As I write this, I am listening to the newest album from The Gorillaz, which was released a mere couple of weeks ago – and I didn't pay a penny for it. Well, technically I paid something for it, because I'm listening to it on Spotify, the advertising- and subscription-funded music service launched by clever Swedish geeks in 2008. Under their model, I pay £4.99 per month, in return for which I could in theory listen to 744 hours of non-stop music a month, untroubled by pesky adverts. How my 499 pennies get divided up between the artists and record labels and Spotify themselves I have no clue – but having worked on a music download business in the past, you can bet it will be formidably complicated.
Why this is relevant to publishing should be obvious: post-LBF, the appellation 'Spotify for e-books' has been heard being attached to a couple of new start-ups, while perhaps more importantly in the short term, if Amazon facilitate the 'lending' of e-books on the Kindle, the day is fast approaching (if it's not here already) when publishers will confront the same issues as the music industry in deciding how to relate to these kinds of business models.
First of all, it's debatable whether this model is truly sustainable in the music industry. Although Spotify paid out 45 million Euros to licensees in 2010 (source: Wikipedia), and recently claimed that it has one million paying subscribers, it has repeatedly failed to achieve a US launch, as labels are wary, and not all big name artists can be found on there: no Oasis, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin or Beatles. They are about to significantly throttle back on the amount that their free users can listen to per month, suggesting that the future is definitely not in an advertising-funded model, and that users will be given more significant incentives to upgrade and pay their monthly fiver or tenner.
Of course, books and music are not directly comparable – you don't put a book on in the background, and by and large you need to give a book significantly more of your time and attention than a tune. However, it's not hard to see Spotify-like models emerging: a device on which you can only ever have a fixed number of titles from the massive library available to you, exactly the same limitation imposed by a good old library card; or a system where you can have as many books as you like available as long as you keep paying your subs (in the same way that once I stop paying my fiver it's bye-bye Gorillaz).
In my view, publishers need to be ready to engage with the businesses that bring forward these models in a constructive way, as they may be our best bet to stave off the threat of mass piracy. As the music industry has discovered, the smart thing to do is make honesty quicker and easier than copyright theft.
The books / music comparison is relevant in another sphere too. The nascent movement to allow libraries to lend e-books without limit needs to ask itself one question: would they allow multiple people to borrow an MP3 file at the same time, having only paid the record label for it once? You would hope not, though I remember how, through loans of music LPs, cassettes and CDs, my local libraries did in fact contribute to my teenage taping obsession (sorry, music biz!) – hardly a great precedent for the issues facing them and us in 2011.
Photo used under Creative Commons Attribution license. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/frnetz/5445409367/