Thursday, February 22, 2018

Strand Book Stall, Rhythm House & "Icons" and us.

Frankly, I am sick of the handwringing.

I am referring to the outpouring of responses to the news that the “iconic” Strand Book Stall is downing its shutters, one last time, on 27th February 2018. Cue to interviews of regret, clichés and general ‘how times have changed’ anecdotes. All anecdotes revolve around past time, very past times, when the narrator used to go to Strand and Mr. Shanbagh spoke to the narrator. I have not read a single response by a narrator of him visiting Strand in the past 6 months.

I had similar feelings when yet another “icon” Rhythm House had also downed its shutters for the last time. When that happened, a group of so called “die hard” music lovers went to Rhythm House on the last day, armed with their guitars and sang songs. I guess this was the equivalent of the lighting a candle that is now so much in vogue. As I write, it is still a few days to go, so I am as yet unaware of how the last day of Strand will be commemorated. Presumably there will be some book or poetry reading.

So easy to bandy about words like “icon”.

You may well ask why I am sick of the handwringing. I will tell you. To make things easier for you to understand, my response falls in two buckets.

Bucket 1.

I wonder if you have read the fine print that appears on very LP Record, Cassette, and CD. Permit me to reproduce that:

“All rights of the manufacturer and the owner of the recorded material reserved. Unauthorized copying, public performance, broadcasting and the sharing of the record is prohibited.”

Similarly, I ask, have you ever read what appears in every book?

“All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of the copyright owner.”

Assuming, that you do read books, or listen to music on CD’s, how many of you are in clear breach of these conditions? Are you honestly not depriving the author, musician or copyright owner of his livelihood?  Have you ever burnt a CD, or copied music onto a pen drive? Have you never Xeroxed a book?

Well, if you have, please stop handwringing. You are guilty of not buying the product and thereby killing the entire chain in the eco system.

You may be absolutely livid at my accusation. You may respond by telling me that you have a Kindle or and iPod. That these are licensed devices and you are legitimately receiving the contents whether they are books or music. Of course. You are absolutely within the law. In fact, if you read the two conditions I have reproduced, they expressly permit dissemination by Kindle or iPod. But, and this is a big but, once you consume by Kindle or iPod, you do not go to Strand Book Stall or Rhythm House. You have cut these two out of the chain – legitimately of course, but very clearly and very pointedly. If you do not give Rhythm House and Strand any revenue why should they keep themselves open? The fault, my dears, is entirely yours.

So, once again please stop handwringing.

Bucket 2

This is slightly more problematic to come to grips with. But I shall try.

Clearly, both music and book stores, around the world have been impacted by two factors. The rise and rise of ecommerce [in the traditional sense of buying goods online and being physically delivered to you], and, the rise and rise of digital distribution and consumption of books and music i.e. Kindle and iPod.

As far as ecommerce is concerned, the first serious assault was made with the start of Amazon in 1994, that is 23 years ago. In India, Flipkart started in 2007. When these started, their primary focus in both was books and music. Today, both are behemoths, and have effectively destroyed brick and mortar stores. However, you look at it, all us fancy SoBo types have had the internet, credit cards and a lot of awareness of the rise of ecommerce. We are privileged. I know that the Curmally family that owned Rhythm House as well as Mr. Shanbagh’s children are as privileged and knowledgeable, and more than anything else, young. Why could they not see the writing on the wall all those years ago and not change their business models to adapt to ecommerce. From what I could see, neither Rhythm House nor Strand even had websites!!! Could they have taken over the book and music section of say a or Flipkart? From the outside I don’t see why not. Both had extensive knowledge of the book and music retail business. To be fair, to them, I guess that there may have been other factors. So, to that extent my analysis could be wrong. By the same token, if Flipkart with two young whippersnappers with zero knowledge of the book and music business could become the behemoths they are, I can’t see why this could not have happened with Strand or Rhythm House with their deep knowledge and contacts in the industry. Money? Well, who would you have given your money to? Two inexperienced whippersnappers starting Flipkart or two well established industry respected owners?

As I wrote when I started, Bucket 2 is more problematic. I am probably oversimplifying things. Be that as it is, I still believe that the writing was on the wall years ago. To not adapt is sad and unfortunate.

But, please stop your handwringing.


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