Children’s Writing Weblog

Will Publishing & The Music Industry Share a Similar Fate?

Posted on: May 4, 2010

Thirty years ago, the music industry was largely controlled by a handful of major labels: Atlantic, Warner Brothers, MCA and the like. Power was centralized and access to creating a record that anyone would hear was extremely difficult to come by. It was a tough slog for aspiring artists but, on the positive side, this meant that quality was more consistent and, if an artist did manage to score a contract, the chances of being heard — and potentially making a fair sum of money — was pretty decent.

Fast forward through decades of revolution — the compact disc, the rise of indie and DIY labels and ultimately, digital downloading — and the music world is a vastly different place. On the one hand, almost anyone can record and release music, sharing it with listeners around the world with little or no expense. The catch? With millions of people creating and releasing music, it’s nearly impossible to cut through the clutter, especially when the once monolithic music market has become so wildly segmented. Thirty years ago, a band that sold 50,000 albums would be considered an abject failure. Today, they’re stars.

So what does this have to do with publishing? A great deal if history repeats. At issue: what if the rise of eBooks has the same impact on publishing as the compact disc and the MP3 had on music?

The Good:

* Content will become easier and cheaper to create and distribute, opening publishing doors for anyone with an idea and the desire to create a book.

* Niche (and even micro-niche) audiences will be well served with a wide variety of content options.

* Digital technology will allow creativity to soar, as eBook readers incorporate sound, touch and (before too long) smell into a formerly 2D medium.

The Bad:

* Without traditional gatekeepers (i.e. editors) in place, the signal to noise ratio is likely to get out of hand. Don’t believe me? Try bouncing around Myspace and listening to new pop music artists. What’s the batting average when seeking true talent amidst the dross?

* Content will lose its value. Stripped of the packaging and context of traditional albums, music became another overly abundant commodity. If it’s paid for at all, it’s for a measly sum. Ebooks could suffer the same ultimate fate.

So It’s All Bad News?

Nope. Some music artists have figured it out, and they’re clearing a path for authors to study. Consider Derek Vincent Smith a.k.a. Pretty Lights, a hip-hop/techno artist who has released three CDs — and has never sold a single copy. That’s because he gives them away, in exchange for the fan loyalty and exposure they bring. The result? He scores huge appearance fees to perform live, sells lots of merchandise and, generally, does a whole lot better than his contemporaries going the traditional route.

This isn’t to say that authors should prepare to give their work away (although they may consider it at some point) but to point out that income earned from live appearances, merchandise, licensing, blog advertising and other sources is every bit the legal tender that royalties are. The successful writers, musicians and artists of tomorrow are those who understand that their overall brand is what will provide a good living, not simply one or two pieces of content.

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