Money is often tighter than normal in January. After Christmas expenses and possibly Boxing Day sales most of us watch the pennies closer than normal to make it to the next payday. Whilst discounts and special offers may help make ends meet, it is worth taking a moment to think about the merits of bargains and freebies.
I don’t mean the discounts and special offers that help people put food on the table in these days of rising food banks, although there is definitely a debate to be had about whether anybody should have to rely on discounts in an affluent country just to feed their family. No, I have been mulling over our collective appetite for bargains when it comes to life’s little luxuries: books and music.
The blessings of the Internet
The rise of the Internet and its supporting technologies have been fantastic in many ways: access to more information, new business opportunities in more remote areas, greater scope to stay in touch with family and friends miles away…
I really appreciate how the Internet has made it easier for me to access ideas, writing and music that are unusual, challenging, inspiring… On the one hand, less ‘trendy’ styles and genres can see the light of day and find an audience thanks to a range of technologies and distribution channels. On the other hand, the Internet makes it easier to access such offerings. When I think back to my teenage years, buying any music out of the mainstream involved a pilgrimage to the city to scour the shelves of one tiny record shop.
There is, however, also a downside to all this technology. Instant access and a proliferation of ‘content’ – to use the hideous business jargon – have devalued the work of authors and artists. With more and more material on tap to stimulate us for a few nanoseconds, we seem to require more words and sounds to entertain us instantly and we expect more of it to be free.
No longer do we eagerly await a musician’s new material. No longer do we allow the A and B sides of a band’s singles to whet our appetite for their forthcoming album. Many of us won’t even listen to a whole recording from start to finish these days. We might hunt out new material from live recordings on YouTube and then spend pennies on listening to the three songs we like using Spotify or some other streaming service, with precious few of these pennies going to the artists.
Our reading habits have gone the same way. We no longer wait for books to appear in bookshops, let alone for the paperback version. Instead we might download it to Kindle or a similar device, paying considerably less than the cover price of the book. Of course, this desire for cheap reads is nothing new. Since supermarkets entered the British book distribution market, selling easy, on-trend titles at knock-down prices, the drive for ever cheaper reading material has put pressure on publishers and booksellers. In an attempt to make money in a market with ever tighter margins, they opt for the safe, easy-to-sell titles and push the big names and sure-wins.
Loss of diversity and livelihoods
Although technology could encourage a greater variety of writing and music and allow for more risk, our collective longing for free or bargain-basement content is driving out variety. Yes, it still exists at the fringes, with small publishing houses and independent music labels bringing out niche works, but the overall drive for ever cheaper material, makes it harder for them to charge an honest price for their work and make a fair living.
And this trend is not limited to words and music! How many of us would pay a photographer to use their photos when there are numerous free ones available online. Knitting patterns are increasingly being given away by the big companies, devaluing the work of knitting designers and technical editors and making it harder for independent ones to sell their patterns. Even graphic designers are giving away certain digital products for free.
As much as we might love the idea of a bargain and free offers, demanding ever more free or cheap content (of whatever type) sets us on a dangerous path. We risk losing the diversity, excitement and inspiration that unusual writers, niche musicians, independent designers… offer. Just as supermarkets and chain stores have turned high streets into bland destinations, our obsession with cheap and free entertainment risks turning our leisure time and mind space into dull homogeneity.
As with food and other valuable resources, there is no one size fits all. Personally, I choose to avoid e-books and e-music, despite my resource consciousness. I might use Amazon’s preview function or YouTube to get a flavour of a piece of work but then I buy the book or CD, wherever possible directly from the author or musician or from an independent shop. I also choose to invest in off-beat books, music, designs…, mostly because the works distributed by large risk averse companies often don’t inspire me. I even see crowdfunding as a way of supporting authors and artists.
Is it madness to pay full price (or anything at all) for prose and music these days? As far as I’m concerned, it isn’t but that comes down to mindset. I don’t see creative output as ‘content’, another thing to be consumed mindlessly. To me creative works are valuable. Beyond my personal enjoyment of them, I believe society needs questioning, challenging thinkers and artists and that they are worth supporting*.
So how do I manage to pay a fair price for books and music when money is limited? As with food, I set a budget and I work out how to achieve maximum value from my leisure pounds. And just as with food that means focussing on nourishing quality rather than volume!
In recent weeks I have not only been mulling over the question of bargains and freebies in my personal capacity but also how these work from a commercial perspective, both for individuals (authors, artists, designers…) and retailers. I am currently working with another writer and book lover on a new enterprise that aims to support writers eager to produce unusual, off-beat, inspiring prose and readers looking for fresh new writing. Wendy and I are still working through various scenarios and offerings from commercial and ethical perspectives so do please share any thoughts you have about creative works (including writing), their value, modes of access and fair payment models.
* Support can take many forms. My father used to say “You can’t drink Thank You”. This is true but singing the praises of a piece of work is important too, especially for independent authors and artists whose marketing budgets are limited or non-existent. If you like a book, CD, photograph or design mention it to friends, share it on social media, review it on your blog… to bring work’s creator to the attention of others. I am not talking about paid-for reviews here, which I think we all view with a suspicion, but generous unsolicited reviews.
As an employee of a small publisher, I rarely buy anything from Amazon. Many people do not realize that they pay for the work that went into writing a physical book, not for the actual paper it’s printed on. Today, they expect ebooks to cost next to nothing because they are after all just some 1s and 0s. (I won’t start about how Amazon set the ridiculously low ebook prices that somehow have been written in stone. No publisher can survive selling ebooks for $9.99.) I do use Amazon to browse for books but I then buy them from my independent bookstore, where I gladly pay full price. The money stays in my community, the people working at the store actually read books and I like to flip through the pages of a real book before I buy it. On the other hand, I don’t spend much on buying music, although I do go to the symphony.
I look forward to finding out more about your new venture 🙂