I took a walk through Harvard Square and tried to remember the locations of all the bookstores there I used to visit. I counted sixteen - two are banks, one is a real estate company, two are in buildings under renovation, three are vacant and available for lease, three have been repurposed by Harvard, one is a Blue Bottle coffee, one sells jewelry, one cookies, one frozen yogurt, and one lingerie.
There are still five in operation – shoutouts to Harvard Book Store (general independent), the Grolier (poetry), Raven (used books), Million Year Picnic (graphic novels), and I suppose the Harvard Coop although it is now run by Barnes & Noble which is a pyrrhic version of survival. But these seem awful lonely, given the ghosts of bookstores past I see in all the streets around them.
What happened? Amazon, obviously; and the internet more generally. However, I think there’s a more precise way to identify this shift, rather than a simple account of digital-era winners and losers. Which is there’s been a shift in scale.
Look at these storefronts. They are small, human-sized spaces for selling even smaller, hand-sized objects. We used to walk to them, especially in the evening (they were mostly open late, cause what else was there to do back in the 20th century?), spend an inordinate amount of time standing around them browsing, and then if we bought anything most likely walked out carrying a single item. One, by one, by one, books left their shops and entered our dorm rooms, apartments, houses, basements and attics. What a painstaking, laborious process. We were building pyramids out of paper and ink.
Contrast this with the current tech or business concept of “at scale,” “to scale,” or simply, “scale.” In the context of online business, all uses of the word imply a massive scale which can no longer be measured by individuals. Margins can be minimal, or even nonexistent as they were for years in Amazon’s case. But if the scale is large enough, and the market thereby concentrated enough, untold riches follow.
I might have started this same exercise with record stores - I count fourteen in Harvard Square that I used to visit, but again I know I’m forgetting others. In this case, two are now banks; one is a cell phone store; one a real estate company; four are restaurants; one is a greeting card store; one a nail salon; two seem to be offices although with obscure purposes; and one is still a record store (!) devoted to hardcore (sad trombone). And then there’s the Coop, which remains in place but eliminated their once-thriving music department. (That particular part of the space currently houses, of all things, an “unauthorized” Banksy exhibition.)
You might say well, records are over aren’t they old man. Books survived the great digital media disaster. But in audio, physical media is antique and streaming is here to stay.
That’s fine – music has always been disembodied – but I think what’s happened to our urban space makes clear that issues of scale are the same for music as books. It can’t be a coincidence that Amazon, which is based on physical products, and Spotify, a company with no objects for sale, operate on the same principles. The switch to digital may be a smokescreen for a more fundamental change that has altered our physical as well as media landscape.
Spotify, like Amazon, works with tiny margins. Indeed, they claim a loss on their use of music. Just as Amazon did before them, this “loss” is in fact a strategy for building dominant market share through scale and thereby accumulating wealth via capital markets and business-to-business transactions. Despite the red ink they report quarterly, the surplus that Spotify is amassing reveals itself whenever ownership feels like a splurge: on staggeringly expensive office space in New York ($2.77 million a month); on sponsorship for Barcelona’s football club and stadium (€280 million for three years); on an exclusive contract with Joe Rogan.
Consider the scale of that last example: Joe Rogan’s reported $200 million deal with Spotify would require 66,666,666,667 streams to earn back at the average payout received by musicians from the platform ($0.003). This is equivalent to every person on the planet listening to the same song more than 8 times.
That is not a scale based on numbers of people. If anything, it’s based on numbers of planets. (No wonder these new robber barons dream of space travel.)
This is why Bandcamp seems so different than Spotify or other streaming platforms, despite being digital and equally disembodied – the scale of activity on Bandcamp is human. Each listener can be counted. Each sale can be counted. It’s a digital version of building a pyramid of books or records, one painstaking decision and download at a time.
And this is why I feel dispirited at the recent announcement that Bandcamp has been acquired by a gaming company operating at the same scale as other giant online businesses. Epic Games has a valuation roughly equivalent to Spotify’s, give or take a few billion. If that weren’t troubling enough, 40% of Epic Games is owned by Tencent, the Chinese technology company that has an ownership stake in Spotify, and vice-versa. Tencent has also invested in the major record labels.
There goes the last indie store in the virtual neighborhood?
To my non-algorithmic mind, the 66 billion streams that Joe Rogan’s contract represents are simply uncountable. I understand that a computer counting is different than a human. But that’s precisely the point. Online business is designed for a non-human scale. And even when our media is digital, we humans can still only read or listen to one thing at a time - which must be why we live in places with human-sized buildings and shops.
What we are experiencing now is a loss of human scale from consolidated markets. And there’s nowhere to go in the evening but online.
Listening to: Windsong by Alice Damon
Cooking: Salt cod with last summer’s preserved tomatoes, olives, capers, and currants