A 1997 article in the New York Times laments the closing of another brick and mortar bookstore. Books & Company, an Upper East Side institution since 1977, was opened by Jeannette Watson—the granddaughter of IBM chairman Thomas J. Watson, namesake of Big Blue’s artificial intelligence software. Watson, unlike her grandad, never embraced technology or changed with the times.
“She never put in a computer. When customers called to request a book, she would dash around the store looking for it while the customer waited on the line.” Rents went up, profits went down, internet retailers stayed open 24/7 and stores like Books & Company closed.
It’s a tale we’ve heard over and over in the intervening 20 years—the internet is the end of retail and the end of physical media. And while it’s impossible to deny the disruption of quick shipping and always-on shopping, the change may be a little more glacial than we’ve been led to believe.
Savvy store owners are still in business. Couples are still trading mix tapes. Audiophiles are still listening to vinyl and readers are still flipping real pages.
There’s no doubt the media consumption landscape has shifted, but our favorite formats are holding on—for dear life some might say.
Physical Music for Life
Todd McCarty of HeatontheStreet.com has seen the music industry shift first-hand. McCarty was the general manager of Fearless Records and VP of Sales at Sony. McCarty was exposed to the industry in a way that may seem like a fairytale in the streaming world.
“My very first time visiting an independent record store was life-changing. The clerk struck up a conversation and invited me to see his band play live in Washington, DC. That encounter led to my discovery of a music subculture and a determination to be involved as a player and label executive.”
McCarty has watched streaming and digital music surge while CD sales declined. He also pointed out that vinyl sales have shot to double-digit growth in the past decade. “Humans tend to be collectors by nature. Some consumers aren’t actually listening to the vinyl records,” he said. “Completist types are collecting vinyl as collectors’ items, sometimes buying six different color variations of the same album.”
To gain an edge in the market, record labels will often issue deluxe and limited-edition CD and LP packages of their releases that just can’t be replicated digitally. This is especially prevalent with successful legacy artists that are rediscovered by fans on a regular basis—and will often prompt collectors to open their wallets just to collect the new edition.
McCarty said that while the growth of vinyl is promising, it’s not replacing lost revenue from CD sales and digital music has become the dominant platform. Still, he’s optimistic about the physical experience. “It’s clear that physical music sales are rapidly in decline. But the day when you can no longer buy physical music is much further off, and approaching slower than we all think,” he said.
Cutting Some of the Cords
Streaming services are gaining ground on traditional television in terms of quantity—and quality. A quick scan of 2017’s Emmy winners will provide proof of that. But, the situation isn’t quite as dire as it might seem at first glance. Paid cable channels are host to some of the most buzzworthy shows on TV and the networks are experimenting with new on-demand platforms and airing content on multiple streams.
It’s also worth noting that “traditional TV still makes up 43% of total media” time according to Nielsen’s Q3 2017 Total Audience report. Younger generations are turning to their phones and YouTube more than their older counterparts according to the same report, but traditional TV is still holding strong among older viewers. As more and more TVs sold are “smart” and streaming devices develop, this trend of streaming gaining ground is likely to continue.
Turning the Page
Book lovers don’t seem to be letting go of physical books any time soon.
Ebook sales fell 18.5% over the first nine months of 2016 while sales of physical books went up 7%. These stats aren’t just a flash in the pan. According to Publishers Weekly, physical book sales saw year-over-year growth for the three years leading up to 2016.
And, brick and mortar stores are experiencing something of a renaissance. Even Amazon, the largest online retailer of books, has opened a storefront in Seattle with more planned in the future.
Smart bookstore owners have made their shops more than just a place to pick up the newest best seller. They host readings from local and national authors, book clubs, after-school creative writing classes and events in the evenings. They also sell craft coffee and offer students a place to hole up and study for big exams and aspiring screenwriters and novelists a space to ply their craft.
Susan Tower is a managing partner at a marketing communications firm in Oregon. “I buy books regularly—obviously living in Portland near Powell’s books helps, but I’ll order from Amazon also,” she said. “And as a household, we get about 20 magazines a month in print. I work in marketing communications and my partner is in advertising, so I guess we consume more media than the average household!”
The Past as Present
The times, they are a changing, and they’re likely to keep changing as technology develops even more. But, it’s worth holding onto the formats and media you love and looking at the story with a realistic eye. And, you just might find that the stores and media you’re holding onto aren’t disappearing quite so soon after all.
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