Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Streaming, Sharing, Stealing review

Because it's from a university press, I must admit I expected Streaming, Sharing, Stealing to be a somewhat dull economic textbook - but in reality it is a great read and a cracking business book, giving the clearest explanation I've ever seen of what is happening to three arms of the entertainment business - book publishing, music and TV/film - in the face of the internet/digital revolution.

In that sense the title is misleading, as it seems to suggest that a major focus is music sharing and piracy. This is certainly is covered, but is dismissed as the relatively easy part. Like most of the analysis in the book, here Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang make sure that their views are backed up with as much experimental data as possible - and there appears to be good evidence that piracy isn't too big a deal, provided it's made easy to get access to legal digital versions in a timely fashion. It's where the publishers/networks either have poor online access or delay it til after, say, a DVD or hardback comes out that problems arise.

However, the main issue that Smith and Telang cover is the challenge that book and music publishers and the film studios/TV networks face in dealing with the internet giants. As the authors point out, the entertainment industries coped fine with new technology throughout the 20th century because they had control of the source material and distribution, and so were complacent when faced with the internet. But here, several major changes came together - Smith and Telang draw a parallel with the 'perfect storm' - and the old big names are potentially in trouble. The authors show how Amazon, iTunes and Netflix (as key examples) mean real trouble for those who used to pull the strings, particularly because of the newcomers' access to customer data, and ability to give customers what they are looking for, rather than just put out what they think customers might want and hope.

The analysis is often brutal and displays some outcomes from experiment that might surprise the publishers. For example, they found that when ebooks or digital versions of TV and film came out at the same time as DVDs and hardbacks, the overall take went up, but if they were held back to let more expensive DVDs and hardbacks have first shot - which was the traditional model used by most publishers and studios - digital sales plummeted, because digital users didn't buy the hardback/DVD instead, but either got a pirate version or just went for something else.

As well as individual lessons like this, the book does offer a little hope for the beleaguered publishers and studios as long as they can change their mindset - but it also seems likely that they will be like Kodak in the photography business, leaving it too late. As the authors make clear, it's not enough for individual publishers or studios to have their own online store, because few customers actually know or care who their favourite author/band is published by, or which network or studio produced what they want to watch. The only hope is if the content providers can band together and have a joint digital location with timely releases. But this doesn't augur well, as the the one attempt the networks have made, Hulu, has been shackled, forcing advertising and late releases on it.

If you are interested in the media and how the digital age is threatening the old world and transforming our entertainment environment, you need to read this book.

Streaming, Sharing, Stealing is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

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