflix, unfortunately has acquiesced to this demand, making me glad I canceled my subscription a while ago.  The wait for new releases was bad enough as it was, but adding an extra month to it, when you can still, inexplicably, rent them same day at actual brick and mortar stores like Blockbuster, makes that monthly subscription fee a whole lot less useful.  Reportedly, Netfilx negotiated a big discount from the studios, on the level of 50%, for agreeing to the delay.  No word on whether they’ll be cutting their subscription price, though, to accommodate the real victims of this policy, their customers.  Don’t bet on it.

At the heart of this matter is the belief that the inexpensive rental places are undermining DVD sales.  Like the music industry before it, the studios don’t seem to get the shift in how people consume their products.  They seem to believe that forcing people to pay high DVD prices will suddenly bring back the profits they’ve lost due to the changing habits of its customer base.  Not only won’t this work, but as happened with music, it’s likely to alienate their own customers, leading to further sales declines.  But then, they’ll find someone else to blame.  As is the case with all media companies in the face of declining profits and revenue, it’s everyone else’s fault but their own.

The Digital Economy Bill or How We Can Save Content Industries From Themselves

I’ve long held that before all is said and done, the greatest threat to the potential of the internet will be government regulation and legislative intervention spurred on by the dying embers of the industries it has left in ruins.  I’ve touched on the issue numerous times, most directly here, and here, here, here, here and here, to name a few.  England is currently embroiled in an effort to pass somethings called the Digital Economy Bill, which is a fancy title for saying, “we’re going to let corporate dollars dictate people’s rights online.”  This is a piece of legislation so obviously transparent as to be insulting.  The British movie and music industries have pushed exceptionally hard for this, including a couple particularly onerous passages.

One is that anyone’s internet access can be shut off after receiving three allegations of copyright infringing activity.  Not three proven instances, mind you, but three allegations.  And that means that if it’s one person in a household of five that is accused of infringing, all five lose internet access.  Even worse, there’s a provision in the bill that allows Britain’s Secretary of State the right to essentially amend copyright law by himself without parliamentary approval.  Needless to say, just about no one who doesn’t work in the music and film industry supports this measure at all.  Even James Bond is against it. It’s yet to be seen if this will pass, but it is yet another example of industries that were caught napping on the internet’s ability to change the dynamics of sales and distribution desperately trying to cling onto their out-dated and soon to be useless business models by bribing the government.  We’ve had a little experience with that over here in the colonies with a little thing called the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

This will be one of many attempts to morph the open internet into the playground of the corporations to all of our detriment.  We haven’t yet seen a bill of this magnitude hitting the floor of Congress, but you can bet it’s coming, especially if the Digital Economy Bill actually gets approval in England.  And we will all suffer for it.  These companies haven’t adjusted to the new realities, and they seem more willing to throw lawyers at their problems than come up with rational business models for the future.

The music industry as a whole is not declining, it is, in fact, growing.  It’s just that the top tier labels are losing their stranglehold on the business.  The film industry is the same, and so is publishing.  These guys have lots of money, but no matter the costs, they won’t win in the long run without adapting.  Whatever the rules, new companies will spring up to service customers the way they want, not the way the major industry players want.  And fewer and fewer high-quality artists are signing up to be taken advantage of.  Especially now that the recording industry has moved beyond rights to artists’ music into demanding a cut of every dollar for everything they do up front in their contracts.

And why all this?  Because businesses that built their stock and trade by marketing content to the masses missed the boat on the greatest revolution in communication, marketing and distribution of content ever created by man.  Why, oh why should we bail out their incompetence with regulation when they were in full position to dominate the internet market from the word jump and chose to turn a blind eye to its possibilities until it was too late?  This is going to be a long, drawn out battle.  We’ll win some, we’ll lose some, but ultimately these guys will lose because they are defending a sinking island by putting up sandbags.  Eventually, they’ll all sink.

And one last thing, here’s an interesting discussion on the proliferation and possible affects of file-sharing by two people on both sides of the issue.

How Can The Film Industry Possibly Survive Rampant Piracy?

We’ve heard the yells for years now, ever since the proliferation of high-speed internet access, that piracy of copyrighted material–be it music, movies or otherwise–in the form of illegal downloading was stealing millions if not billions of dollars away from the copyright holders.  Coming from a background that dealt with the value of someone getting your product for free (both in my publishing career working for free-distribution magazines and in my music collection which leans greatly toward bands that allow the free distribution of their concert recordings) I cannot disagree more.  It’s my belief that all of this downloading that tasks these industries so much actually benefits them.  Part of the reason I think it seems so frustrating to the people in question is that it is so easily trackable today.  It is possible to know how many people, relatively, are downloading a particular piece of material off the internet.  So the bean-counters jump straight to the conclusion that each and every instance of downloading is money lost.  Not true.  In fact, it could very well be that each instance of downloading actually helps drive revenue down the line, particularly if the material in question is good.

I will say this, if the material sucks, downloading will cost you money, but not as much as it seems.  It benefits companies that produce and distribute lousy material to keep its relative lack of quality hidden, thereby tricking people into paying for something they think might be good.  But I have a hard time feeling sorry for companies losing out on scamming people into paying for garbage.  And people will pick up on its lack of quality a bit slower if its exposure is kept down, but it’ll happen none-the-less.  If the material is good, a little free exposure leads to all sorts of things.  With music, it leads to increased CD sales, concert ticket sales, tee shirts, hats and most importantly, referrals to friends which builds a bigger fan base that leads to increased CD sales, concert tickets, etc.  With movies, it works the same.  If the movie is good, you get an upshot in ticket sales, merchandising, DVD sales, rentals and the same benefit of referrals to friends and family.  Cutting out the free distribution cuts down on the fan base to make money from.

Before the internet, both of these industries benefited from people sharing their material for free, but it wasn’t so easily trackable.  There was simply no way to tell how many people recorded your movie on their VCR, or made copies of movies they rented from the video store, or burned copies of CDs and mix tapes for friends, or recorded songs they liked off of the radio.  This kind of behavior with copyrighted material has always been rampant, only before it happened in ways that the industry didn’t or couldn’t see, and all the while they benefited from the increased exposure without even realizing it.  Fighting this kind of sharing material of value harms the industries in question, and it is not piracy, nor is it something new.  The music industry did nearly irreparable damage to itself fighting file sharing instead of seeing the possibilities of building ever-larger fan bases easier than ever before.  The movie industry will do the same kind of damage to itself if they follow in those footsteps.

And here’s a little evidence to support my claims.  Here is a list of the 10 most pirated movies of 2009. These are the 10 movies that were illegally downloaded the most this year.  Now compare that list with this one, the top box office films of the year. Notice any similarities?  There are five movies there that finished in the top 10 movies in domestic box office for the year, including number 1, The Transformers, and number 2, Harry Potter, both of whom are approaching $1 billion in worldwide gross.  In fact, the 10 movies that appear on the most pirated list have grossed nearly $4 billion combined world-wide.  For 10 movies!  The same 10 that have been downloaded more than any others.  Boy, that piracy has really been sucking the life out of the film industry, huh?

Further, there are only 3 movies on the list that have done less than $200 million world-wide;  one is a mediocre Guy Ritchie British mob movie RocknRolla; one is a political thriller with Ben Affleck (sure, State of Play has gotten good reviews, but it’s still a political thriller starring Ben Affleck); and Knowing, a horrible apocalyptic thriller with Nicolas Cage.  So my point stands; downloading helps good movies (or at least movies with positive value) and hurts bad ones.  And how is that a bad thing?

This is progress, folks.  Make better stuff, and you have more possibilities to benefit from it than ever before.  Make junk, and you can get hammered on it quicker and more completely than ever before.   The answer here is to make more good films.  It seems obvious, but in this internet age, people pick up on crap much faster than ever before.  And excuse me if I’m not weeping for an industry’s right to sap money out of people with unredemptive garbage.  If they really want to “stop piracy”, then they should start by calling it what it actually is:  free marketing and word of mouth advertising.  That would be a start.

Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 5:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Live Music of the Week: The Derek Trucks Band

I kicked off this little ongoing series of band recommendations a couple weeks back. Today I’d like to add a new band to my list.  And again, before I begin, click here, turn up the volume and hit play.

Today’s band is another of my favorites, The Derek Trucks Band.  Whereas my previous recommendation was a bluegrass band, Derek Trucks is anything but.  For those who don’t know, Derek is the nephew of long-time Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks, and very quickly rose to the obvious heir-apparent to slide guitar great Duane Allman.  Derek began performing professionally at age 12 (!), forming the Derek Trucks Band shortly thereafter.   A few years ago, he married blues great Susan Tedeschi for a match made in sonic heaven.

Over the years, Derek has played with all sorts of bands other than his own, including a regular spot as slide virtuoso with the Allmans, frequently opposite fellow exceptional guitar hero Warren Haynes, also of Allmans and Gov’t Mule fame.   But he really lets loose his unique slide stylings with his own band.  The Derek Trucks Band’s music ranges from hard-driving blues to R&B and soul to world music, forming one of the most interesting and unique sounds out there.

I have a hard time describing Derek’s sound, as it is unlike any slide player I have ever heard.  The best description is just for you to listen for yourself.  I’ll guarantee you’ve never heard anyone play like he does.  I don’t hesitate to call him the best guitar player currently going.  A couple years ago, Derek and Susan Tedeschi joined up under the floating name of Derek & Susan’s Soul Stew Revival or something similar.  If you have an opportunity to get a hold of some of those shows, jump at the chance.  Susan is an exceptional musician and performer in her own right, but hearing her belt out some heavy R&B with Derek and the boys backing is simply mind-blowing.

I’ve put a link to both the Derek Trucks Band and Susan Tedeschi’s websites on the sidebar under “A Little Live Music.”  Check it out frequently for tour dates.  You won’t want to miss the show when either, or both, of them come to town.  Enjoy!

 

Published in: on November 25, 2009 at 6:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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