What Happens When a Publishing Medium Dies?

July 28th, 2008

I know I quote extensively from the New York Times in these blogs — what can I do — it’s a great newspaper (remember those?). In today’s Times is a perfect article by Andrew Adam Newman called “Say So Long to an Old Companion: Cassette Tapes.” Needless to say, it discusses extensively the past, present and future of cassette tapes. But to me it’s an article about the future of publishing, as seen through the lens of a disappearing medium.

How many cassette tapes do you still have that contain music that can’t be replaced, interviews with elderly relatives where you just wanted to keep a voice record, or any of the other miscellaneous uses that once made cassette tapes so important in our lives (post 8-track)?

While the more digitally-inclined may now have the necessary software and cables to transfer those tapes to digital signals on computer, the vast majority are unlikely ever to invest in (or comprehend how) to remaster cassette audio. So what will happen?

As the article points out: “I bet you would be hard pressed to find a household in the U.S. that doesn’t have at least a couple cassette tapes hanging around,” said Shawn DuBravac, an economist with the Consumer Electronics Association. Even if publishers of music and audio books stopped using cassettes entirely, people would still shop for tape players because of “the huge libraries of legacy content consumers have kept,” he said.

As long as people keep mix tapes from a high-school sweetheart up in the attic, Mr. DuBravac said, there will still be the urge to hear them. “People have a tremendous amount of installed content and an innate curiosity when coming across a box of tapes to say, ‘Hey, what’s on these?'” he said.

But the data for cassette tapes is grim. Quoting again from the Times, “Last year, only 400,000 music tapes were sold, representing one-tenth of 1 percent of all physical and digital music sales, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. In 1997, the figure was 173 million, and that was when cassettes were already getting a drubbing by CDs.”

While Sony apparently still offers offers 23 tape players, from the Walkman to boomboxes, that number is certain to trail off rapidly as the use of tapes continues its rapid decline.

And so the lesson for the future of publishing. Remember the Bernoulli Drive and the Iomega Zip Drive (and its predecessors)? Do you still have any data languishing on these disks that you can no longer recover? With this in mind, do you imagine that the CDs and DVDs you’re burning today will be readable a decade from now? The issue of digital data archiving is an enormous concern to those who have taken the time to recognize the implicit peril. We assume that once digital, always available. Not so. I’ll cover this in more depth later in the Influences section of this site.