I recently watched the PBS special called Hitmakers. It’s an hour focused on the music industry and how it’s changed over the decades, particularly in reference to who controls the industry’s hits…

Chicago record store
(Do you know what those are?)

I find this very interesting because in a lot of ways, it’s the same as the book industry. Or at least, it used to be. There were people who specialised in going out and finding the musicians who had ‘it’. Records were made, and radio stations were told to play the same songs on and on until they became hits…or failed.

Things changed, though, with the advent of the internet. Radio stations have lost the control over what people hear, and thus what becomes a hit. Now it’s about YouTube and various streaming services. The listeners now chose what’s successful.

I see some parallels in the book industry.

1.) The YouTube thing is a bit like self-publishing in that anyone can make a music video now and slap it up there. Some are excellent. Some are not. Some go viral, but the majority accrue a few hundred views and then fade away. Self-publishing (which I’ve done) can be like that…and it’s difficult to pick which book will go viral and which will never be purchased. No gatekeepers other than the final listener.

(In the special, they talk to Melissa Etheridge who is releasing her new album not under a record label, but by herself to get a larger cut of the profit. Sound familiar?)

2.) They also talked about streaming, in that makers are paid very little for things that are streamed. The majority of music makers (not the big ones, of course) don’t make their money with their creations any longer. Instead, the artist they interviewed said that to make ends meet (she wasn’t talking about getting rich, but about being able to pay her musicians at the end of the night) they have to tour and sell t-shirts and other things.

That was a bit worrisome to me because if the writing industry continues along the path that the music industry has…what exactly would we sell? I can’t imagine touring would ever turn a profit for a writer unless they were Richard Castle popular. So do we sell t-shirts? Patches and stickers?

3.) One of important points that the special made was that the gatekeepers who picked out the hitmakers didn’t always get it right. There were a lot of one-hit wonders out there. Or no-hit wonders.

But for every big hit, the special said, the profit covered the losses on 9 groups that didn’t hit it big, allowing the music companies to try out new artists and take some time to build their careers.

I think that the traditional publishers are still doing this, picking up writers like me and giving us a chance because they have other writers who are bringing in enough money to cover those of us who aren’t a big deal. I really appreciate that, but fear the day that the industry–like the record industry–decides it can’t afford that any longer.

It will be both interesting and scary to watch over the next decade to see how far down this path the publishers follow the music industry…


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