Listen, Watch, Read
by James Patrick Kelly
I’ve been thinking about how the internet has changed my home mediascape in the twenty years since I first began writing this column. Take music, for example. Back in the Reagan years, American music tech was molecule-based; people listened on CDs, cassettes, and vinyl. According to the Recording Industry Association of America <riaa.com/u-s-sales-database/>, the first decade of the new century was a catastrophe for the music biz. Revenue from sales and licensing peaked at $14.6 billion in 1999 and plunged to $6.3 billion in 2009. For the next five years, the numbers hovered around this abysmal low. Finally, 2016 brought a modest gain to total revenues of $7.7 billion. Driving that growth was a doubling of paid streaming music subscriptions, although the continuing resurgence of vinyl was also a minor contributor. Who knew that millennials would fall in love with retro tech?
Overall, however, what matters is that fewer people are paying to own their music these days, especially digital recordings. Early reports from 2017 <recode.net/2017/9/20/16339484/music-streaming-riaa-spotify-apple-music-youtube-2017-revenue-subscription> show CD sales down 1 percent and digital sales (I’m looking at you, iTunes) down 24 percent, while subscriptions to streaming services now account for almost two-thirds of the industry’s revenue. In this Streaming Age, who needs shelves and shelves of shiny and fragile polycarbonate coasters, when we can just command Alexa <digitaltrends.com/home/everything-that-works-with-amazon-echo-smart-home> to play Django Reinhart <redhotjazz.com/django.html> or the Talking Heads <talking-heads.nl> or Valentina Lisitsa <valentinalisitsa.com>? Over the decades I’ve acquired a music library that numbers well over a thousand albums, but the last time I bought music to own was Sarah Pinsker’s <sarahpinsker.com> album Wingspan <store.cdbaby.com/cd/sarahpinsker>, some two years ago.
The Streaming Age has not only changed my listening habits, but my viewing habits as well. Back in the day, I was a prisoner of the cable box like so many. According to the FCC <fcc.gov/reports-research/reports/video-competition-reports/8th-annual-video-competition-report>, cable subscriptions peaked in 2000 at 68 million. For myself, I stuck to the basic package, since there wasn’t a lot on cable bundles that excited me at the turn of the century. I supplemented my television viewing with frequent trips to video stores, first for videotapes and later for DVDs. I was also an early adopter of Netflix <netflix.com>, which began renting DVDs in 1997. I was thrilled by the diversity of the movies in its inventory of the old and the new, the popular and the obscure. Yes, it was annoying to have to wait for snailmail DVDs, although then as now you could pay more to keep more DVDs at home. As its catalogue expanded, the local video stores began to close their doors. Eventually even the mighty Blockbuster <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blockbuster_LLC> chain succumbed, declaring bankruptcy in 2010 and taking with it some 9000 stores and 84,000 jobs.
Netflix remade the video rental business, and helped wean this viewer away from cable content, especially as I became less tolerant of the commercials that paid for that content. Still, I stayed with basic cable for local news and sports and the occasional network show. If I was happy with Netflix’s DVD rental business, I was overjoyed when they began offering streaming content in 2007. Not only was instant gratification on offer, but now I could catch up with the amazing shows that had originated on premium cable channels I’d been too cheap to pay for. Viewing behaviors like mine were evolving across the country and new words were coined to describe them.
Binge-watching <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binge-watching>, for example, which made its leap into common parlance in 2013 when Netflix began releasing all episodes of its original series at once. Collins English Dictionary <collinsdictionary.com> named binge-watching as its 2015 word of the year. A 2017 Deloitte Survey <www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/digital-democracy-survey-generational-media-consumption-trends.html?id=us:2el:3pr:dds11:awa:tmt:032217> reported that 73 percent of all U.S. consumers and 90 percent of millennials and GenZ binge-watch regularly. The younger cohorts watch an astonishing average of six episodes, or five hours of content, in a single sitting. Binge-watching has become one of America’s favorite indoor sports, for better or worse <nbcnews.com/better/health/what-happens-your-brain-when-you-binge-watch-tv-series-ncna816991>! I binge-watch often, but I’m only good for a couple of hour-long episodes, three very occasionally.
Of course, you can’t binge-watch regularly scheduled programming, which is one of the many reasons why there are cord cutters <cordcuttersnews.com/cord-cutting-101-beginners-guide-cord-cutting-2017-edition>—another new word. According to marketing consultants Mediakix <mediakix.com/2017/07/cord-cutting-statistics-video-streaming-future/#gs.10cuzYI>, subscribers of traditional paid TV have been turning in their cable boxes at a rate of 2.4 percent every year since 2012. A recent headline in Variety <variety.com/2017/biz/news/cord-cutting-2017-estimates-cancel-cable-satellite-tv-1202556594/> screams: “Cord-Cutting Explodes: 22 Million U.S. Adults Will Have Canceled Cable, Satellite TV by End of 2017.”
Those millions are not just walking away, they’re walking toward. Many head for Over The Top (OTT) video services <digiday.com/media/what-is-over-the-top-ott>—yet another neologism. OTT video are standalone services that stream over the internet, as opposed to a cable or satellite connection. According to The Street <thestreet.com/story/14384932/1/netflix-leads-the-top-10-subscription-ott-video-services.html>, the top five streaming OTT services are Netflix, Amazon <amazon.com>, Hulu <hulu.com>, MLB TV <mlb.com/mlb/subscriptions>, and HBO NOW <https://order.hbonow.com>. Hundreds of these services have started just in the past year alone. I haven’t been able to track down statistics on the number of OTT services, but Roku <roku.com>, which makes the most popular brand of digital media players for televisions, lists 6,182 OTT channels in its store. With this many choices, even the most obscure of niches can be served. There’s a service called UFO Planet <channelstore.roku.com/details/68850/ufo-planet> to keep you up-to-date with the most recent UFO sightings from around the world. You can examine the “Scientific Evidence” that confirms “the Biblical Record” on the Genesis Science Network <channelstore.roku.com/details/58161/genesis-science-network> or check out the “old-time knobs, switches, rollers, gears, computers, telephones, tubes, spacecraft, blinky lights, and machines of all sizes” on Joe Screwdriver’s Retro Tech Time Machine <channelstore.roku.com/details/39210/retro-tech-time-machine>. Last year many science fiction fans were aghast to learn that CBS was locking Star Trek: Discovery <cbs.com/shows/star-trek-discovery> behind the paywall of its new OTT, CBS All Access <cbs.com/all-access>. This was a savvy move on the part of the legacy network, since it leveraged the devotion of Trek fandom into a doubling of its subscriber revenues, according to Variety <variety.com/2017/digital/news/star-trek-discovery-cbs-subscription-revenue-1202579644>. If OTT is the future, then bundled cable as we know it is doomed.
We’ve often considered the evolution of print media here, but let’s check recent developments. As I write, the ledger on 2017 is still open, but overall US Book publishing revenue dropped 6.6 percent in 2016, according to the Association of American Publishers <newsroom.publishers.org/aap-statshot-book-publisher-trade-sales-flat-for-2016>. However, that statistic is misleading. There are many categories in American publishing: trade (which includes fiction, non-fiction, and religious), preK-to-12th-grade instructional materials, higher education textbooks, professional publishing, and university presses. Some were up a little, some down. Of particular interest, however, was the performance of the digital formats. Ebook revenue slumped about 14 percent while audio surged almost 30 percent. For years I’ve been tracking the rise of ebooks, and it may be that they have found their niche in the ecology of publishing, accounting for about a quarter of all revenue. Just now audio is the digital format to watch; it’s this year’s publishing star. And when we’re talking about audio, we’re talking about downloadable audio. Downloads account for over 80 percent of all audiobook sales <thedailybeast.com/when-your-phone-is-your-library-are-you-really-reading>.
Back in the bad old LP days, the only “audiobooks” were disappointing excerpts or brutal abridgments, mostly of the classics. Then came the cassettes of the eighties, which all too often would unspool into knots of iron-oxide spaghetti, and then the compact discs of the nineties, so vulnerable to scratches and greasy fingerprints. But in the same way that Netflix changed my viewing habits, Audible <audible.com>, founded in 1995, changed the way I listened to books. I joined in 2002 and have been taking two books a month ever since. At first I listened on a series of cheap mp3 players <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MP3_player>, basically knockoffs of Apple’s iconic iPod <ign.com/wikis/ipod/>. But even as mp3 players killed off Sony’s cassette-based Walkman <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walkman> in the Darwinian world of consumer technology, smartphones have eclipsed mp3 players. Last year Apple announced that it was discontinuing the Nano and Shuffle models <wired.com/story/goodbye-ipod-and-thanks-for-all-the-tunes>.
Finding audio of my favorite books was a dicey proposition when I started with Audible; there were huge gaps in the collection. But the migration to smartphones has changed everything. Now not only can you find most of your favorite authors in audio, but you can find many of your favorite actors as well. You can listen to Rosario Dawson read Andy Weir’s Artemis, Wil Wheaton read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, Claire Danes read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or Ian McKellen read The Odyssey.
Why are sales of ebooks stagnant and digital audiobooks climbing the heights? I’ve heard friends argue that print offers a superior reading experience to e-readers; they rhapsodize about the smell of paper and texture of the page and the heft of a hardcover. Certainly each edition of a print book is unique and permanent. Ebooks, on the other hand, are virtual objects. On your e-reader, every book presents as evanescent phosphors on a screen. Their lack of context leaves some feeling dehumanized. But if you want a portable digital book with the human touch, not only one that you can take with you on a plane or to the beach, but one that you can enjoy while you’re gardening or driving, then digital audiobooks are for you. Your delight will flow not only from the mind of the writer, but from the voice and personality of the reader. This intimate and very human connection is as old and powerful as storytelling itself. Moreover, not only is every edition of an audiobook unique, but an essential quality to this individuality means you can enjoy the same text read by different narrators. The Harry Potter series was read for the US editions by Jim Dale, who won multiple Audies (the audiobook equivalent of the Hugos) for his performances. In the UK, it was read by the incomparable Stephen Fry.
Listen up! We are living in the golden age of audiobooks.
While I am merely a satisfied customer of Netflix, in the interest of full disclosure I should say that my most recent novel, Mother Go, came out last year from Audible as an audiobook only, and that I have narrated more than fifty short stories, all my own work, for them as well. So yeah, I’m biased.
But check the new audio out anyway. I’m sure you’ll be impressed.
Copyright © 2018 James Patrick Kelly