Emily White, Music Piracy, and Bookstores: Some Thoughts

Emily White, Music Piracy, and Bookstores: Some Thoughts

Two nights ago, I spent the evening at the Scarborough Town Centre with my fiancé. As we walked back from the movie theatre after buying our tickets for Brave, I noticed for the first time that the HMV store had closed. Dark shutters were drawn over the windows and the door was locked. I was sad at first, but when we walked further into the mall we noticed that the HMV sign was visible on a new storefront.

As we got closer and closer to the new store, I grew worried. The HMV had taken over the location of Cole’s, the mall’s sole dedicated bookstore. As we walked inside, the smell of fresh paint was inescapable. The carpets were spotless. The place was brand sparkling new – so new, in fact, that there were still people on ladders in the middle of the store dealing with wiring in the ceiling. When I asked an employee when the new location opened, their answer was startling: only a few hours ago.

The old HMV store had a huge entrance with large display windows, and was nestled between the food court, the Old Navy store, and the theatre. In other words, it was large, visible, and in a prime retail location on the main floor. Now, the new location is on the lower floor far away from the main entrance. A store with a smaller square footage in a less visible location means lower rent. With this in mind, isn’t it telling that one chain store having to come to grips with the digitization of entertainment was ousted by another chain store dealing with the same issues – and the store that lost out wasn’t the one that sells music, but books?

Standing in the HMV and realizing the comment it made about the viability of being a bookseller placed some other things in a weird context. At once, I thought of the rumours about the closure of the World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto (the store’s parent company, Indigo, also owns Cole’s). However, I also thought of the online discussion that erupted in the wake of NPR intern Emily White’s admission that she’s engaged in extensive music piracy, particularly David Lowery’s measured response.

The concerns about how piracy affects the music industry are similar to those from the publishing industry. Should readers and listeners just expect free online access to something that cost money to produce? I admit that I’ve downloaded my fair share of pirated music, but for at least a year, I’ve bought almost all my music through venues like iTunes or Zunior. I’m also proud to say that every single eBook I have was obtained through legitimate means, whether that meant a purchase from an online eBook distributor like Kobo or Smashwords, or a purchase directly from a publisher, or a visit to Project Gutenberg.

Emily White’s admission of how little she’s paid for her music collection should paint a troubling picture for the publishing industry. How many eBook readers could make the same claim as hers, that their libraries consist almost solely of pirated material? And how many of them would be willing to pay the authors who worked so hard to get their books made in the first case? I bet the number of people in the former situation will vastly outnumber those in the latter.

Perhaps the saddest thing about the closure of the Cole’s store was that I didn’t even notice until after it was gone. The customer service desk at the mall said that the store closed down on April 7th – over 2 1/2 months ago – and that it was unknown if a new branch of Cole’s would be built. For 2 1/2 months, I didn’t notice. And if even dedicated book buyers like me don’t notice the disintegration of Canada’s largest bookstore chain, will our crows eventually come home to roost? Will we be just like the village described in David Lowery’s article, where we’ve been sold on the idea of “free content” without realizing how thoroughly the costs of the system we’re using have been externalized, and how our actions benefit those who control technology, instead of those who create art?

One thought on “Emily White, Music Piracy, and Bookstores: Some Thoughts

  1. Tobin Elliott

    Actually, not to argue with you Christina, but Emily absolutely did NOT admit to “extensive music piracy.” She admitted to only purchasing a total of 15 CDs. The balance of her 110000 songs came mostly from iTunes.

    She states “But I didn’t illegally download (most) of my songs. A few are, admittedly, from a stint in the 5th grade with the file-sharing program Kazaa. Some are from my family. I’ve swapped hundreds of mix CDs with friends.”

    The thrust of her argument is summed up when she says, “I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.” I think it’s a valid point.

    I come from the generation where we bought full albums. I sneered at those that only bought 45s with only two songs on them. But now, even though an artist takes a year (or two or three) to put together 10 or 12 songs, it doesn’t mean the buying public wants all of them. They’ll grab the ones they like one or two at a time.

    As for books, yes, there’s scams there too. Not just the sites where you can download pirated audio and ebook versions, but also the assholes who’ll take your ebook, create a new cover and title, and sell it as their own.

    But hasn’t this been around forever? Back in 1978, I hung out with a group of six friends. One of us would buy an album, the other five would borrow it and put it on cassette. You never heard the term “piracy” back then, but that’s what it was.

    And you yourself have argued (quite rightly) against DRM-protected books.

    In Lowery’s response, he talks about the decline of musicians since 2000. With 25% less musicians, don’t you think the number of sales will also go down? So, I don’t think it’s fair to blame it all on illegal downloading. For every handwringing story about how downloading hurts the industry (and I’m not saying it doesn’t, I just don’t think it’s to the extent they talk about), there’s a story about how a Radiohead released an album with a “pay what you want” and made money.

    With writing, I’ve heard of one author (who’s name escapes me) who searches all the illegal download sites and, when he finds links to his work, he actually posts them on his site.

    I can say I’ve downloaded writers to “test” their work first, then, happy with what I read, went and purchased their books. Chuck Palahniuk. Joe R. Lansdale. Dennis Lehane, just to name a few.

    I think these industries have to read the writing on the wall… Illegal downloading, no matter how much it’s chased or legislated, is here to stay. So what are they going to do to, what can they add or offer to paying customers to entice them?

    When the industries stop rattling the cages and crying about illegal downloads and start working within the new paradigm, then maybe they’ll see some better numbers. You can always cry that those damn computers are taking away all the typewriter users, or bitch that digital photography is killing the film industry, but you either do something about it, or move on.

    Until then, this is the reality.