The integration of Spotify into Facebook and the release of the Amazon Kindle Fire over the past month, remind us how much the world of music and books has changed over the past decade. We look at our current relationship with the consumption of culture and try to make educated assumptions about the future.
The opinions in this article are mine, and I can be odd sometimes.
Living in Beirut has its advantages, the main one being 300 days of sunshine and the Mediterranean being about five minutes away from you at any given point during the day. One thing, however, that really isn’t enjoyable is the Internet speed. Lebanon has one of the slowest Internet connections in the world. It’s so ridiculous that it has even been the subject of a BBC report . This means that plenty of things people take for granted elsewhere, such as streaming the video I’ve just linked too, are arduous and frustrating activities. Sometimes it also means we don’t have access to certain services. I watched with the rest of the world as Facebook announced its Spotify integration a few weeks ago. But I didn’t really understand what that meant in tangible terms, since I didn’t have access to Spotify.
Now that I’m in Paris for the week, I’m streaming all sorts of great tracks through Spotify and sharing them in through my ticker feed with my friends. I’ve already made a couple of musical discoveries in the last couple of days, just by clicking on recommendations and related links. Spotify kind of exemplifies the way digitizaiton changed the way music is made and consumed.
The digitization of music was initially a nightmare for record companies and artists alike. The Napsters of the early days threatened their whole system. Music was out there, for the world to download, and no one was seeing a penny in sales or royalties. In hindsight, that probably wasn’t a bad thing, because it probably wasn’t a great system and it hadn’t evolved much for decades. A slap in the face was probably exactly what the system needed.
The last 10 years have seen the way we create, consume and share music evolve immensely. People today are listening to more music than they ever have in the past. The way we consume music has changed enormously. We look for recommendations on Pandora, Spotify, Lastfm. There’s even a site called whatthefuckshouldIlistentonow.com.
Since music piracy will never die, and it’s now available on such a massive scale, it is intelligent for artists to adapt rather than think the problem is going to disappear. People still have a very strong offline bond with music and musicians. The rush of being at your favourite bands concert has yet to be matched by anything anyone can do online.
If I were to venture a guess, I would say that in years to come, we will see less huge bands or individual artists than we have in the past. The kind of arena-filling rock demi-gods and Bob Dylans might be over for good. But there will be more really good bands and singers. Essentially, being a successful musician will become a middle class job. More people can make decent money from their music at all levels, independently from major record labels. All they need is Garage Band, some skill, a good booking agent and a little understand of how virality works. If you want a topical case study, check out Lana Del Rey, who has millions f YouTube hits and has sold out concert halls in Paris without even releasing a single yet.
So the model is shifting very firmly away from producing albums that will generate revenue in their physical or even digital form, to a model where the more hits a music video gets on YouTube the more concert tickets and t-shirts get sold. That’s probably why an increasing amount of artists aren’t really bothering with a big record labels these days, but they go to great lengths to secure a deal with someone who can get them great gigs where they can monetize their fanbase, and sustain themselves.
The internet and the democratizaiton of the tools of creation, has had effects on all areas of expression. Visually, the proliferation of design blogs and designers is a testament to people’s desire to make the world a more attractive place. In some shape or form, we are all designers today. We craft our online representation of ourselves. But the digital realm has also been a great repository for the written word. From the haiku-like grace of a well-crafted 140 character tweet, to lugubrious rants on popular blogs, to incoherent comments at the bottom of interesting articles, we are all readers and all writers today.
So what does the future of the publishing industry look like? Well, shortly befor the fanfare surrounding the Kindle Fire launch last week, it would seem that sales of ebooks have been reassuringly robust. Contrarily to record labels in the music industry, I’m pretty sure there will always be a central place for publishers in the world of literature. Their role will evolve, undoubtedly, bit it will remain critical. While you can bang out a track in a few hours using Garage Band with a few mates, the process of crafting a novel or major work of non-fiction requires proofreaders, editors and designers. The end product is very rarely the same as the initial manuscript.
Even some authors who found success self-publishing their own e-books have now takingup deals with major publishing houses, because they couldn’t cope with all the processes that went together with being a successful writer. Plus, writers don’t have a way to make money
from the equivalent of concerts. They have to sell books to make a living.
Publishing will probably head towards a hybrid model. A model that associates digital and print. Some books I can see as being exclusively digital, such as hefty textbooks or travel guides. Or Tablets for Dummies. There are already companies such as Kno, who have tapped into the lucrative textbook market. And they’ll also be helping conserve the spines of generations of future students that wont have to lug 10 kilo textbooks around with them anymore, but still have functionality such as highlighting and margin notes.
But some books people will still want to receive in physical form, which explains the robustness of sales of hardbacks. Items like the Kindle Fire help in creating this dual environment. They provide interesting price-points and cloud-based storage. This can be ideal for the types of books people will want to consume digitally. One drawback is probably the fact it ties you in to Amazon, one company, whereas I think people tend to strive for a more cross-platform solutions that work on a multitude of devices.
In conclusion, sales of ebooks should continue to increase for the foreseeable future, since the practicality for both reader and publisher is undeniable. But books as physical objects will remain, they will stock bookshelves and continue to give warmth and character to peoples lives and homes. The hybrid model could mean that when you go online to order the latest novel in hardback by your favourite novelist, you’ll immediately receive the ebook on your device, then you’ll receive the hardback in the post a few days later to enjoy a dual experience. That’s a future I can live with.