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The physical book as souvenir

2011 is the year for digital in publishing, if twitter is to be believed. And with eBook sales accounting for up to 40% of sales in the US, the news that 96 reading devices will be on the market by the end of the year and that now everyone and their granny has had a go on an iPad, who can argue?

It has become something of a bad joke with my colleagues who have joined from the music industry that we are not the first to experience this revolution since music artists have been here before. These colleagues were employed, in part, to help us navigate through the choppy waters of falling sales of physical books, DRM, piracy, the devaluation of content. And it is having watched companies like Live Nation that publishers have started to employ business models around live or digitally streamed events. 

With all that in mind, one would think that there is little that musicians can learn from publishers, and that they would be looking for inspiration from elsewhere to turn a buck. (For interest, the one industry that has successfully coped with the shift to digital is the porn industry from whom we all have a great deal to learn). However, last year, in a conversation with the musician, and founding member of Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh, a deal was made whereby The Friday Project would publish her album, Crooked, as a physical book. Not a ‘book’ book, but the kind of up-market CD package that would have been seen 10 years ago in HMV – lyrics, photos, essays – and most importantly a protected code which the buyer used to download the full album.

Kristin Hersh is no stranger to making apparently left-field choices. For one, she was giving her music away for free long before Radiohead. Each of her solo albums is self-produced and self-promoted and she makes the content available for her fans through her website before taking to the road to play back-to-back gigs across the US and Europe. To put this in perspective, Kristin, and her husband Billy, who also acts as her manager lost almost everything they had in the floods post-Katrina. For them this is not a vanity project, but a living. At the end of each concert Billy would take to the stage with memory sticks filled with the song, out-takes and interviews and other related miscellany, and sell them for $10. For the tour of Crooked, the boot of the car was filled with the book/album.

Standing at the back of one of these gigs it was clear that the fans love Kristin, and they will happily pay for the book/album, even though they have all the music already. And it was also clear that her fans would go to extreme lengths to do anything they could for Kristin. It was no surprise then when, in November last year, Kristin received an email from a fan who had converted the entire Crooked album, images, essays, music and commentary into an App. And would she like it for free. In January this year Kristin Hersh: Crooked was officially launched in the UK.

The idea of a musician teaming up with a book publisher was counter-intuitive from a number of perspectives. A musician turning back to the physical object to revitalize her sales; The Friday Project – a test-bed for digital publishing taking a step back into publishing physical books; but most interestingly of all, the curious misunderstanding of the fans. The book/album is includes instructions clearing marked for how to access the music. And yet, on the road with Kristin selling her album, 7 out of 10 people who bought the album returned to the counter and thought they had a faulty copy, as they could not find the CD.

We all know how successful the Radiohead experiment was, but few artists looking for new ways to make money can call on such a huge fan base to drive sales. The future in which CDs no longer exist is not far off, as HMV’s catastrophic Christmas showed. But we know that people like to show off their collections or leave the gig with a souvenir, and turning the CD market into a book/album market is clearly a business model that suits the high street sellers as much as it does the artists, since it puts a definite value on the physical content and makes the album – and with it the artist – visible through channels like Amazon books and high street bookseller which was never possible before.

Since the launch of Crooked a parade of anxious music studio executives have been through The Friday Project doors eager to know how the model can be replicated, not just for indie artists who make their living on the circuit, but also for re-inventing backlists and publishing luxury editions by major artists. To say that the music industry has come full circle is missing the point since ultimately the big money in the future in going to be made online. What is to say that there couldn’t be an eBook version that took the printed material back into digital, fully enhanced with all the music pre-embedded? But there is an appetite for physical products still exists and publishers are perfectly placed to capitalize on it. The real point though, to quote John Major, is that when our backs are to the wall we need to turn around and come out fighting. When we – publishers and music studios – realize that we really are all in this together, that is when real innovation will out and the future of the artist and the author in the digital age will be secured.

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