I am a big fan of The Sell More Books Show, hosted by Jim Kukral and Bryan Cohen. Whether you’re an indie or a traditionally published author, this is a great place to get a weekly update on the latest trends in publishing and book marketing.
One of the topics in this week’s episode was the devastation that streaming services have wrought on the music industry, and what that might presage for writers and publishers.
This segment of the show begins with a reference to several online social media posts and articles about the financial situation of musician Danny Michel.
Although Michel’s music is popular, he isn’t even earning beer money through the streaming services:
I’ve been a full-time musician for 25 years. It’s been nothing but hard work, but I love hard work. My songs bought my house, my studio, pay the bills and more. Through it all the conversations backstage with other musicians have always been about music, family, guitars, friends, art etc. But in 2018 that conversation changed. Everywhere I go musicians are quietly talking about one thing: how to survive. And I’ve never worried about it myself UNTIL 2018. What I can tell you is my album sales have held steady for the last decade until dropping by 95% this year due to music streaming services. Note my earnings for “Purgatory Cove”: this song has been in the TOP 20 charts (CBC Radio 2 & 3) for 10 weeks, climbed to #3. In 2018 that equals $44.99 in sales. (An artist earns $0.003 per play on Spotify)
Michel and other musicians who complain about Spotify (and similar services) are correct: The entire concept is a lousy deal. The streaming services arose as a cynical compromise with music piracy. No one in the music industry–from record label executives to the back-up drummer for the latest up-and-coming garage band–thought that this was a good idea.
But twenty years ago, too many musicians were afraid to say that music piracy wasn’t cool, wasn’t okay. Musicians at the time (circa 1999) were afraid of alienating the first generation to come of age with the Internet.
Members of that generation are now in their late thirties, and are no longer in the prime music-buying demographic, anyway. But as a result of the prevailing attitudes of that time, musicians are stuck with the streaming paradigm–at least for now.
In his commentary on the Sell More Books Show, Jim Kukral suggests that Dan Michel is just whining, that musicians should simply “suck it up”.
Why? Because digital robbery is the wave of the future? With all due respect to Jim Kukral, I wonder if he would be so glib if Russian hackers were to penetrate his personal savings account. After all, you can’t fight the future.
Obviously, I don’t want to see Jim Kukral’s bank accounts get hacked by Russians. But to some people, Russian hackers helping themselves to your money via hacking is just part of the future.
No version of the future is “inevitable”. The future is always open to debate and influence.
I’m not a musician, so I don’t have a dog in the streaming music battle. But if I were a musician with any control over my content, I would remove my entire catalogue from Spotify, Pandora, and all similar venues of online digital servitude.
Then I’d release my music as a CD. In fact, I might even release my music in vinyl, which produces a better listening experience, anyway, and is presently making a comeback among fans.
But what about the vast audience on Spotify? you might ask. I would submit that an audience from which the #2 song makes less than $50 in a year isn’t worth much.
How should we extrapolate all this to the publishing business? Authors are worried about the Spotify-ing of publishing, too. As Bryan Cohen (back to The Sell More Books Show) pointed out in his commentary, Kindle Select/Kindle Unlimited is an incremental payment system–just like Spotify.
At present, participation in the Kindle Select program is voluntary; but suppose Amazon required it in the future? Further suppose that we eventually had a situation in which authors were getting paid $0.12 per each complete read, or something like that.
Then Jim Kukral laid out yet another really dire scenario–a bit more far-fetched, but by no means impossible. Suppose some hacker in China or Russia creates a device or app that allows anyone to read all the digital books presently on Amazon–for free?
Either of these dire outcomes would completely destroy the publishing industry, and prevent anyone from making any kind of a living writing books.
But I don’t think we have to worry about it too much.
Why? Because digital books (ebooks, Kindle books) are not inevitable.
If we ever reached a state in which ebooks went to $0, due either to widespread piracy or some version of “Spotify for books”, publishers would simply stop publishing ebooks.
Yes, that could happen.
Publishers are still selling hardcover and paperback books today, in 2018, after all. (And as Jim Kukral has noted in previous episodes of The Sell More Book Show, paperbacks are making a comeback with young readers in their teens.)
Some indie authors are so desperate to be read, at all costs, that they probably would agree to a “Spotify for books”; but there is no way that Michael Connelly, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and the companies that publish them are going to agree to such an arrangement. Why would they? Bestselling indie authors wouldn’t agree to that, either.
For further evidence that “the wave of the future” is always subject to debate and revision, note the widespread resistance to Kindle Select. Amazon launched the service in December 2011. But it hasn’t become “the wave of the future”. The New York publishers immediately said, “No thanks”. And seven years later, you still can’t read the latest Lee Child or James Patterson novel in Kindle Unlimited.
Many indie authors are also saying no to Kindle Unlimited. (Joanna Penn and Dean Wesley Smith have both been prescient in detailing the drawbacks to the program.)
The music industry was completely vulnerable to piracy (and the subsequent forced acquiescence to streaming) because in 1999–the year of Napster–everyone believed that vinyl was dead. At the time, all music was being sold in easily pirated CDs.
The publishing industry is not in a similar state. A few years ago it was considered trendy and futuristic to say that “paper books are a thing of the past”. But those dead tree books are proving to be rather persistent. (I’m reading the latest Michael Connelly novel in hardcover right now, in fact.)
Be careful about declaring any new setup “the wave of the future”, just because a particular group of people has embraced it–often for self-serving purposes.
As an artist or creative type, you should be immediately skeptical of any “wave of the future” which has the net result of preventing you from making any money whatsoever from what you do.
Nor should you be overly concerned about “alienating” those who insist that you must work for free–or almost free. Let that audience go elsewhere.
Finally, who are the real “whiners”? Are the musicians who complain about making less than $50 per year from a #2 hit “whiners”?
Or are the whiners those listeners who claim that $9.99 (the price of a few coffees at Starbucks) is a simply unacceptable price for an album, because in their preferred version of the future, all music is free?