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?