Monday, June 30, 2008

Books Going One Way, Music Another

In the fourth season of The Wire, the drug dealer Bodie and his friend Poot have a conversation about global warming and the increasing violence on Baltimore's streets. Poot's observation ("world going one way, people another"), like a lot of The Wire's vernacular philosophy, gets stuck in my head a lot.

So when I read Daniel Hall's "Indie Rock Wizards," at The Economist's Free Exchange blog, all I could think of was the title above.

WHILE conversing with friends this weekend I realised that I hold two beliefs about pop culture that initially sound incompatible: 1. There will never again be a musical act that attains the popularity and cultural permeation of the Beatles. 2. It is nigh inevitable that a book or book series will one day achieve or surpass the popularity and cultural permeation of Harry Potter...

One of my friends proposed a theory I find compelling: Our cultural consumption exists on a spectrum from "individual" to "collective". Technology has shifted the balance for both books and music. Digital distrbitution and the iPod have made music consumption much more individualistic, while the internet and global branding have made book consumption increasingly collective.

If this is so, it is interesting to consider the likely impacts on other cultural forms. For movies, while it is hard to imagine the summer blockbuster ever entirely disappearing, I think the net effect is likely to be increasing fragmentation. Museum art is harder to predict. Will global branding allow a few artists to attain rock star status? Or will niche artists flourish by using the internet to raise awareness and create alternative art experiences? I find myself hoping it's the latter. In my experience the areas where technology is causing significant fragmentation—not only music but areas like news media—have become far richer and more interesting to me as a result.

As a side note, I was shopping for diapers, paper towels, and rotisserie chicken at a warehouse club today and was astounded by the piles and piles of best-sellers, mass-market, and discounted books laid out on a table in the middle of the store (not, like at Borders, near the front, but wedged between office supplies and underwear). There is a weird, almost ultra-pop market for books, music, and movies that the Costcos and Sam's Clubs of the world deliver, one where bibles, NYT bestsellers, James Frey, Oprah books, Malcolm Gladwell, and archaeological detective fiction commingle with box sets of John Wayne movies, straight-to-DVD Disney cartoons, The Sopranos, Billie Holliday, Hannah Montana, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. It is a weird, weird world, much weirder than the middlebrow boutique that is your average Borders or Barnes and Noble, which really do provide a fairly coherent world.

With that in mind, I would actually look to the vastly different physical retail experience of books and music today, rather than the best-sellers/Top 40 lists -- or rather, as a function of the best-sellers/Top 40. We used to have honest-to-goodness music stores: chains like Tower Records, Harmony House, or Sam Goody, or smaller places that weren't niche stores. That's where you would go to buy a record or tape or CD, in the same way that you now go to Borders or Barnes & Noble to buy a book. As a result, even if you were going there to pick up Sonic Youth or Public Enemy or something not quite mainstream (but mainstream enough to find in a mall) you would at the very least be aware of Michael Jackson or Peter Gabriel or Whitney Houston or whomever and might even grab a copy of their records as well. Just as now, readers from multiple niches (children's, fantasy, literary fiction, whatever) will stop by the Harry Potter display and add it to the pile.

In other words, it's the accumulation of niche audiences with low-interest mass audiences that create genuine blockbusters, like Harry Potter or the Beatles, and that phenomenon is best facilitated by a particular retail structure. If books are an afterthought in a generic shopping experience, the way music is now, then the niche audience goes elsewhere and you get low-interest, low-memory, low-sales blockbusters: albums that go single platinum (but no more) which nobody remembers (even if everyone occasionally heard them).

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