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Just how long can that tail be?
December 23, 2008 4:50 AM   Subscribe

10 out of 13 million tracks available for purchase online didn't sell a single copy. Jut how Long can that Tail be, after all? Is the length of the tail mentioned in the article down to piracy or the state of the music industry as a whole? Is it possible to make a profit or break even on a niche website based on sales alone, and not on advertising revenue?
posted by Grrlscout (56 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Extremely disingenuous framing.

80 per cent of all revenue came from around 52,000 tracks

In other words, the other 2,948,000 tracks are the long tail and account for 20% of profits. Not too shabby, I'd say.

An additional 10 million tracks made nothing, but the Long Tail theory doesn't say that all possible output will be consumed immediately (unless it does say that, in which case that's just dumb).
posted by DU at 5:03 AM on December 23, 2008


As the man said, "90% of everything is crud"
posted by mojohand at 5:05 AM on December 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


I would also try to remember that 10 out of 13 songs pretty much suck. We can thank the music industry for that.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:18 AM on December 23, 2008


I would also try to remember that 10 out of 13 songs pretty much suck. We can thank the music industry for that.

Your theory doesn't hold up, though, as sucky music tends to sell.
posted by item at 5:22 AM on December 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I would also try to remember that 10 out of 13 songs pretty much suck. We can thank the music industry for that.

Isn't it the opposite? Most sales are factory type music that feature boobies, asses, bad boys, sad boys, and "real" women/men while lower sales consist mostly of the non-assembly line (or less assembly line) type music?

Your theory doesn't hold up, though, as sucky music tends to sell.

You couldn't have made a better link. Other than, perhaps, one word. A word that doesn't even require a link. That word:

Nickelback
posted by juiceCake at 5:29 AM on December 23, 2008


Popular music has less to do with quality and more to do with promotion.

That said, man, do I like that David Cook 'Light On' song.

[That sound that you heard was my credibility going out the window.]
posted by sexymofo at 5:29 AM on December 23, 2008


I really didn't parse "10 out of 13 million songs didn't sell" correctly the first time around, and thought "Wow, those ten must be real stinkers." Then I was disappointed that we didn't get a list.
posted by Spatch at 5:33 AM on December 23, 2008 [5 favorites]


Taking the record labels out of the picture doesn't automagic!ally leave you with a pastoral digital landscape wherein all you do is upload some stuff, cross your fingers and wait for the money to come rolling in. How many of those songs are good? How many of those songs have had any kind of marketing push -- like any kind -- put behind them at all? And how serious is the intent of a lot of those songs, really?

That is: How many of them are simply what happens when a rainy day meets ProTools..."songs" that might have stayed on a cassette recorder forever had they been recorded twenty years ago, and justifiably so, but now are shared with the world because...what the hell, why not, right? It's not costing me anything. I'm not saying the internet means people don't try as hard, just that there used to be a stronger disincentive for producing half-assed material. You know: There was a time when you spent money, and needed to make that money back. For some creators, freedom from the worry of losing money -- except, of course, in the sense that time = money -- may be enormously liberating, and lead them to make stuff they would never have dared attempt otherwise. For others, it may just mean, "Hey...why not unleash my xylophone version of 'Ice, Ice Baby' upon an unsuspecting universe?"
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:34 AM on December 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


You couldn't have made a better link. Other than, perhaps, one word. A word that doesn't even require a link. That word:

Nickelback


Aw, geez. This is how you remind me, amirite?
posted by cavalier at 5:40 AM on December 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


It sounds like their research reinforces the long tail theory, not contradicts it. 52 K tracks represent 80% of sales, 130 K tracks represent 20% of sales. Presumably the 180,000th track is only making one or two sales per time period. And I'm betting the seller couldn't make educated guesses on many of those 20% of sales came from the 12 million songs in their inventory.

The theory is not that everything in the market will sell; instead, it works on the hypothesis that if a middleman can profitably keep an immense inventory of anything that might sell can satisfy a significant part of the market. That's exactly what happened.

It costs mBlox to warehouse the music files for 12 million tracks, but not enough to justify not having them, considering the low cost of data storage these days and the consumer satisfaction that derives from being able to buy music that the distributor couldn't predict as sellable.
posted by ardgedee at 5:41 AM on December 23, 2008 [5 favorites]


How many of them are simply what happens when a rainy day meets ProTools

I think the deeper point is this: The long tail will not be proved or disproved based on how many songs sell. It will be proved or disproved based on how many songs sell that otherwise wouldn't have even been put up for sale. It isn't about "quality". It's about subjectivity. Rather than gatekeepers who pre-judge a song before release (or even before writing it), just make stuff the stuff you like and put it out there hoping to find someone who likes the same thing.
posted by DU at 5:42 AM on December 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Response from the Long Tail guy

(I found this while looking for the actual study, which is so very important in this kind of thing. What does "available for purchase online" mean? Are they looking at one provider? Are they only looking at the UK, since this study is from the UK equivalent of ASCAP? It doesn't appear to be online, and that this is was just a conference talk, which is weak.)
posted by smackfu at 6:08 AM on December 23, 2008


Spatch: "I really didn't parse "10 out of 13 million songs didn't sell" correctly the first time around"

You parsed it right. It was written wrong. "One in a million" doesn't mean "all of them".
posted by Plutor at 6:09 AM on December 23, 2008


Sounds like a classic example of a power-law curve.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:09 AM on December 23, 2008


So is this the final proof that your favorite band really does suck?
posted by Pollomacho at 6:12 AM on December 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is how you remind me, amirite?

no, we're never gonna quit
posted by pyramid termite at 6:22 AM on December 23, 2008


That means a whole lot of money is being spent to create and promote music that probably doesn't have an audience other that its creator. Granted it's not a lot per song, but multiplied by 10 million, and you're starting to talk real money.
posted by tommasz at 6:25 AM on December 23, 2008


I don't buy it. I've bought more music in the last few years by bands I would never have heard of if it hadn't had been for the magic of the internets.
posted by zzazazz at 6:27 AM on December 23, 2008


It mentions something about the sale of albums vs. tracks. I think this would have a lot to do with that. For instance, my brother (not really a music guy) buys tracks from iTunes for his iPod rather than albums. He'll have one or two songs from each of his favourites - it'll go something like

Nelly: Hot In Heeeere
Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Harvest Moon, Rockin' In the Free World
Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit, In Bloom, Heart Shaped Box
...etc

I think most people are like that. The majority of people are not like me (music nerds) and have all of Bakesale by Sebadoh on theirs because they listen to albums. The physical album model sold a lot of tracks that people didn't want - and this skewed the data somewhat. When they went to selling individual tracks but are still focused on the album model, there's a problem in their business model that needs to be addressed. I think a lot of these tracks that aren't selling anymore are the filler shit off the new Britney album that nobody gives two shits about.

I need to see a more detailed breakdown. There's no way that all the 10 of 13 million were indie bands nobody has ever heard of. I'll bet there's a flatter distribution now than there ever was coming out of the record stores.
posted by jimmythefish at 6:29 AM on December 23, 2008 [7 favorites]


My friend has an MP3 of two Nickelback songs played one on top of another, and you really can't tell that this is so unless you play close attention. I don't know what that has to do with this thread but I figure I'd toss it in there anyways.
posted by Vindaloo at 6:29 AM on December 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


I think the interesting thing here is not whether or not this data disproves the Long Tail Theory, since it can arguably both support it (3 million songs sold at least once!) or disprove it (10 million songs didn't sell at all!), depending on how long you think the tail needs to be to qualify as "long."

The really interesting thing is how quickly Anderson's theory captivated people. I must admit I'm one of them. I really want to believe that the era of the giant record labels that rely on a few monster, lowest-common-denominator albums to support themselves is over; and that we now live in a time when good, independent music created by talented people who do it for love rather than fame or money can flourish. I really want to believe that the era of the big Hollywood studios who depend upon blockbusters aimed at 14-year-olds is over; and that we live in an era in which small, experimental, independent cinema can flourish. I really want to believe that the "literature" sections of bookstores (including online booksellers) will now feature quality titles by challenging if obscure authors, not shelf upon shelf of the latest James Patterson novel.

The Long Tail Theory speaks directly to the hope that, once the nefarious influence of the Big Bad Capitalist Companies is squashed by the democratizing power of new media, world culture will finally be revealed to be diverse, adventurous, and wildly innovative. The audience for Britney drivel will dissipate, to be replaced by many audiences for experimental Latvian cinema, Burundian avant-core industro-jazz, and second-person autobiographies of Malaysian snake-handlers.

Clearly this isn't happening, and may never happen. Part of this is because one valuable aspect of mass culture (the blockbuster albums, books, and movies) is that so many people consume them. It gives people - especially teenagers, who most of it is aimed at - something common to talk about at parties, around the water cooler, or right here on MeFi. And, there's something really great about that. Sure, it can be fun to find that one person at a party who is also into Guyanese 11/8 mixolydian thrash and trade stories about shows you've seen for a few minutes; but its even more fun to engage in a debate with the whole gang about just how much you loved or hated The Dark Knight. One is an elite activity, the other is a social one. And we need both. And that's OK.
posted by googly at 6:36 AM on December 23, 2008 [11 favorites]


I'm not so convinced from people either proving or disproving the idea of a long tail using music or movies which are essentially like name brand items. I work for a company that sells promotional products, basically anything in the world, just you buy a bunch of it and put your logo on it. While we have some brand name items, most of our stuff is not, and therefore one item is not necessarily greatly advantaged over another. We have over 10,000 items on our site, and we sell at least one order for about half of them each year.

While we have some items that are relatively big sellers, the bulk of our sales come from items that only sell once or twice a year. So, even though lots of people buy our cheapest tote bag, someone out there buys the rubber frog dressed like the policeman or the stress ball in the shape of a wizard or one of the 500 different styles of 50 cent pen.

To me that's the kind of circumstance under which the long tail works, there may be others where it doesn't.

Also, for a music long tail case study, I'd be interested in seeing how cdbaby does. They're basically all long tail, and often they're the only place I can buy cds by local bands from where I used to live. I'm sure that none of the cds I buy sell well by any record industry standard, perhaps a few copies a year. I think the important part is that I know the product exists. I wouldn't buy music from unknown bands that I've never heard of, but I do buy music from unknown bands that I like.
posted by snofoam at 6:37 AM on December 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


That is: How many of them are simply what happens when a rainy day meets ProTools..."songs" that might have stayed on a cassette recorder forever had they been recorded twenty years ago, and justifiably so, but now are shared with the world because...what the hell, why not, right?

That's the same issue for publishing, whose long tail is about 31,900,000 titles long (2005 figure). Virtually anyone can publish. But this blog discusses how publishing's long tail ("long fail") differs from that of the music industry. And in a move that may be followed by other retailers, Borders is shortening its brick-and-mortar tail, but keeping its Web tail long.
posted by terranova at 6:41 AM on December 23, 2008


A lot of people are buying music from sites like Jamendo or Magnatune, the big Music Corps are not alone in the scene anymore.
posted by zouhair at 6:45 AM on December 23, 2008


Fuck mp3 sales

I was discussing music sales with some folks just last night, and I brought up the band the Presidents of the United States of America. You remember them. They never went away and they never stopped making really fun music, but they don't really do big tours. They make a comfortable living, spend quality time with their families, and tour locally in the Washington state area and up and down the west coast a bit. They are my favorite example of a successful niche band. I'd like to think they're a model for the future.

If the internet helps the Presidents, it's through exposure, not mp3 sales. I don't go along with the 90% is crud line. We just have a saturated system and the music industry is still using practices that support the idea of a "mainstream." There may be 40,000 mediocre 4th generation emo bands out their right now, and I"m not arguing that they should all make it big. I'm arguing that they acn all enjoy a respectable following now that radio don't mean shit. Niche bands don't sell mp3s. They Give them away for free and then they sell tickets and merch and albums and (increasingly) the rights to use their songs in commercials.

The internet is indispensable to them to engage and mobilize their fanbase, but it's not the fucking market place.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:48 AM on December 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


which 13 million songs? is he talking about itunes or just self published stuff?
posted by empath at 6:49 AM on December 23, 2008


Five of those 10,000,000 tracks were put there by the guy in the cube next to me. It's him and his "band" doing CCR covers. He's real proud of it. I'd be willing to bet 2,000,000 more of you sit next to a similar guy.

Just be glad he hasn't discovered the youtubes.
posted by bondcliff at 6:52 AM on December 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


I had an AskMeFi answer deleted for linking to The Pirate Bay - so perhaps we're not allowed to acknowledge such things here. But people with enough independence of mind to want music other than those 52,000 tracks of high-selling crap are the ones likeliest to know that you don't - as a practical, as opposed to ethical, matter - have to pay for music any more.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:57 AM on December 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


Taking the record labels out of the picture doesn't automagic!ally leave you with a pastoral digital landscape wherein all you do is upload some stuff, cross your fingers and wait for the money to come rolling in. How many of those songs are good? How many of those songs have had any kind of marketing push -- like any kind -- put behind them at all?

That's why record labels are still relevant, but I think once you split production and marketing off from distribution, there's a massive barrier to entry that drops, even for professional artists. When selling music meant getting physical records or CDs into stores, an artist had two options: sign with a label, or handle manufacturing and distribution on their own, which effectively meant starting their own independent label.

The switch to digital distribution means that anyone from Apple to some random guy with a website and paypal account can handle distribution, which frees up the artist considerably. No-name DIYers can record tracks in GarageBand, put them on iTunes, and get the word out through blogs, MySpace, YouTube, live shows IRL, etc. Well-known acts can hire producers and marketing teams directly, and have more creative control over their music. The record labels only really exist in their present form because they had an oligopoly on distribution, which is why in my opinion they have fought so hard against moving towards digital distribution.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:01 AM on December 23, 2008


When a rainy day meets ProTools.

I think that's the new Norah Ephron romantic comedy.
posted by rokusan at 7:07 AM on December 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


The real question is whats it cost to keep such a large inventory. Considering they are digital files then it the number should be pretty small. Large inventories draw customers. For instance, I recently tried Netflix's video on demand. The small selection was a real turn off and I dont see myself going back, but if they would have had a couple of my favorite movies I would have been a lot more forgiving. Im sure Netflix is going to turn a profit but the guy who comes along with a larger selection will eat their lunch.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:13 AM on December 23, 2008


sexymofo writes "Popular music has less to do with quality and more to do with promotion."

True. That is why shit sells, isn't it? I overlooked that. However:

tommasz writes "That means a whole lot of money is being spent to create and promote music that probably doesn't have an audience other that its creator."

No, it means that a lot of unsold stuff isn't being promoted, and thus never sells. The whole point here is that you need not spend much money at all just to offer one song, because there's no warehousing or distribution costs. As to why there is so much out there that isn't being promoted at all, I think I can safely say we can thank the music industry for that. They don't want to spend money promoting albums unless they already know they will sell and make money. It's why American Idol is such a deviously clever marketing tool: by the time the winner is announced, the recording industry already knows from the voting stats that a large percentage of viewers like this artist and will buy his or her album. It's "try before you buy" on a grand scale, packaged as a reality show.

If only the bastards would figure out that "try before you buy" is a big reason illegal downloads are popular in the first place, perhaps the music industry would change for the better. Yes, we want to see if the songs you AREN'T promoting are crappy filler. And no, we aren't willing to buy the album and THEN find out everything except that one song totally blows, because you assholes have burned us too many times before.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:13 AM on December 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Actually a part of me wishes that the record companies would send all non-profitable music in the public domain or hand over the copyrights to the government. Id love to be able to download/borrow this music at the library while the popular music remains commercial.

If this stuff is such a drag, I have no problem buying a few TB of storage and taking it off their hands.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:15 AM on December 23, 2008


From the link:

For albums, the figures were even more stark. Of the 1.23 million available, only 173,000 were ever bought, meaning 85 per cent did not sell a single copy all year.

All of a sudden, I'm feeling pretty good about the digital album sales I had last year.
Both of them.
posted by malocchio at 7:50 AM on December 23, 2008


When selling music meant getting physical records or CDs into stores, an artist had two options: sign with a label, or handle manufacturing and distribution on their own, which effectively meant starting their own independent label.

Not in response to this specific comment, but just riffing off of it, as fashionable as it's always been to offhandedly dismiss the worth of self-released music (and especially now that the market is flooded with new self-released music like never before), it bears pointing out that a lot of the most vital and influential (and even commercially successful music) in recent decades has been self released. Hell, one of the most common reasons people start independent labels is to have a way to release their own music (like Mac and Laura from Superchunk when they started Merge, or Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson when they started Dischord, the guys from Saddle Creek, Bad Man Recording Company, etc.).

Why shouldn't the web eventually just float some online artists and labels up to the top? Dischord relied largely on the US postal service as a distribution channel in its early days; the internet offers a much better, cheaper infrastructure for a small independent label hoping to start reaching an audience than that.

That said, downloads and retail CD sales don't offer much potential income to most independent artists these days. Unless they get a couple of nice commercial spots or soundtrack placements. That can boost an artists' sales to career-making levels overnight. TV commercials and soundtracks are the new radio.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:17 AM on December 23, 2008


rokusan: I think that's the new Norah Ephron romantic comedy.
I don't know about anyone else, but whenever I see that director's name, I always seem to want to parse it as "Norepinephrine. Is that weird?
posted by hincandenza at 8:23 AM on December 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


All of a sudden, I'm feeling pretty good about the digital album sales I had last year.

Heh... Me, too. Apparently my little label is one of the most successful online labels around. We must have had nearly dozens of album downloads last year. ;)

posted by saulgoodman at 8:24 AM on December 23, 2008


This:
The theory is not that everything in the market will sell; instead, it works on the hypothesis that if a middleman can profitably keep an immense inventory of anything that might sell can satisfy a significant part of the market. That's exactly what happened.

and this:
I think the deeper point is this: The long tail will not be proved or disproved based on how many songs sell. It will be proved or disproved based on how many songs sell that otherwise wouldn't have even been put up for sale. It isn't about "quality". It's about subjectivity. Rather than gatekeepers who pre-judge a song before release (or even before writing it), just make stuff the stuff you like and put it out there hoping to find someone who likes the same thing.

Exactly. I just spent an entire semester teaching the long tail theory, and I think it's important to note that Anderson does not claim that the long tail will *replace* hits; in fact he repeatedly makes the point that hits will continue to exist and sell. His point is that with the tools now available to us in the digital age, niches can be profitable *alongside* hits. I think snofoam's comment provides a good example of that.

It's also a bit annoying that the article takes a somewhat adversarial tone, like "oooh, there's no long tail here, so the whole theory is disproved!!" This is not an either-or situation. I think Anderson shows very persuasively that is it *possible* to make a profit in a niche market. But possible does NOT equal guaranteed. Your stuff might still suck. Or you might not be using the necessary tools (filtering, recommendations, etc.) correctly or at all.

One of the overriding points of the long tail theory is that we have entered an age of abundance in choice, and I haven't seen anyone argue convincingly *against* this proposition.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:00 AM on December 23, 2008


I had an AskMeFi answer deleted for linking to The Pirate Bay - so perhaps we're not allowed to acknowledge such things here. But people with enough independence of mind to want music other than those 52,000 tracks of high-selling crap are the ones likeliest to know that you don't - as a practical, as opposed to ethical, matter - have to pay for music any more.

Bull. Taking a look at the top 100 music from the pirate bay right now, I don't see it overflowing with independent hits, unless you count the likes of Akon, Britney Spears, and the Killers as independent.

People constantly claim that people are tired of the mass marketed, mass produced crap coming from big record and movie companies, but I see no evidence that this is true.

Many people, as googly says, want the dragons of the RIAA and the MPAA to be slain so bad that they prognosticate their doom as inevitable.
posted by zabuni at 9:09 AM on December 23, 2008


Bull.

My statement "Offbeat music fans are likelier to pirate" is not the same as "Music piraters are likelier to prefer offbeat music."

I suspect there's a name for the fallacy at work there, but I don't know what it might be.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:33 AM on December 23, 2008


> downloads and retail CD sales don't offer much potential income to most independent artists these days

Specifically, making art and selling it are completely different tasks, and it's the part most artists fail at. Pushing out a recording and not promoting it has never worked, even before the Internet came around. Your local used record shop is full of demo CDs for a dollar or less which were sent to music writers and radio stations that weren't good enough to review or broadcast and which were never promoted in any other way. Some of them have glossy cover photos of guys with big moussed hair and shiny big-shouldered jackets, because they've been neglected for that long.

If you're a musician, you have to buy ad space, push reviewers to review your work, push DJs to air your work, buy ad space, tour, and do everything else you can do to get in people's faces. Justifying your existence goes 'way beyond simply generating product; there are dozens of hours of music added to the market every single day, and any consumer will need a reason to seek out this or that specific recording. It may be the most oversaturated buyer's market of all time.

Your latest album will take a couple hundred MB on a 1 TB disk holding three thousand other albums in a rack full of 1 TB disks in a room full of racks somewhere in Apple's iTunes data warehouse. It cost you a few hundred or thousand dollars to make that CD, and maybe ten cents a year for Apple to make it available. Apple has no motivation to promote you, you have to do it yourself.
posted by ardgedee at 10:28 AM on December 23, 2008


"My statement "Offbeat music fans are likelier to pirate" is not the same as "Music piraters are likelier to prefer offbeat music."

I suspect there's a name for the fallacy at work there, but I don't know what it might be.
"

It's not a fallacy, it's a distributional law, where large sets regress to the mean.

You see it all the time on, say, Last.fm groups—if everyone is listening to sets of music that only overlap at the Beatles, despite the Beatles having a far lower frequency than Not-Beatles, the Beatles will show up at the top of the charts. (It will, in fact, look like a long tail.)

That said, music nerds are not the only people who use the Pirate Bay, and since storage and transmission (and opportunity) costs are so low, I know a fair number of people who download more music than they ever listen to or are interested in listening to, because they're "collectors" or because it's so easy.
posted by klangklangston at 10:46 AM on December 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't see it overflowing with independent hits, unless you count the likes of Akon, Britney Spears, and the Killers as independent.

Well, in my experience, people are more likely to pirate major label titles because they don't feel as guilty about it since they figure the labels and artists are still going to end up raking in the big bucks (if only through licensing, cross-promotion deals, using their market leverage to force retailers to assume liability for unsold merchandise, etc.). That might account at least in part for the predominance of major label releases in this "Pirate Bay" thingy you speak of...

That said, I'm not sure where the information came from, but a friend of mine recently cited statistics to the effect that, last year, roughly 64,000 independent titles were released on CD, and of those, only 6 sold more than 250,000 copies. Around 85% of the remaining titles sold fewer than 100 copies. I haven't been able to verify those figures, but honestly, they sound about right. I personally know of well-known indie artists who seldom see more than a few thousand CD sales in a year anymore.

I think some of these changes are just a correction in CD sales now that digital music download formats let people buy (or otherwise get their hands on) one or two tracks they might like by an artist without having to make the commitment to buying an entire physical album or even a single. In the past, the overhead and per unit costs of producing CDs, cassettes and vinyl meant that even singles were priced at only a nominal markdown below the cost of a full-length release (even now, the new T-Pain full-length costs $12.99 retail, while a single from one of his previous album costs $10.99--so in at least this particular case, the physical single costs 85% as much as the full length by the same artist). Whether it's an album or a single, the per unit manufacturing costs are roughly the same for physical media, so there's a built-in pricing floor. Now it's possible to buy literally only one track you like by an artist (or to burn it from a friend's CD, or get it from a p2p network or whatever), and the per unit costs are vanishingly negligible.

For consumers, this is all great stuff, but one likely side-effect is that physical CD sales take a hit, as consumers who might once have bought CDs and CD singles to get just that one track they really liked can now buy just that track and nothing else.

Interestingly, as Chris Anderson notes here on his Long Tail blog on Wired, all of the other music sales numbers (besides physical CD sales) are up... And in a comment on that same blog, CDBaby founder Derek Sivers asserts that monthly CD sales through CD Baby are actually up 35% over the same time last year. So it's a complicated picture.

It may be the most oversaturated buyer's market of all time.

Repeated from ardgedee's comment for emphasis.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:54 AM on December 23, 2008


Ok, wait a minute. We are talking about 52,000 tracks here. By my quick google calculator estimate that's (52000 tracks * 3min/track)/(1440 minutes/day) = 108 solid days of non-stop music.

A radio station can do about 480 songs in a 24 hour period if it didn't have mandatory station identification or other programming, and I'd probably say that a typical commercial station playlist runs somewhere between 100-200 songs with a handful of songs given heavy rotation.

So those 52,000 tracks that are making 80% of the money is huge and diverse compared to what could have been promoted on radio and television 20 years ago. It's probably big compared to what's being tracked by Billboard's Hot-100 lists at this time. It's probably big compared to the stock of brick-and-mortar chains. (The cases alone packed spine-up require 500 square feet.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:37 AM on December 23, 2008


In the response to the study, the Long Tail Guy (as per above, and I'm too lazy to click through to his name) says that 52,000 tracks is roughly the inventory of a record store.

But I regularly go to Amoeba and come out without anything because they don't have what I want at a price I'm willing to pay, so it's not just selection that's a factor. (Conversely, I have a hard time not going to the Record Surplus and dropping $50 in $4 increments).
posted by klangklangston at 11:59 AM on December 23, 2008


I thought the point of the Long Tail theory was that sure, there's a few zillion-selling hits at the front of the curve, but behind them in the "doesn't sell much" zone is 90% (or 80% or whatever high %) of the actual total sales.

So, that is to say, Britney + U2 = 25 million albums sold. Everyone else = 500 million albums sold.

The Long Tail pushes the idea that if you keep a back-catalog of enough unpopular stuff, lots of small unit sales would make you even more money than just selling the hits and forgetting about the rest of it.

So either I'm stating it completely wrong, or this study directly contradicts that theory.

I have no stake in this fight either way, particularly. I'm just trying to clarify a lot of sort of not-the-point stuff I read above in the thread. Like, "it doesn't matter because..." comments that kind of miss that angle of why it certainly does matter.
posted by rusty at 12:03 PM on December 23, 2008


Vindaloo, that's the best song by Nickelback. I think it's 'This is how you remind me' with, uh, that other big song they had a few months later. I have the mp3 too somewhere.
I only buy mp3s if I absolutely can't find it online (which is becoming a little too common now that Oink is gone) and it's still somehow on Itunes, or if it just, just came out and I MUST HAVE IT, like that Willie Nelson song off of Colbert's Christmas special.... "Your so high..."
It's probably not a fair rationalization for the sheer majestry of just how much stuff I pirate(music, movies, tv shows, programs, even fucking comics), but I still buy stuff that I pirate. I will buy albums I enjoy on vinyl always. I've got a shit-ton of records. I would buy more movies but I don't feel like buying a DVD when I know that format is probably about to die and I don't own a shiny Blueray player yet. I can watch any show I want for free legitimately on either my DVR or on the show's network website. Comic books, like records, have the added-radness of being collectible, so I'm still down at Atomic Comics buying new Stephen King's The Stand and Dark Tower comics every few weeks. So yeah... I pirate, but I still end up buying at least some of the stuff I steal.
I think the RIAA needs to recognize that the CD format is dead. There's nothing exciting about buying a CD anymore. They should either go back to LPs, which has seen a boom in growth lately in terms of sales, or start trying to find the next, new big thing. MP3's sound like shit. It shouldn't be too hard to get people to come back to buying music if they make it worthwhile again.
posted by Bageena at 12:33 PM on December 23, 2008


Nielsen's year-end music retail stats from 2007 here.

Some relevant/interesting highlights:

*More than 840 million digital tracks were purchased during 2007; an increase of 45 percent over 2006.

*Album sales at Non-Traditional music outlets experienced significant growth with sales approaching the 90 million mark. Non-traditional outlets accounted for 18 percent of all album sales, compared to 12 percent in 2006, 9 percent in 2005 and 5 percent in 2004 (4 percent in
2003).

*Chain music stores for the first time accounted for less than 40 percent of all album sales

*Album sales at Independent music stores remained consistent from a year ago

And here's an especially relevant one (because, as it turns out, I can't figure out how in the world it could possibly square with the claims being made in study cited in the original post):

*There were more than 390,000 different physical albums that sold at least one copy over the Internet during 2007.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:52 PM on December 23, 2008


This whole analysis is flawed, I think, for one important reason:

The stuff that sells the most digital copies, like Britney and Beyoncé, is purchased by (typically) without very deep musical taste. It's pop music in the purest sense of being ephemeral and disposable. It's perfect for the digital download format - fast and immediate. It's a generalization, but people who listen to exceedingly commercial music are less concerned with the physical artifact, with being able to make copies infinitely and unhindered, with the inferior and lower fidelity formats that digital music is made available in.

People who listen to Kalyi Jag or gamelan or This Heat or soukous or dub reggae or Victor Jara or Nectarine No 9 or whatever - "long tail" music with fans all over who pursue this "uncommercial" music with great zeal - are much more likely to seek out the physical product for the artifact itself, the ability to make endless copies without restriction and for the drastically better sound quality. This "long tail" music is less ephemeral and its listenership tends to be outside-of-contemporaneous-time in a way that listeners of commercial stuff aren't.

This make music a different medium entirely than books, when looking for support of the long-tail theory. Leaving aside this still very small digital book market, a book is a book - still a physical and largely "one variety" thing. This isn't the case with music, where fans of different types of music have much more varied reactions to the way in which it's presented that make this study flawed.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:52 PM on December 23, 2008


Never mind. I see now the fpp study is digital album sales, not physical internet sales. Not exactly apples to apples.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:06 PM on December 23, 2008


"So either I'm stating it completely wrong, or this study directly contradicts that theory. "

Well, no, there are a couple of things to note. First off is that the Long Tail Guy has modified some of his arguments (there was another FPP about this recently), stating that, with regard to blogs and digital media, the head has become vastly more important in terms of traffic, but that the general traffic pattern still follows the power law distribution of a long tail. Second, it's important to note that the data here presented as "undermining" isn't quantified. Like, we don't know what period there is on not selling anything, and it could simply be that the sample size is too small (or, like he mentioned, that the long-tail distribution model doesn't work with mobile music sales). This study also doesn't really define the head as well as it could—by over-defining the head, you remove some of the best-performing tail.
posted by klangklangston at 1:21 PM on December 23, 2008


From the Nielsen NARM conference State of the Industry report [pdf] for 2007:

*During 2007 there were 4 million different tracks that were downloaded at least once (937k for the majors and 3 million for indies).

So indie labels actually managed to move more than three times as many different titles as the majors did online, although at significantly lower volumes.

*more than 570,000 albums sold at least one copy in 2007. Of those, 450,344 (both major and indie) sold fewer than 100 copies.

That still leaves 120,000 albums in a year that sold more than 100 copies. And there were only 8,000 new releases in 2007 total, so much of that figure has to be back catalog, special order and other non-traditional items.

*The Top 200 albums peaked in 2000; accounted for 35% of all album sales. In 2007, the Top 200 represented 25% of album sales.

This suggests the overall market is rapidly diversifying, in support of the long-tail argument as I understand it (which I may not, since I only just learned about it here recently on MeFi). Although overall album sales are slipping, the top albums no longer account for as large a share of overall sales on a percentage basis. Doesn't that support a trend in favor of the long-tail view? The tail does seem to be getting fatter.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:02 PM on December 23, 2008


And, it's likely going to come down to how you cross your eyes and squint at the data. Advocates of the mega-superstar model will probably be safe in saying that a handful of highly-promoted acts are going to capture huge market share. Advocates of long-tail business economics will point out that 20% on the tail is nothing to sneeze at if you can supply both. Advocates of small specialty businesses will sift through the data for evidence that niche publishing is a viable market.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:20 PM on December 23, 2008


All this proves is the long tail is an unprovable and undisprovable hypothesis. Any amount of sales outside the head (however you define that) proves that it exists, and the [mathematically inevitable] ongoing dominance of a small fraction of artists/albums/product proves it's unviable.

Now, where's my book deal?
posted by cillit bang at 3:46 PM on December 23, 2008


zabuni writes "Bull. Taking a look at the top 100 music from the pirate bay right now, I don't see it overflowing with independent hits, unless you count the likes of Akon, Britney Spears, and the Killers as independent. "

TPB is a terrible example. Try the popular private trackers whose names must not be uttered, or Soulseek, for the true eyepatch wearing music snobs.
posted by mullingitover at 5:38 PM on December 23, 2008


and the [mathematically inevitable] ongoing dominance of a small fraction of artists/albums/product proves it's unviable.

Unviable to most of the small artists maybe, cillit bang, but not to retailers or distributors that sell products "outside the head," as you put it. CDBaby, for example, is a business that thrives by selling the products of lots of different musicians who may individually only sell one or two copies of their releases (and a few who may sell thousands or tens of thousands). But since there are so many artists on CDBaby, even if each of them only makes one or two sales, it's a profitable business.

Business models like this are not only viable in theory, they're succeeding right now in practice. And they may not offer much help to those artists who plan to do nothing but live off their CD sales from the first day they self-release their music, but they do create new opportunities for artists to get their music out and have at least some chance, through persistence and initiative, to make a viable career for themselves.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:29 AM on December 24, 2008


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