Long tail, flat tail, free tail: When will music be free?

by Matt @ Kurb on June 28, 2008

The long tail is a term that describes the effect of a digital economy on the former impositions caused by actual physical retail stocks of products such as books, CD’s and DVD’s that gave a lot of hope to the little guys in a new online marketplace.

But just recently there’s been more discussion – a Harvard Business Review article suggests the long tail won’t deliver a “music middle class” as described by hypebot:


from http://www.coolfer.com

Anderson’s theory of niche-over-mass culture is based upon the belief that the mere availability of niche products spells doom for hits. Given the choice, he argues throughout the book, people will make different purchases. Not only are CD sales down, he wrote, but customers are “losing their taste for the blockbuster hits.”

But consumers, Elberse has found, still opt for hits:

No matter how I slice and dice the customer base, customers give lower ratings to obscure titles. A balanced picture emerges of the impact of online channels on market demand: Hit products remain dominant, even among consumers who venture deep into the tail. Hit products are also liked better than obscure products. It is a myth that obscure books, films, and songs are treasured.


In the book, Anderson wrote that “we’re seeing a shift from mass culture to massively parallel culture,” or “millions of microcultures.” But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Mass culture is alive and well on the Internet. Consumers know the bad from the good. They know what’s popular and they will gravitate towards the hits. Niches will continue to exist, and heavy users will continue to dabble in niches, but the level playing field of digital distribution isn’t going to do away with mass culture.



from http://digitalaudioinsider.blogspot.com

Elberse touches on one of my pet themes — that the ease of online distribution for virtually any piece of recorded music is resulting in increasingly fierce competition for the attention (and dollars) of listeners — and provides some stats that spell out the improbability of meaningful digital sales for most “long tail” musicians:


“My research suggests that the tail is long and flat, and therefore that content providers will find it hard to profit much from it. It remains to be seen whether the new media environment will indeed make many previously unprofitable niche products profitable. Online channels lower the barriers to market entry for such products, and thus introduce the possibility of additional sales — but they also lead to a flood of products all competing for consumers’ attention. In my most recent correspondence with managers at Nielsen SoundScan, I learned that of the 3.9 million digital tracks sold in 2007 (the large majority for 99 cents each through Apple iTunes), an astonishing 24% sold only one copy, and 91% — 3.6 million tracks — sold fewer than 100 copies.”



But over http://www.mediafuturist.com

A post  quoting the Long Tail’s Chris Anderson on Prince’s little experiment with the daily mail is used to once again highlight – forget the flat tail, it’a all about the free tail!


“He says:  “A) Prince spurred ticket sales. Strictly speaking, the artist lost money on the deal. He charged the Daily Mail a licensing fee of 36 cents a disc rather than his customary $2. But he more than made up the difference in ticket sales. The Purple One sold out 21 shows at London’s 02 Arena in August, bringing him record concert revenue for the region. B) The Daily Mail boosted its brand. The freebie bumped up the newspaper’s circulation 20 percent that day. That brought in extra revenue, but not enough to cover expenses. Still, Daily Mail execs consider the giveaway a success. Managing editor Stephen Miron says the gimmick worked editorially and financially: “Because we’re pioneers, advertisers want to be with us…”



My own commentary is that we all know a single track is no longer worth 99c, I think it’s time for the acceptance that recorded music is inevitably moving toward free and that that should inform the discussions on what our best efforts to realise the value created by music and musicians will lie in the not too distant future.

My feelings are that we are in a era of great opportunity for artists and we should reflect on where else creating value online and with digital products, services and partnerships has been already proven to be significantly profitable for creators, and the “free tail” methods being used to do so.


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