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.
Let me review some of the most salient differences and the way they’ve influenced the divergent paths the industries have taken:
Kids copied music long before music went digital. The unauthorized copying of songs and albums did not begin with the arrival of the web or of MP3s or of Napster. It has been a part of the culture of pop music since the 1960s. There has been no such tradition with books. Xeroxing a book was not an easy task, and it was fairly expensive, too. Nobody did it, except, maybe, for the occasional oddball. So, even though the large-scale trading of bootlegged songs made possible by the net had radically different implications for the music business than the small-scale trading that had taken place previously, digital copying and trading didn’t feel particularly different from making and exchanging tapes. It seemed like a new variation on an old practice.
Fidelity matters less for popular music than for books. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. I was happy with my copy of Abbey Road despite its abysmal sound quality and the fact that – horrors! – I had only recorded one channel of a stereo mix. Throughout the 1960s and well into the 70s, the main way a lot of people listened to music was through crappy a.m. car radios and crappy a.m. transistor radios. And need I mention eight-tracks? The human ear and the human brain seem to be very adept at turning lo-fi music signals into fulfilling listening experiences – the auditory imagination somehow fills in the missing signal. Early MP3s, though they were often ripped at very low bit rates, sounded just fine to the vast majority of the music-listening public, so quality was no barrier to mass piracy. A lo-fi copy of a book, in contrast, is a misery to read. Blurry text, missing pages, clunky navigation: it takes a very dedicated reader to overcome even fairly minor shortcomings in a copy of a book. That’s one of the main reasons that even though bootlegged copies of popular books have been freely available online for quite some time now, few people bother with them.
Books never had a CD phase. Music was digitized long before the arrival of the web. During the 1980s, record companies digitized their catalogues, and digital CDs soon displaced tapes and vinyl as the medium of choice for music. The transition was a boon to the music industry because a whole lot of consumers bought new CD copies of albums that they already owned on vinyl. But the boon (as Reid notes) also set the stage for the subsequent bust. When personal computers with CD-ROM drives made it possible to rip music CDs into MP3 files, all the music that most people would ever want was soon available in a form that could be easily exchanged online. The CD also had the unintended effect of making the physical record album less valuable. CD cases were small, plastic, and annoying; the booklets wedged inside them were rarely removed; and the disks themselves had a space-age sterility that rendered them entirely charmless. By reducing the perceived value of the physical product, CDs made it easier for consumers to discard that product – in fact, getting rid of a CD collection was a great joy to many of us. The book business did not go through a digitization phase prior to the arrival of the web, so there was no supply of digital books waiting to be traded when online trading became possible. It was an entirely different situation from a technological standpoint.
The average music buyer is younger than the average book buyer. Young people have long been a primary market for popular music. Young people also tend to have the spare time, the tech savvy, the obliviousness to risk, the constrained wallets, and the passion for music required to do a whole lot of bootlegging. Books tend to be sold to older people. Older people make lousy pirates. That’s another crucial reason why book publishers have been sheltered from piracy in a way that record companies weren’t.
When Apple first promoted its iTunes app – this was quite a while before it got into music retailing – it used the slogan “Rip Mix Burn.” Though it wouldn’t admit it, it wanted people to engage in widespread copying and trading of music, because the more free digital music files that went into circulation, the more attractive its computers (and subsequently its iPods) became. (MP3s, in economic terms, were complements to Apple’s core products.) That slogan never had an analogue in the book business because the history, technology, and customers of the book business were fundamentally different at the start of the digital age. People like Reid like to suggest that if record company executives had made different decisions a decade ago, the fate of their industry would have been different. I’m skeptical about that. Sure, they could have made different decisions, but I really don’t think it would have changed the course of history much. They were basically screwed.
And executives in the publishing industry are probably kidding themselves if they think that they’re responsible for the fact that, so far, their business hasn’t gone through the wrenching changes that have affected their peers in the music business. And if they think they can use the experience of the music business as a guide to plot their own future course, they’re probably kidding themselves there, too. The impending forces of disruption in the book world may resemble the forces that battered the music world, but they’re different in many important ways.