Taylor Swift & The Culture of Free

So Taylor Swift has pulled her catalog off Spotify. She has been a proponent of artists being paid properly for their work, she’s apparently decided to make a point. It’s certainly an interesting one. Let’s face it, Swift is going to make a chunk of change, no matter how she releases her work. That’s what happens when you have a fan base that surely extends out to every listening creature within 8 light years. So it’s not really about money for her. Instead, she’s using her fairly unique platform to speak to the general public, and perhaps even more so to address other artists out there in hopes that they will be firm in their ideas of how to value their work.

In this world where independent publishing is becoming ubiquitous, some folks might confuse the ability to set a price-point for a work to “free” with the idea of free streaming content (or essentially free, as in Spotify, or to a lesser degree in things like Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program). They are two very different things.

I am beyond fine with giving people and businesses the ability to leverage cheap entry prices to develop a paying audience—that’s what “free” is in context of a decent independent publishing business plan, it’s the author’s way of establishing the gateway drug. Your first hit is free, and then you pay your way going forward. It’s a business model that’s been working for a lot of folks, and it makes a lot of sense. It’s the model by which a lot of people are making their livings. It works because the current business model provides for the ability to price and market individual elements of your product profile (books, in this case) individually.

But I’m not exactly comfortable with the Spotify/KU concept when it comes to books.

The music industry has been adjusting to this new business world, and things are considerably different now than they were several years back. There are, you see, other ways to monetize the exposure that can come with free streaming services. You can tour, and sell T-Shirts, and whatnot. It’s not like the digital revolution has stopped the creation of new music. But I think the common wisdom is that it’s pretty clear there are fewer people enjoying long careers as musicians. Here’s a study that suggests musical artists are younger today, and have shorter “careers.”

Books and authors are a different thing, though.

I’m not even sure a Spotify-like service can succeed in the long term with books. KU will help us find out, I suppose. Readers, of course, will love it—at least for a while, anyway. But the big question is this: if KU is the only distribution channel in town, how long will it be until the low revenue stream results in the strongest writers opting out (in this case, actually quitting)? This is, of course, a bit of a shell game that I’m playing there. I doubt that KU would ever be the only way to distribute books, after all. And if an author builds an audience, it seems clear that readers will pay for stuff that they like—probably because, unlike music, which is often consumed in fairly mindless situations, to consume a story requires actual commitment of mental resources (even if you’re consuming books in audio format).

In fact, this is probably the biggest advantage us writers have over musicians, and it’s not something I’ve heard discussed much: To consume our products, the reader has to commit time as well as some serious brain cycles.

As a result, perhaps the “culture of free” might be different for music consumers than it is for book consumers. Music consumers are also used to getting the product for “free” over the radio. Book consumers are not so preconditioned.

Of course, I could be completely wrong here. The future will show one way or the other. But my best guess is that you’ll continue to see several fairly strong distribution channels for books continue to exist for the foreseeable future. I think that Taylor Swift’s gambit probably won’t change much in the music industry, nor do I think it is likely to head off whatever the situation is going to turn into with regard to the written word.

But it’s definitely interesting to think about, and interesting to watch unfold.

Curiouser and curiouser, eh?

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