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The 3 dimensions of the music Long Tail

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.

Reader Comments (11)

There's also a fourth Long Tail -- the "lognormal curve" of John Goodell Brown, which apparently fits the data much better than Anderson's beautifully written and poorly researched book:

Recent UK Register article provides the details.

There's been a mini-industry in the past decade of "big thinkers" who provide large, catchy metaphors which generally turn out to be fabrications. Cherry-picking data and collecting anecdotes is sufficient to convince people, but it's insufficient as proof. Generally, when thinkers like Anderson or Malcolm Gladwell get put to a rigorous test, they fail with flying colors -- I'm sure you remember Duncan Watts deconstructing the "Tipping Point" fantasy.

We want things to be simple, and there will always be a market for gurus who assure is this is so.

December 13 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Smart and insightful analysis Andrew. I wonder what ways artists will find to monetize this. Kristen Hersh's subscription model is nice, and I'm happy to push money in the direction of people like Billie Ray Martin through online exclusive CDs, and the occasional PayPal donation to Nick Currie. If Apple would open up the TV series pass option to staggered music releases, that would be a nice way of paying upfront for a collection of tracks that hasn't been recorded yet.

December 13 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Sharl

Justin - yeah, I didn't really set out to critique or praise the Long Tail concept. I think the bit about what's already there is more interesting than the (perhaps spurious) predictions within it. It just makes for a useful model for us to recognise a distinction that the behaviour of music downloaders/purchasers reflects - that legacy music has a very different kind of value to current music, and that we are in a position as indie artists to help make that difference more stark and in so doing to help establish the cost to us and hopefully the value to them of what we do...

Robert - I'm assuming I'm the 'Andrew' you're talking about (I'm Steve, BTW :) ) - I like the way you're thinking is going - there are lots of imaginative ways to establish revenue streams within the 'value environment' we create, if indeed we can articulate to our audience what the difference that they FEEL means in terms of what they should be spending!


December 13 | Registered CommenterSteve Lawson

Sorry Steve, I was reading one of Andrew's postings before yours and just confused the two. I blame it on too much X Factor. It might be an interesting exercise to collect links to some of these new and intriguing new revenue models. Is there an appropriate tag we could use on delicious?

December 14 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Sharl

Honestly, I think the idea of all you can eat music (be it napster, nokia, zune, whatever) could be a great idea, and I am down with having everyone pay for music like you do a cell phone bill, one continuous subscription. I think it could possibly be fair (possibly). However, I just do not see it catching on in Western Culture, specifically USA and England. My friends do not want to pay for a subscription where they don't own the music (even zune's 10 a month to own isn't appealing enough), and it just isn't picking up. Major labels just are not set to work with the new industry, and I am quite ok with that. There is still a large gap that is left to fill, and I think that once people with the right funding and vision finally pick it up, hopefully the music will again be off to the races.

December 15 | Unregistered CommenterJim

Here is an interesting post over at Seth's Blog where he identifies a third area of the Long Tail....The Dip. The idea being the Long Tail is not as black and white as some people assume. And a strategy can be formed around what position along the tail you aim for.

The Long Tail and the Dip

December 16 | Unregistered CommenterJames Pew

I like this direction. Lots to think about here.

The only two cents I have to offer for consideration is that "shift" may not be the right word in "the shift from hundreds of artists selling millions of records to millions of artists selling hundreds of records." There are still hundreds of artists selling millions of records and albums. Thanks to Garage Band and the internet we now see the addition of millions of artists selling hundreds of records and albums also. Just because we now have so many more people pumping music out into the audience does not mean that Nickelback sells less records. Although I wish that they did.

I agree that a line should be drawn between offering Dylan Discographies for free and offering Indie Band XYZ Disco's for free as I personally think that bundling an emerging artists music together cheapens their impact. Rather a focus should be put on making Indie Band XYZ's catalog easily accessible and episodic (as Bruce Warilla (Unsprung Artists) talks about.

December 17 | Unregistered CommenterAlex BEguin

I like what you are saying here, and perhaps I can add to it a bit.

There are really two types of Artists:

1. Those who are trying to establish their brand (planters).
2. Those who are trying to exploit their brand (harvesters).

The 'long tail' of artists, as defined by record sales, is comprised of both of these types of artists (and, by extension, their rights holders and others who orbit them).

Therefore, the definition of 'long tail' is insufficient insomuch as it is an attempt to describe the artist in terms of their identity, market needs, and activities. It is, however, a good description of the disposition of the intellectual property at any given point in time.

I think what you are saying is that too many pundits are using the wrong metric when they attempt to describe the 'state of the music industry' by using the traditional 'long tail' descriptor. I agree with that.

It would be ludicrous to discuss touring, for example, as a way to build a fan base for 'back catalog' music if the Artist is deceased or no longer performing. So too would it be wrong to talk about mass licensing in terms of he 'planters', as they have no brand yet to command significant royalties in this area (but back catalog might).

The bottom line is that discussions about taking music forward should focus on the disposition of the artists seeking to build a brand, as this topic is applicable to the majority of Artists consuming the music blogosphere today. Strategies for exploiting a brand are indeed important, but for most readers, this represents a problem they'd like to have, rather than a problem they are facing today. If they do have this problem, they likely have 'people' to think about it every day.

Anyway, it sounds like semantics a bit, but the Artists we deal with are 99% in the brand-building mode and they are the ones actively seeking out information. I would venture to guess that the readers of this blog are mostly in that same boat.

Thanks for the great post that makes a great point.

December 19 | Unregistered CommenterJed Carlson

Wow. Steve you've crystallized for me some things i've been mulling for quite some time.
This is very potent stuff in very few words. Kudos. I don't have any more to contribute at this point, but I think your closing thought is the bottom line: "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." Sounds like a good deal to me! Onwards ...

December 20 | Unregistered CommenterRob Szabo

Alex - great point, thanks for that. I guess the salient element is that the 'purpose' of making music, especially making it your career, is now no longer focussed on becoming one of those 100... We can reimagine the wonders of making music and making money from music outside of the bullshit of chasing stardom. I know that I certainly feel like my early years as a musician were sullied by the number of times it was inferred to me that 'proper' musicians were the ones who did big tours and drove around in tour buses. 'First prize is 10 years on a bus' as a very wise friend of mine put it.

Now, we can ignore the 100s, and focus on making vibrant, honest music, while thinking about the new tools we have available to reach an audience, and to tell the story that helps them to deepen their connection with it.

Jed - great stuff. I like the Planters and Harvesters thing. I think for me, the beauty of all this is that the process can now be so organic. No-one is telling me how I need to tweak my music to maximise the effectiveness of a marketing strategy that came BEFORE the art. I can make the art as 'purely' as I want, and then tell the story of the art, and through the art, and find people who connect with that.

That kind of story telling has integral vitality. So what we then need to do is overlay some kind of tangible value measurement onto, be that the price of a download, or some stream-team-ish help in proliferating the story.

Rob - great to hear from you - we should have a phone-chat about some of this stuff. BTW, your new album is amazing. been listening to it LOADS here over Christmas. it's been on in the kitchen pretty much 24/7 :)

December 26 | Registered CommenterSteve Lawson

I think that dividing the long tail into legacy and new sections is important, and underlines the huge difference between 'planters' and 'harvesters'... essentially, we have artists who want to maintain a significant income stream, and artists who don't have one but need to develop some way of funding their work. It seems that most of the efforts of the RIAA or major industry organs are more focused on strategies that benefit the former 'harvester' types...

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterDan Foley

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