The differences between the digital music and digital book industries

From Rough Type:

C30, C60, C90, go!
Off the radio, I get a constant flow
Cause I hit it, pause it, record it and play
Or turn it rewind and rub it away!
-Bow Wow Wow, 1980

When I turned twelve, in the early 1970s, I received, as a birthday present from my parents, a portable, Realistic-brand cassette tape recorder from Radio Shack. Within hours, I became a music pirate. I had a friend who lived next door, and his older brother had a copy of Abbey Road, an album I had taken a shine to. I carried my recorder over to their house, set its little plastic microphone (it was a mono machine) in front of one of the speakers of their stereo, and proceeded to make a cassette copy of the record. I used the same technique at my own house to record hit songs off the radio as well as make copies of my siblings’ and friends’ LPs and 45s. It never crossed my mind that I was doing anything wrong. I didn’t think of myself as a pirate, and I didn’t think of my recordings as being illicit. I was just being a fan.

I was hardly unique. Tape recorders, whether reel-to-reel or cassette, were everywhere, and pretty much any kid who had access to one made copies of albums and songs. (If you’ve read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, you know that when Jobs went off to college in 1972, he brought with him a comprehensive collection of Dylan bootlegs on tape.) When, a couple of years later, cassette decks became commonplace components of stereo systems, ripping songs from records and the radio became even simpler. There was a reason that cassette decks had input jacks as well as output jacks. My friends and I routinely exchanged cassette copies of albums and mixtapes. It was the norm.

We also, I should point out, bought a lot of records, particularly when we realized that pretty much everything being played on the radio was garbage. (I apologize to all Doobie Brothers fans who happen to be reading this.) There are a few reasons why record sales and record copying flourished simultaneously. First, in order to make a copy of an album, someone in your circle of friends had to own an original; there were no anonymous, long-distance exchanges of music. Second, vinyl was a superior medium to tape because, among other things, it made it easier to play individual tracks (and it was not unusual to play a favorite track over and over again). Third, record sleeves were cool and they had considerable value in and of themselves. Fourth, owning the record had social cachet. And fifth, records weren’t that expensive. What a lot of people forget about LPs back then is that most of them, not long after their original release, were remaindered as what were called cutouts, and you could pick them up for $1.99 or so. Even as a high-schooler working a part-time, minimum-wage job, you could afford to buy a couple of records a week, which was – believe it or not – plenty.

The reason I’m telling you all this is not that I suddenly feel guilty about my life as a teenage music pirate. I feel no guilt whatsoever. It’s just that this weekend I happened to read an article in the Wall Street Journal, by Listen.com founder Rob Reid, which argued that “in the swashbuckling arena of digital piracy, the publishing world is acquitting itself far better than the brash music industry.” Drawing a parallel between the music and book businesses, Reid writes:

The book business is now further into its own digital history than music was when Napster died. Both histories began when digital media became portable. For music, that was 1999, when the record labels ended a failing legal campaign to ban MP3 players. For books, it came with the 2007 launch of the Kindle. Publishing has gotten off to a much better start. Both industries saw a roughly 20% drop in physical sales four years after their respective digital kickoffs. But e-book sales have largely made up the shortfall in publishing—unlike digital music sales, which stayed stubbornly close to zero for years.

This doesn’t prove that music lovers are crooks. Rather, it shows that actually selling things to early adopters is wise. Publishers did this—unlike the record labels, which essentially insisted that the first digital generation either steal online music or do without it entirely.

That all seems sensible enough. But Reid’s argument is misleading. He oversimplifies media history, and he glosses over some big and fundamental differences between the book market and the music market. As my own youthful experience suggests, music lovers ARE crooks, and we’ve been crooks for decades. (“Crooks” is his term, of course, not mine.) Moreover, the “digital history” of music did not begin in 1999. It began in 1982 when albums began to be released on compact disk. Yes, there are some similarities between the music and book industries, and they’re worth attending to, but the fact that the two industries have (so far) taken different courses in the digital era probably has far more to do with the basic differences between them – differences in history, technology, and customers, among other things – than with differences in executive decision-making.

Continue reading the rest of the story on Rough Type