It seems the publishing and music industry parallels that we all love to hate (and apparently can’t help but point out at every possible opportunity) has taken a hit this week, with Beck announcing that his next album won’t be released as a record but rather a book of sheet music, published in the UK by Faber and in the US by ultra-indie, underground-before-it-was-cool McSweeneys.
Why do I say this is a hit for the music-industry-is-publishing-in-ten-years analogy? Because after putting ironic post-post-modern reimagining of what is an album aside, you have to wonder about whether this is a viable way for artists to make money in a time when album sales are down 6.9 million first quarter year-on-year (though singles are up so, you know), illegal downloading is up, and online streaming is starting to dominate the record industry.
When you consider the challenges faced by a musician trying to release an album next to an author trying to release a novel, the contrast in the industries is brought into focus.
Currently, the book business model seems in a helluva better state than the music industry. Authors don’t (yet) have ball-busting pay-per-play royalties to contend with. While the revenue from Beck’s book release might not be as huge overall as some of his other releases (I know I’m not going to bother learning to play piano or guitar or uke-friggin-lele just so I can stumble my way through a song he’s written), the stream will certainly be more stable.
I put this down partly to the fact that publishers have responded well to the digital transition, and also to the fact that change often comes slowly if it comes at all in publishing. Physical book sales are down, but in the case of publishing this is offset nicely by the rise of eBooks and a general increase in reading. Publishers are cautious, but active, and have responded carefully and thoughtfully to digitisation.
This might be a signal that publishing is ripe for change – that it literally is only 10 years behind the music industry – and we can expect to be gouged by a Spotify equivalent in the very near future, but I’m skeptical. When the way you consume media is as different as it is with music and books, the optimum retail model won’t look the same.
Of course, Beck probably isn’t releasing a book because of the difference in business models and smaller threat of piracy. It’s an image thing, isn’t it? For a guy who can invent his own language, the next logical step is an ‘album’ release that regresses to a time before recording music was even possible.
This is certainly how Hypetrak have framed the story, calling the move ‘progressively innovative’. By abandoning the technology that allows us to hear his music, technology that had been around since the 1800s, Beck is being ‘progressive’. Right. So backwards that he’s forwards, so retro he’s future?
Does your brain hurt yet? I know mine does.
The book will be released in December of this year. Bring it on, I say. Finally, we have the publishing benchmark of antiquity, against which every so-called ‘legacy’ business practice looks positively futuristic.