By Dustin Brockner
“If the 20th- century entertainment industry was about hits, the 21st will be equally about misses.” Chris Anderson, founder of “the Long Tail” as made public by his October 2004 article in Wired. All subsequent references are from this article, unless otherwise noted.
During the Thanksgiving break, I had the opportunity to talk with the accountant of Shady Records, also known as my cousin’s sister’s husband. As a fellow drummer, we discussed the usual, influences and favorites, but as the conversation progressed, we started to talk about the music industry itself. After he told me what it’s like to work for Eminem, he introduced me to a new theory that deals with the future of the entertainment industry, particularly in the field of music. It’s called “the Long Tail” and it mainly focuses on how the music industry needs to abandon its hit-centric mindset and pay attention to the more numerous, much smaller musical niches out there.
Before I begin, I’d like to clarify a few things. I’m not really into the “industry” side of the music industry; I know that the business has ruined some of my favorite bands. After reading Levon Helm’s book about The Band, This Wheel’s On Fire, I was dismayed to discover that even those sweet singing Canadian boys who just wanted to make some authentic music up in Woodstock were torn apart by the industry. He attributes The Band’s demise to the music industry’s “divide and conquer” tactics, in which song writing royalties were given to only one member. In addition, marketing and sales tactics are something that I have never had a specific interest in; basically the economics in Rock deals with the unholy side of it. In spite of this, “the Long Tail” is an interesting concept that I feel has profound implications for the future of the music industry and indirectly the music that will be made. As the serious scholars of Rock that we are, we should be aware of these things.
Throughout the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the music industry has focused its resources on the “hits.” The record company invests in the artists with the broadest appeal. This is because the high cost of manufacturing and distribution has made it unprofitable to market any artist that would not be bought in record stores across the country. Since there was a limit to how much a company could spend, it became dependent on the Michael Jacksons and Madonnas to make the bulk of their profit. Investing $100 million in an artist is a frugal decision if you can safely estimate that he/she will produce record sales that will easily double that $100 million.
Here is where the Internet and new technology have changed everything. The key to this whole concept is that online music suppliers like iTunes eliminate almost all distribution costs and can market an unlimited number of songs. As Chris Anderson, the inventor of this concept, makes clear, because of the lower distribution costs, “a hit and a miss are on equal economic footing, both just entries in a database called up on demand, both equally worthy of being carried. Suddenly, popularity no longer has a monopoly on profitability.” A “miss” is a song, or any other commodity for that matter, that does not have a large, broad market and usually only has a specific niche of consumers. Although individual “misses” won’t make nearly as much money as a “hit,” the fact that there are so many more of them means that the money they bring in quickly combines to form a huge new market. The Internet music provider Rhapsody streams more songs beyond the top 10,000 hits each month than it does for the top 10,000. Throughout the history of Rock, sub-genres have been popping up to cater to specific audiences. “the Long Tail” is simply this phenomenon to the extreme.
As Wikipedia so expertly summarizes, “Anderson argued that products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters, if the store or distribution channel is large enough.” Online distributors are the key component; they serve as a channel large and broad enough to fulfill this role. Even giant record stores like Tower Records are still limited to the physical size of the store and shelf space available. In addition, renting shelf space costs money and when it comes down to it, a CD must sell at least two copies a month to pay for its shelf space. For iTunes, none of these rules apply. Furthermore, CDs force the consumer to commit to an entire album, not just a single that they are interested in. Reminiscent of the single-driven 1950s, iTunes also provide songs by themselves. My little brother has spent over $50 dollars purchasing hip-hop singles he would have never bought given the quality of the album as a whole.
Still there is a glaring flaw to “the Long Tail”: just because a band is on iTunes does not mean it will sell. If there is no marketing or word-of-mouth advertising, one would never be exposed to it. MySpace has millions of bands, but most of them will never be heard.
To remedy these problems, online providers like iTunes first need to attract the consumers of the “hits” so they can then guide them along the long tail. I did my own little experiment by clicking on the number #1 hit on iTunes, a Beyoncé song. Within 2 or 3 clicks of “Listeners Also Bought” I was exposed to Hip-Hop artists I have never heard of or seen. So by only a couple of clicks, iTunes has introduced me to a new niche of musicians I would never have been exposed to otherwise. Furthermore, it is amazing that Long Tail economics allows the music providers “to treat consumers as individuals, offering mass customization as an alternative to mass-market fare.”
In spite of this, only 28% of Rhapsody’s sales cannot be found on offline music providers. Yet those numbers are growing; the marginal genres are becoming more profitable and genres are appearing within genres. Many music fans have tastes that do not always lie directly in the mainstream and if this music is marketed and made available to them properly, then the volume of sales made by the numerous sub-mainstream genres may one day rival those of the mainstream. The cultural implications are also great. Since profitability is no longer dependent on mass appeal, creativity is encouraged and can become commercially rewarding. There is a niche for almost every genre; Internet music retailers will literally be able to cater to all of them.