So we’re all familiar with The Long Tail, right? The idea that the internet facilitates a massive number of low selling, low impact products/services/entities to exist because of the very low cost of having a presence, which when combined make up a very significant chunk of the market.
In music it’s been the shift from hundreds of artists selling millions of records to millions of artists selling hundreds of records. Or downloads.
Normally, everything in the long tail is grouped together as the low-sales stuff, whether that’s things that once sold a shed-load of copies but now have very little commercial traction (back catalogue material) or artists that are producing current, vital work but selling in smaller numbers.
But I think we should separate them out. Here’s why. We’re seeing more and more ‘all you can eat’ download services becoming available. Nokia’s ‘Comes With Music’ service being the big talking point at the moment. And whenever one of these services comes along, there’s a lot of discussion about where the indies, the little people - us - fit into the game, with lots of indie labels and artists feeling marginalised by the deals being struck but the major labels and the content conduits.
But I don’t think we should neccesarily be involved. I think it’s a good thing that there is currently a big difference in how we access independent music and how we get hold of loads of old music we loved when we were kids. And it’s all to do with invested value, and latent value.
Have a search on BitTorrent for some work by your favourite indie artists. We indies are vastly under-represented on Torrent sites (artists putting their own work out there notwithstanding). Given that the cost of making music available on BitTorrent is zero, why is it that people seem happy to bundle up Bob Dylan’s entire back catalogue into a torrent and distribute it but don’t, one the whole, make the album they bought from some local singer/songwriter at a gig last week available in the same way?
The reason, it seems, is that listeners are already dividing the long tail in two - there’s the long tail in terms of current sales - those of us who are selling in small enough numbers to miss the mainstream, but enough to keep doing what we do - and then there’s the Legacy Long Tail. Old Duran Duran albums, or Hendrix, or 3 Dog Night or basically anything that has made its money and now only really sells on CD for 2 quid in a christmas sale. Listeners perceive the latter to have little or no monetary value. Lots of nostalgia value, yes, but with very little sense of any moral obligation to pay for it.
Monetizing that stuff by creating an all you can eat download service that makes accessing music easier than using BitTorrent is a genius move by the labels. they get a tiny amount per download, but everyone’s going to grab the music of their youth (which may or may not actually include Musical Youth.) If Comes With Music is the window through which you get your music, in ‘feels like free’ (as Gerd Leonard keeps reminding us), but the labels are able to scrape a little more money out of a load of tracks that are currently only earning on oldies stations and ‘I Remember The 80s’ shows.
Contrast that with the Now Long Tail - the music that still needs investment, needs supporting and crucially has a future that is deeply affected by the artist’s interaction with and investment from the audience - and you’ve got two very distinct value propositions.
And we as artists need to tell our story in a way that makes that distinction clear to the people who listen to us who don’t otherwise get it. The process of telling our story - via blogging and youtube and twitter and myspace and newsletters and even the between-song-banter at gigs - is what differentiates our music from the stuff in the legacy long tail, that gives it value over and above that found in the MP3 fire-hose of the limitless subscription services.
Whether or not ‘free’ music services end up rendering the monetary value of recorded music at zero for indies is a whole other discussion - it may well be that the major labels wake up to discover they’ve finally killed the very industry they were seeking to save. Meanwhile we can get on with the business of making music, finding an audience and inviting them to be part of our journey in exchange for us being part of their soundtrack. There’s still many many years of value in that.