In considering the impact of the digital world on writing and publishing, comparisons with other creative industries are a tricky business. Wholesale comparisons with, say films or even newspapers usually betray an underlying assumption: where they go, so too must we. It’s an assumption that doesn’t hold up too well under scrutiny. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn from the experience of other industries. A wonderfully creative approach to physical artefacts and marketing is currently underway in many corners of independent music , much of it borne from necessity.
While a digital has become the primary distribution method for new recorded music today, it’s hardly the only means of accessing an artist’s work. In the margins of the industry, many bands are making their work available—often as limited small runs— in as many formats as possible: download, CD, vinyl, even cassette (with optional Walkman) and souvenir memory sticks.
And although I’m not usually given to quoting rock stars in this environment, I was struck by recent comments from Quan Yeomans of one-time Brisbane-based band Regurgitator.
‘It’s great for an artist to see the artwork in multiple forms and, if you want the artefact, we’re happy for you to support us. But we’re also happy for you to have the music for free if that’s what you want. Data is uncontrollable, you can take it if you want it, or you can download it legally if you feel like it. That’s the state of affairs.’
What independent musicians are discovering is a burgeoning post digital market, meeting a desire among fans for the experience of music, something that can’t be replicated in a digital download, whether free or paid. It’s a much smaller market than the vast majority of iPod-toting groovers, but it’s one still worth pursuing.
For too long, the automatic response from many creative industries has been to attempt to control data, to lock it down and prevent it from being exploited. Though understandable, it’s an impossible endeavour and one that claims valuable resources for little to no benefit. In her recent presentation for if:book, Angela James explained that Carina Books, a digital-first imprint for Harlequin, applies no such locks (known as digital rights management or DRM). This decision has not only proven popular with readers, but it has had little impact on their bottom line with the imprint find no significant difference in piracy levels from other publishers.
For writing and books, attachment to physical media runs far deeper and longer than anything comparable in the recording industry. The experience of reading is something many readers take seriously. Meeting the needs of such readers in a post-digital publishing world may prove a more valuable investment than DRM for writers and publishers alike.
Not that I want to make wholesale comparisons or anything.