The playing time of the earliest wax cylinders was only 2 minutes.
As the name implies, the phonograph cylinders were wax and could only be replayed 100 times or so before they had to be replaced. [though worn out cylinders could be “erased” and reused for home recordings]
Later cylinders made of celluoid and phenolic resins like Amberol (you may have heard of a similar material brand-named Bakelite) lasted much longer, and in fact Edison [you know, the guy who invented the damn things] came up with a way to double the information packed on cylinders, so you could listen for all of *4 minutes*. [Whoa, give me a minute, I think I’m getting the vapors]
By the 1920s, a 12” 78 would run 4 and a half minutes. My Goodness. But as always, technology marches on…
So by the 30s you have Columbia introducing the LP — 10 minutes to a side playing at 33½ rpms on 10” discs — and RCA Victor (not wanting to pay licensing fees for Columbia’s patents) introducing the 7” 45 (which ran at 45rpms — hence the name) (* for those of you who have previously heard of 45s, of course)
image credit: Wikimedia commons
The competing formats [which used different spindle sizes and ran at different speeds] shaped the music that was released – and while a number of disc-switching systems were employed to get around size/time limitations, for the most part songs were truncated to the format. The 3-4 minute single is a direct result of the 45. When folks today talk about an EP (~15min, 3-5 songs) or an LP (~40min., the Album of my youth) (or of Albums, for that matter) they use a nomenclature descended from the limitations of grooves in plastic. Wikipedia has a wealth of information on all this minutiae.
The point I would like to make, my major digression before I get to the actual argument I’d like to make in this post, is that consumer music on distributed media in the 88 years between Edison and Rubber Soul was almost exclusively the sale and distribution of singles — a single song, just like 99¢ downloads today. The limits of technology at the time meant an operational upper limit of about 270 seconds. Even prior to discs — before cylinders even, of either wax or plastic — there was printed sheet music, and player piano rolls, which were also largely limited to single songs — and the music business being what it is, of course parties whose profits depended on one model sued the new technology in court: Wikipedia also has an article on the White-Smith ruling. This is a pattern repeated many times and covered at least twice in depth by folks who know more about the issue than I do.
But the rights & formats & changing technology are secondary to the primary economics of consumption: except for a golden period in the late 60s and throughout the 70s [the era from Rubber Soul to MTV] the industry was ALL ABOUT the production of singles and the mass consumption of “hits” — through the 50s, 60s, disco in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and the decade just past: rare indeed was the artist who released an album as a preconceived artistic whole, and so many of those were also supported by the release of singles that it’d be hard to envision an ongoing music industry without them.
Thriller? Seven of it’s nine songs were released as singles, and the stature of the album itself (to say nothing of it’s record-breaking sales) are as much about the success of the singles as in the album’s “concept” — if it has one. Purple Rain? It even has a movie, right? Can’t separate the tracks from the album — except they did, releasing the title track, Let’s Go Crazy, and When Doves Cry (along with two other tracks that no one remembers) as singles — and just like I can’t think of the name of any other track, I doubt anyone except die-hard Prince fans could even hum a few bars without the album playing in the background.
Classic albums, even Dark Side of the Moon, the 1973 masterwork and ur-concept album — the platonic ideal form of the concept album — all have at least one ‘best’ track that ends up as the single. Floyd’s label released both Time and Money from DSotM, likely without consulting the band. [“btw, which one’s Pink?” & the other lyrics from ‘Have a Cigar’ on Wish You Were Here released 2 years later seems the best commentary on that]
So some few albums aside: it’s all about the single. The single is what we want, and even though artists continued to release album-length CDs throughout the 80s & 90s, we only grudgingly bought the whole disc just to get one or two songs we like. For about 20 years, recording industry profits were unfairly inflated as they were charging $8 — then $10, then $15, then $18 — for a pair of singles.
Add onto that as well the large proportion of fans repurchasing their entire collection on CD: 20 and 30 (and 40) year old albums that wouldn’t have sold otherwise that suddenly found new life, and the ability to package even third-tier artists’ output into ‘greatest hit’ collections that would sell. [Even if, once again, all we wanted were the one or two hits.]
Many would point to the death of the music chains as a dire premonition for all retailers of packaged entertainment. Oh look, there goes Borders. Watch it, Blockbuster is next.
The advent of downloadable music led to decreased album sales, decreased sales of physical media, the bankruptcy of several chains that sold music [though some individual stores and ‘indy’ music stores seem to be doing OK – many of them by increasing their stock of vinyl!] and in general, much soiling of pants by music industry executives.
*Allow me to call bullshit* : The music industry collapsed because the CD format (and CD pricing) led to an unsustainable bubble built on the $18 price point cited above (for 2 good songs and an hour of dross) and the once-in-a-format buying binge as customers built a “library” — you only re-buy your collection once, though, and once you’ve bought ‘enough’ you fall back to your normal (& typically very sparse) buying habits.
The “rediscovery” of the single by the shopping public made possible by per-track purchases (and the occasional illegal download) supposedly led to the collapse of album sales, but it should come as no surprise that as soon as we could drop the 11 tracks of filler [at an unjustified markup] and just pay for the songs we liked — well, we did so.
(Perhaps many of us downloaded them illegally first — but the whole industry went into transition for a solid 10 years starting in 1999, and one could certainly write a whole book on that. The fact that Apple and Amazon make money off of music proves “piracy”, while real, is not the bugbear the RIAA wants you to think it is.)
I’d argue that the point where we all hit ‘enough’ CDs for our library just happened to coincide with the advent of digital downloads, two trends which both resulted in decreased album sales but also two separate and distinct trends the recording industry unfairly conflated — an assumption which led more or less directly to their present day stupidity like suing fans for liking music, and withdrawing from digital when they should have embraced the new format as firmly as they once did CDs — to the point where they were pushing CDs down our throat. This misstep means they ceded the initiative, and the profits, to Apple — and to Amazon, to a lesser extent. This is ground that they will never make up, and soon the artists [who actually make the music] & the tech companies [who now distribute it] will meet somewhere in the middle and wonder just what the recording industry is for, anyway?
One more quick aside: The movie companies suffered from a similar blindness, but also benefited from format changes and the associated bubble as we rushed to build our personal movie collections (something one couldn’t even do in the 70s, unless you owned a film projector) – in fact, the studios got to hit us twice, selling us the same movies on VHS & DVD (and now Blu-ray) and even as ticket sales slump (a trend hidden by ever-increasing ticket prices) they showed improving profits — and developed whole new profit centers.
In some cases, the film libraries are worth more than the current production studios. Movies differ from music in that prior to VHS, there was no collector or home consumer market: you bought the ticket while it was out in theaters and that’s it. Even the occasional broadcast on TV hardly holds a candle to DVD.
So movies finally made their way into a market that music had been developing since 1880. Not surprisingly, there was pent-up demand — in fact, ask any blogger what they want to see on DVD or Blu-ray and even if they blog about business or book retail or manga of all things, I’m sure after some thought said blogger would be able to give you a Top 10 wishlist of things that should be out and available for exorbitant prices but isn’t. Stop worrying about bittorrent, guys. Fire your lawyers and hire archivists — the money is sitting in vaults, on celluloid that is deteriorating as we speak.
As stated up top: Books are not Music
CDs can be deconstructed into individual tracks — indeed, the single is the “default” unit of music and CDs are the artificial construct: when given the option, we want CDs broken up so we can buy just the tracks we need. In contrast to music, books have always been a long-form art, and even short stories take a hell of a lot more than 4 minutes to read. [If you can read a short story in 2 minutes, that tells me the author worked and agonized, for weeks or months to write something that short, and you need to go back and read it again. now. I’ll wait.]
Songs are played on the radio, available from our personal libraries, available via streaming services, and otherwise permeate our life, and except for our teens — when we soak up new music like life-giving water [and the once-every-20-years format changes, when we’re forced to repurchase the music of our youth] — actual music purchases are fairly rare.
Books aren’t movies, either, for that matter: Both music and movies are passive entertainment — you can turn on the radio and have it playing in the background while you write, or cruise the web, or study, or make sweet sweet love, or many other tasks that require more of your attention. Similarly, I can put on a DVD and simultaneously cram popcorn in my maw while either drinking beer or letting my hands roam over a willing partner [an activity that usually ends with us missing the last half of the movie, but hey, that’s one more argument for owning the DVD].
Movies and music are passive entertainment; we can sit back and do other things while we enjoy them. Seeing a first run movie in a theater is more engaging than watching videos at home — but I think many of us have noted how many other people manage to text, talk, or tweet their way through a movie [you and I would never do that though] — or have noted with distress the jackhole who thinks he’s MST3K but wittier and who maintains a running commentary through the whole thing. [most of you have a tire iron in your trunk; I’m not advocating violence against jackholes but I thought I’d remind you it’s there]
Books are active and engaging. You don’t read a book while you write blog posts and surf the web. Hopefully you don’t read books while driving – mostly because you can’t, but also because it would be dangerous to try. You might be able to page through a magazine, skimming the ads and reading only the article headlines, while talking with friends or otherwise doing something else but when you sit down to read a book: That is all you are doing: You are reading a book, and it takes up your whole brain.
Sure, you can listen to music while you read and I often do: but the one is just background noise, while the other engages you to the point it crowds out everything else.
You can sell music by the track, and assemble playlists from many disparate sources. You can sell TV series by the episode, and while we occasionally marathon a whole series in a single sitting, it is much more common to take TV shows in half-hour to hour chunks, and to keep at least a half dozen ‘stories’ going at a time, at the rate of one episode a week.
Dickens and his serialized novels aside: when we buy a book we buy the whole damn thing, and read the whole damn thing, and the reading of it takes over our whole imagination — and even in a series consisting of several books we only begrudgingly admit that it takes a while to write a book, and given a preference we’d read a whole series at once rather than wait between installments. There are the Twilight books as an example, of course, or Potter mania from a few years back, or the agonizing wait Martin has put us through with “The Song of Ice & Fire” [Game of Thrones for the newbs who only heard about it from HBO] — or King, or Patterson, or Steele, or Woods, or Block, or authors sadly passed who will write no new books, or the next series in your favourite genre that you haven’t even heard of yet.
Readers are obsessive.
Not everyone is a reader; certainly more folks passively consume music [because they’re stuck in a car during a commute, or it’s playing as Muzak on speakers in most public spaces we inhabit] and Movies & TV are a mass media in ways that books will never be. […alas. and our society is poorer for it]
In fact, a book is usually only considered a success after it get picked up for [inferior] TV or Movie adaptation — so very sad. Even a “bestseller” will get a sales bump from a movie, because the movie-going public just aren’t readers.
Sure, I sell to a niche. And at least two large chunks of that niche [genre readers and avid fans of a particular author, whichever author] are getting peeled off by digital readers: I’m beat, usually by price and certainly in ‘instant gratification’ metrics.
But my core, the reader, is still there. Book Discovery hasn’t quite made it’s way online yet, and the plain truth is that more readers discover new books in a bookstore than they do anywhere else. I’d argue that to an extent they only *can* discover new titles in a bookstore, because of the inherent properties of the books.
image credit: Wikimedia commons
For music, there is radio. And when there were record stores, there was radio. While there were concerts, there was radio — when digital downloads and online streaming and customizable channels and personalized suggestions all hit the scene, there was radio. We can argue that it sucks now, and many of the music stations really, really do suck: but they still broadcast, and it’s still one way (the primary way?) most folks discover new music — if only because broadcast radio is a mass distribution channel, about as ubiquitous as these things get. Seems old fashioned; but still there. Radio is not dead yet.
For books: yes, there are online sales sites and reviews and blogs — and to an extent, customizable channels and personalized suggestion services — but the primary, mass distribution channel is still books on shelves: the retailer. Seems old fashioned, quaint even. But actually bricks-and-mortar retail isn’t going away anytime soon.
[One could argue whether your “bookstore” in 15 years time will be just another small department in Walmart and Costco, but that’s a different essay — and if you ask a publisher whether they’d prefer that kind of channel or an actual bookstore, even a crippled, suffering bookstore that is a pale shadow of the 90s chains on only a fraction of their former salesfloor footprint — well, I think we know which they’d pick]
Books engage. Books demand. Books compel. I can do other things while I listen to music, or while a video plays — but when I read a book I Read and I find myself all but incapable of doing anything else. I can’t even drink beer — well, I can, but I only think to pick up the beer stein at the end of each chapter.
I’m not worried about the new digital landscape — if the world of bookselling changes so much that it’s all online, then well, the online players will need booksellers. I think I’ll be able to find my way. Books are not music, after all. You can make up your own mind about a song in about 5 minutes — in fact, you can listen to the whole damn song in that amount of time in nearly every case.
Books take longer to appreciate, and more skill to sell.
Also, publishers are embracing digital publishing in a way the recording industry never did — and still hasn’t. I’m not saying publishers volunteered to host this party, but now that everyone is showing up, they’ve sent the interns out to buy chips and dip and a digital keg.
Also, there is no related format-bubble like the CD or DVD binge as customers re-bought all their old favourite titles over again to build their new library…
Well… unless you count digital books as the new-format bubble that will eventually pop. (I’m not going to push the point or force you to confront it: I’m just going to leave that little gem right here where I can link to it later.)
As long as there are books, and readers, there will be bookstores. And Amazon is not a bookstore, which is my next topic.