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Music Lessons for Book People

October 30, 2009

Publishers in Nashville have a front row seat to the harbinger of their future–the music business, which is front-and-center in the local news every day.

Fortunately, publishing is behind the curve that music is on and we can be grateful that music is simultaneously taking the beatings and paving the way for understanding life in a new technological age.  We don’t have to worry about all the same issues, but points of comparison abound.


Take this top-of-the-front-page headline article from the Tennessean last week:  Google’s new audio search could be good for Nashville’s Music Row.  This understated, if timid headline announced the introduction of “music pages [that] will package images of musicians and bands, album artwork, links to news, lyrics, videos and song previews in one place.” How a platform as big as Google’s could be good for music is undeniable.  As you read the article, you realize that local music people long ago quit crying about the sky falling and have embraced the new digital world that’s changing every nanosecond or so.

If publishers listen in on the conversation among music people, we gain huge insights into how to behave, and how NOT to behave, in the new viral/digital age that will soon be ours.  It’s like we openly get to bug their offices, as if they were our competition (which, by the way, they are–but that’s another discussion).

Here’s what we should be hearing that arises from this article:

The news comes as music CD sales have tumbled dramatically over the past decade. Sales of digital downloads have not made up for the revenue loss.  “Anything to promote music sales especially in an environment of declining CD sales is a good thing,” [songwriter Steve] O’Brien said.

Takeaway?  Book sales will slide; digital book sales will go up; digital book will be less expensive; total revenues will go down.   It will happen.  Quit fighting it.  Change your business models now before you lose your shirts like the music guys did while they were hoping the problem would go away.

“Our ultimate challenge as music marketers is to aid discovery and to connect the consumer with what they are looking for,” said Ashley Heron, senior manager of marketing for Lyric Street Records and Carolwood Records. “Good move by Google to take advantage of ‘typed-in’ consumer interest.”

Takeaway?  The role of marketing in the viral age is to “aid discovery and connect” the consumer to what they want.  Thanks to the world that is the internet, it’s easier than ever to find which people are looking for what.   Marketing’s role is to help that particular consumer discover the authors, content, and titles for which their tastes long and guide their mouse-hand right to the link that will help them discover even more so they can make an informed buying decision.  I love that phrase:  “aid discovery.”

“I’m worried that we are on the threshold of a time when the remunerative value of music is zero,” said Nashville writer and entrepreneur Paul Schatzkin, whose Celestial Jukebox blog focuses on digital music. “Your browser is becoming your iPod,” Schatzkin said. “There is a behavioral shift afoot where consumers are getting accustomed to the concept of access to an infinite universe of music versus ownership of a limited personal library.”

Takeaway?  Many, many books will soon have no ability to incite revenue.  The $9.99 digital book and the $8.99 best seller at Walmart are no more flukes than the $9.99 downloadable album.  Free content is proliferating exponentially both by new authors, disapproving ones, and dead ones.  The new, old role of publishers is to become partners with their authors while adding real value to their authors’ agendas and figure out how to get paid in the process.

“I just want the music to be heard,” [2006 American Idol finalist and Christian artist Chris] Sligh said. “To me, within the next five to 10 years anyway, the recorded music is just going to be a marketing tool for getting people to come to your shows. That’s where artists make our money anyway.”

Takeaway?  Words on screens or paper will become instruments of larger ambitions that make more money than either printed or digital books.  The biggest mistake of the recorded music business was to think that their job was to sell cd’s.  Their job was to sell music.  That’s different.  Today, they are still experiencing the painful consequences of this mistake.  Likewise, publishers will perish if they continue to think their job is to sell books–print or digital.  Our real job is to sell stories and ideas.  First and foremost, we are shepherds of those authors whose calling is to tell good stories and spread great ideas. Of course, like the music industry, our survival depends on figuring out how to monetize the message.

To that end, we can either push against the future or learn from the mistakes of music industry.  Which decision we choose may well depend on which parts of the conversation we listen to.

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