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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2007/07/24
by David Steinberg

Harry Potter and the Industry of Music

As I write this column, it is approximately 34 hours before the final Harry Potter novel legally goes on sale. With a few exceptions – mainly in the US so we can have our own midnight parties – the book goes on sale at 12:01 AM British Summer Time on July 21, 2007. There are massive amounts of security being used to protect the details of this release. Books aren’t shipping until the last possible minute and they are using both physical and legal methods to try to stop people from finding out the end of the book early and ruining it for those of us who want to read it unspoiled.
That is a noble goal. I hate spoilers and like to experience events fresh. However, I was raised in the pre-Internet days. It’s a clichmong advocates of Linux that, ‘Information wants to be free,’ but they have a point. If there’s something that people are curious about, it is exceedingly difficult to keep it secret. In the case of Harry Potter, we have all of the resources of the mainstream publishing industry – not to mention one of the richest women in the world – using every single trick at their disposal to prevent leaks and it wasn’t enough. Five days before the book was to be released, someone photographed every single page in the book and released it to bit torrent sites. Once it was out in the wild, the information was available everywhere. In order to be able to read without knowing the ending ahead of time, I’ve gone into a form of Internet silence. There are three or four trusted websites that are all I am allowing myself to read. I’m screening emails. I’m listening to music instead of the radio when driving. In the information age, remaining in the dark can be the hardest task.
Rowling hasn’t adjusted to the new rules. In a press release, she said that she was staggered that the press would write book reviews that gave details of the plot. She calls for everyone to not reveal anything about the plot and somehow feels free that that will settle the matter. Unfortunately, even if every Harry Potter fan in the world decided to not talk about the book, there’s a whole subculture of people who delight in the idea of spoiling this. The main motivation is that they think the hype for the books is out of control and disproportionate for the quality of the writing. They can’t stop it from selling, so they’ve found a different way to make their displeasure known. Well that, and some people are just jerks who are amused by finding ways of destroying something that gives pleasure to others.
Appealing to the kindness of the masses is never going to work. It doesn’t matter even if 99% of the population will go along with you; it just takes a few people to spread the information and then people will give into their curiosity. The combination of wanting to know what is going to happen and fear that you’ll find it out by accident is a powerful force. I have to confess that I downloaded a PDF of the photographed pages myself, only to discover that they were good only if you wanted to skim them looking for plot points. The text was exceedingly hard to read and the curve of the book meant that words were lost on some of the pages. It was the worst case scenario; spoilers were out there and becoming increasingly difficult to escape, but there wasn’t an ability to just start reading early. This situation frustrated her fans – the diehards have been becoming progressively shrill in their appeals as the week has progressed – in order to help out those who hate the books and want to mock those who enjoy them. What makes this worse is that there’s an easy solution to this problem that would have prevented this frustration, not to mention returning the incentive to buy the book if you want to know what happens next. Bookstores should have been allowed to sell the books ahead of the release date if they had them.
Official release dates for products had a purpose. In the case of this book, it gives an excuse for bookstores to throw a party which both lets fans meet each other and can sell another book or two. I attended one for The Half Blood Prince and it was surprisingly enjoyable. People wore costumes and there was a festive atmosphere which was amusing, even if it didn’t fit the tone of the book. Still though, that’s a minor advantage considering how much stress keeping spoilers under wrap is creating. A dichotomy is created where the only options are to create a moral good for not reading the book before July 21 or to text message the ending to your friends. That’s just getting silly.
There’s definitely an obligation to support the creators of works that you love. By buying their books and movies and albums, you give them the money to have the time to perfect their work. However, I don’t see how Rowling is harmed if people bought the book today. The only danger is that people might spoil the book for others, but that ship has long since sailed.
Of course, it’s not only the authors of popular books who have this problem. One of the hidden reasons why people go to downloading sites is the artificial delay between when an album is perfected and when it can be purchased in a store. Before broadband became common, people lucky enough to know someone with an advance copy of a coveted album would all go over to her house to listen to it. In the days of the Internet, everyone is that lucky friend. Record companies are suffering as a result and it’s completely self-inflicted.
Sure, it takes some time to press physical CDs. That’s twentieth century technology though. When the album is finished, why not offer it immediately for sale as a download? Think Live Phish, only for commercial releases. Will that lead to people sharing the files? Yes. However, they’re already doing that and some people who planned to buy the album end up downloading it because that’s the only way it’s available to them. No, this won’t solve the problem of people downloading music instead of buying it. The allure of free music won’t go away. However, it doesn’t make sense for a troubled industry to be turning down potential sales. Yes, at one point you could set a release date and know that no one would get the album before then. Those days are gone. Its time to stop lamenting about a power that’s lost and start thinking about those that can be used. Maybe it’s too late for this idea, but where’s the harm in trying it?
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html
He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.

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