The Collateral Damage of Disruption

Not all the stories of disruption are of the “David vs. Goliath” variety. Sometimes they are more of the “David vs. Goliath vs. Innocent Bystanders” ilk.

Stewart Wills reminded me of this last week when I was writing about Alexandra Elbakyan and the Elsevier vs. Sci-Hub case. It’s easy to take aim at Elsevier. After all, they’re a very big 4.2 billion dollar target. It’s just too easy to demonize them. But they’re not the only academic publisher in the world.

“Siding with this particular self-styled “Robin Hood” may seem like a no-brainer (and a good, easy-to-tell story), but everyone seems so interested in focusing on big bad Elsevier that they miss a lot of important other affected parties in the picture.”

Wills pointed me to a posting from Caldera Publishing Solutions, a consulting firm that caters to smaller academic publishers. This post refutes my statement of last week that Elsevier is the only one being harmed by the actions of pirates like Elbakyan. In fact, there is an extended chain of bystanders that threaten to be washed away by the tsunami of disruption that’s bearing down on the academic world. For example, there are “dozens and dozens” of society journals who use huge publishers like Elsevier as a clearinghouse. Behind much of the research in the Sci-Hub library, you’ll find non-profit societies, which means that this is “less of a story of Robin Hood robbing from the town’s greedy sheriff, and more a story of Robin Hood stealing from the town’s hospitals and charities.”

The post draws an analogy to a disruptive wave that first broke 17 years ago now: Napster and illegal file sharing. Given that we now have close to two decades of hindsight in this particular case, it might be useful to do a post-mortem on Napster’s impact on the music industry.

I’m not sure if you happened to watch the Grammys, but if you did, you saw Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, deliver a plea against streaming music services. The problem, said Mr. Portnow, is these services have commoditized music to the degree that royalties amount to fractions of a cent for each play of a song. That may be fine if you’re Rihanna or Sam Smith, but not great if you’re a struggling independent artist.

The problem with the plea is the same tactical error the Academy has made since the first such sermon, delivered by then president Michael Greene at the 2002 Grammies – it was delivered in the wrong church. It’s very hard to feel sorry for the music industry when the most obvious examples – the artists in the audience – are all multi-millionaires drowning under the weight of their own bling. Portnow might be right when he says music may no longer be a viable career, but it’s hard to swallow that message when delivered in the midst of such excess.

But did Napster, and the subsequent removal of friction from the music industry, truly wreak the damage that NARAS keeps warning us about? The fact is, we now have access to far more music than we did in 1990. We can discover new music more readily. Artists can now self produce and distribute. They can even use Songkick to launch their own tours, or Kickstarter to fund a new album. Will they all get rich? No. But they have a better chance than they did two decades ago, when the only path to stardom led directly through the big (and cutthroat) business of music publishing. Napster, and its technological descendants, did what disruption is supposed to do. They cleaned up the market, creating direction connections between the producers and the consumers.

As Stewart Wills reminded me, there are unintended consequences of disruption. One of them is that when the supply chain begins to be violently shaken from below, as was the case with the music industry, the earliest victims are typically small and fragile members of the ecosystem that depend on a bigger host. These tend to either fall of or become absorbed into the more robust survivors. That’s why you don’t find many corner record stores any more.

But then again, good blacksmiths or door-to-door milkmen are also damned hard to find.




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