7.19.2010

The (public) library vs. the (private) RIAA

In another in a seemingly endless series about the present day music industry, I had a new thought cross my mind. Not new information, but maybe a new metaphor to apply to the recording industry situation. I've make reference before to the idea that massive record sales of the 80s and 90s are an anomaly, not the norm, for music as a consumable product. People have moved on the DVDs and Tivo. I've watched in amusement for the last few years as the RIAA tries desperately not to accept this.

I have visited the Littleton public library several times and it's an excellent resource for a smaller library. While browsing the stacks last week I was reminded of how many hundreds of books are released every month. Even if all new book releases were stopped today it would take me decades to read everything in the speculative fiction section alone. It applies to music as well. Online radio like Progulus lets me get a good sample of a lot of music. I enjoy most of it, and I could never afford the money or time to actually buy all of it.

So why keep writing books? Well, for authors it may be a mix of artistic compulsion and a job. For publishers, they hope for the occasional huge hit, but they can also publish books in moderate quantities and not put a lot of money up front. With new digital options, there's almost no production cost at all beyond paying the people who worked on it. It's similar to something I read about Jazz back in college, that Jazz labels considered a record successful if it sold 20,000 copies. Make your money back, make a small profit, and move on the the next gig. The RIAA can't tell the difference between success and MASSIVE HIT EVERYBODY PARTY! No one should be pressured not to write a book, paint a picture, or record an album because it won't make someone else rich.

After a book or any creative is done, it enters the culture at large. Whether 10 people or 10,000 people read it, it's there to be used. Libraries now also have a lot of music and movies. Libraries are storehouses of culture. It's a place that holds a record of a people and their creativity. Storytelling is one of the few things left that humans do and animals don't (as far as we know). As an artist, I am more interested in being part of the creative conversation and part of the cultural record than in diluting my intentions to make money.

Do authors lose money when people borrow a book from the library rather than buying it? Sure, it seems obvious. But, as others have ably written, obscurity is far worse an enemy to art than whether or not people get it for free.