Unsubstantiated Claim: iTunes Success Makes It Harder To Discover New Music

from the say-what-now dept

Michael Manning points us to a writeup of a new study by Harvard professor Anita Elberse (who has long been a critic of things like “the long tail” concept) concerning the “iTunes effect” on music sales. Most of the article focuses on the fact that (gasp!) given the opportunity to just buy the songs people like, rather than an entire album, many will do just that. Shocking. But the writeup seems to suggest that this is the fault of iTunes, rather than the fault of the recording industry for putting out album after album where only a couple of songs are worth buying. There’s no cosmic law that says people need to buy albums, and to blame iTunes for it, rather than the industry for not creating products worth buying seems incredibly backwards.

Of course, it then gets even more ridiculous:

Not all of that lost revenue was profit. That album revenue was partly subsidizing the discovery and publishing of new music, which in turn created new buyers of music, tour tickets, posters, t-shirts, and so on. That revenue in turn helped develop that artist’s next venture, and discover yet other artists. Significantly decreased revenues breaks the cycle that helps find new talent that will generate more revenue.

And yet, as we’ve seen more new music is being made today than ever before in history, so it’s not like this is really harming the production of new music. And this totally ignores how the internet has totally changed the economics of discovering, publishing and distributing new music — such that you don’t need to rely on the major record labels to seek out new music for you. And, even if you do rely on major labels to “discover” the next big thing, new technologies have made that much cheaper for the industry as well. They now have the internet to help them find bands and judge their buzz and sound even without having first found them at a club as was often done in the past. To ignore all of those other impacts seems highly questionable, and puts a cloud over the research as a whole. Besides, just thinking about it logically makes it ridiculous to think that iTunes has somehow limited new music discovery. For many, many, many people, it seems likely that it has increased new music discovery, and done so by taking the record labels somewhat (not entirely) out of that loop.

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Comments on “Unsubstantiated Claim: iTunes Success Makes It Harder To Discover New Music”

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Ima Fish (profile) says:

When I was a kid back in the 70s all so called “record stores” had large racks of 45 singles. You could buy almost any hit song via 45 singles, and if they didn’t have it, you could order it and get it within a week.

The notion of forcing people to buy the entire album by eliminating the single did not arise until the 80s. Sure there were cassette and CD singles, but they were only issued in limited quantities. E.g., you could not special order Elvis’ “Hound Dog” on cassette single like you could order the 45 in the 70s.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:Single

What’s ironic is that in the old days, early 60s and before, singles were the cash cow. That’s what was pushed to consumers.

LPs (in their varying forms) were niche and were bought by hardcore music fans and audiophiles.

I remember reading an article about how the growth of LP sales was criticized as destroying the income from single sales. (Unfortunately, I can’t find that article now.)

Let’s face it, the music industry is never happy and enough is never enough.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:Single

At the same time, some albums are in fact more than the sum of their parts. Dark Side of the Moon, Sgt. Pepper and Aqualung jump to mind as well-known examples, but there are countless others.

I believe there remains a place for the album as a format for music (I’m not talking about a physical format, but a structural one) – but of course, it’s only going to work with good artists who are actually producing whole albums with value intentionally. The single-song model is perfect for the majority of music that dominates sales nowadays.

Adam Wexler (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think the major paradigm shift of albums –> singles occurred when blank CD’s became widespread (late 90’s). Once fans realized they ddin’t have to listen to 12 tracks from the same artist (with a majority of fillers), they could easily mix & match some of their favorite songs from multiple artists. iTunes accelerated this movement.

“Most of the article focuses on the fact that (*gasp!*) given the opportunity to just buy the songs people like, rather than an entire album, many will do just that.”
Absolutely correct, Mike. Yet, iTunes does a horrible job promoting the ENTIRE catalog. They show great preference to the most commercially viable material and often overlook the fan favorites.

For that reason & more, we started Rank ’em for the fans to rank their favorite songs from all their favorite artists. When the fan favorite are aggregated for each artist, a valuable resource emerges for recognizing the best material as determined by those that know each artist the best — their own fans.

You won’t find ‘Creep’ atop our rankings for Radiohead…

Free Capitalist (profile) says:


Besides, just thinking about it logically makes it ridiculous to think that iTunes has somehow limited new music discovery. For many, many, many people, it seems likely that it has increased new music discovery, and done so by taking the record labels somewhat (not entirely) out of that loop.

While I prefer other services, iTunes definitely has made a positive impact on music discovery. If iTunes were not being employed for discovery by a significant number of people, the record companies would not be begging for a payout every time someone “previews” a song on Apple’s store.

And the belly-aching about letting Jobs beat them to the market continues unabated.

Jenni (profile) says:

I grew up in a small Indiana town in the 80s, where there were two department stores that sold music. They only had room for standard Top 40/country stuff. I had to wait until evenings to be able to tune into college-rock stations fifty miles away in order to hear anything interesting. Man, I would’ve been thrilled by the internet back then.

It is true that the part of iTunes directly responsible for recommending new music (Genius) is relatively new and not as good yet as personalized internet radio (Slacker, Pandora, the late lamented Yahoo Launchcast). But one thing that iTunes does that indirectly serves that purpose is to make new-music podcasts easy to download and use (All Songs Considered, Sound Opinions, etc.).


Lower the barrier to entry...

At a buck a pop, it’s now pretty cheap and easy to try something completely new. The cheaper something is, the more likely it will become an impulse buy. This is true of $1 songs, $5 movies or $1-$5 iphone “apps”.

Of course the downside of this is that you may decide that $1 is all you want to spend. The singles model depends on the “rest of the album” to be there and worth buying.

The idea that iTunes discourages new music discovery is beyond absurd.

Perhaps iTunes discourages whole album sales. Although that’s something else entirely.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Lower the barrier to entry...

“The idea that iTunes discourages new music discovery is beyond absurd.”

Actually, I agree with it to a degree.

Until recently, when they killed the model, I was a fan of eMusic. For €30 per month, I could download up to 100 tracks. The subscription model (“use it or lose it”) encouraged me to download a lot of music by artists, or in entire genres, that I would never even consider downloading for $1 per track. Even the albums in iTunes are rarely cheap enough for me to take a chance on unknown material.

The flat $1/track would have actually put me off looking at the new music I discovered through eMusic. Why spend the same on a track you never heard of when you can pick up that song you could never find on CD for the same price?

Having said that, I do consider the point of the main article rather naive and silly. Of course people will try more new material if they only have to buy $1 tracks rather than $10 albums, the trick is to get them to notice it. The major labels focussing their marketing on karaoke competition winners won’t help, but that’s their mistake, not Apple’s.

Ryan says:

The first thing entering my mind after reading the quote is the dichotomy between her premises and her implications. Because consumers are spending less money on each album of artists they already know, fewer new artists are thus being discovered? Is that not completely backwards; i.e. if people can pick and choose the music they want from each artist, then they have more money to spread around to try works from different artists…?

ECA (profile) says:


To think that itunes is working??
I have a couple devices that got updated, and NEVER worked properly again. And they BURY this in the forums.
DRM? I dont need to say more on that. AS most music wont work on OTHER machines OTHER THEN APPLE.
Think of a HUGE program just to play music and SAVE to a MP3 player.
NOW to the Iphone devices.. Im sorry for those that HAVE this device.
Contract with ATT
Contract with APPLE
Contract to USE itunes..
Just to use a PHONE.
And if ANY of those 3 fails?? gets a HAIR in the REAR, and does NOT WANT something on your device, they have the RIGHT to remove it WITHOUT ASKING YOU. READ YOUR EULA’s..
If some idiot makes a mistake on any of the programming, you are SCREW’d and have no recourse.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Funny.

And yet iTunes is a success.

Now, I agree with you. I’ve got sick of iTunes crap really early on and swore never to pay for anything from iTunes again. I’ve even moved past the iPod.

This is not to say that iTunes failed, it succeeded in what it set out to do, it just did it in a way that we don’t like anymore. As with anything, there are alternatives and it’s time to move on (learn from our DRM mistakes and then move on).

Chaos777b (profile) says:

I agree, in limited context

I do believe Itunes has limited new music discovery, but only for basic users that rely on Itunes to purchase their Music. Itunes can be seen as the largest and most successful distributor of Digital music, or least poeple have that perception of Itunes. This leaves them with the impression that if it can’t be purchased on Itunes, that it cant be purchased legally. Even in Itunes it self, the music you can browse is limited to the music that Major Music studios have selected for sale in your country (see http://www.slate.com/id/2158151/ for an idea.) While Itunes does not limit the discovery of new music in it self, sole reliance on Itunes limits what you can purchase. It all depends on how you limit your self to discover new music. As I stated, I agree in limited context.

SockRolid says:

iTunes is DRM-free now anyway

Two years ago: Steve Jobs issues an anti-DRM open letter to the industry:

One year ago: iTunes Store provides DRM-free iTunes Plus versions of its songs:

iTunes has changed the music industry forever. Get used to it.

SockRolid says:

You're looking backward

@Chronno: “Think of a HUGE program just to play music and SAVE to a MP3 player.”

Apple is looking forward, you’re looking backward. Future generations of iPods, iPhones, and Apple tablet devices will play music from “the cloud”. No need to store all that music on each of your devices. No need to sync with your music library on your Mac or PC.

But you do have a point. iTunes is enormous now. Best to move it to the cloud as well. Just watch.

JackSombra (profile) says:

Re: You're looking backward

While i don’t think you are wrong, in that they will try to move it to “the cloud”, i would like to take a minute to introduce Apple to a few concepts

Countryside and other areas with no/limited/spotty coverage
International Roaming charges
High data charges

Until all these are dealt with a mobile accesable cloud for everything is a pipe dream

ECA (profile) says:

Some of you get the idea,

Some of you get the thought/idea..

The music industry has made TONS of money on virtual products for years.
The failing is that they RELEASE PARTS, to companies to sell. They have contracts with Time/life(warner) NOT to release certain things and albums.

Consider what would happen if they SETUP, their own site and DIGITALLY remastered ALL of the music they have from the past 100?? years? TONS of music has been lost, BECAUSE they have not transitioned.
Some of you understand this. They could take the WHOLE volume of Music and even Movies and be able to release ALL of it, with Little or NO charges from Adverts,packaging, shipping, Middlemen..

I could setup a 4×4 Kiosk that could hold Millions of albums of music, video, video games..and distribute from a GAS station in the middle of NOWHERE..
The need for a Storefront is GONE. You dont need 10,000 sqft to show OFF all your wares and goods.

The REAL trick is getting these folks to SEE IT.

ONCE they finally see whats happening, APPLE will be DUMPED, and the corp will take it into their OWN hands(if they get smart).
They could have a ONLINE sale site of their OWN. Charge $0.10 per song and make BILLIONS. They have TONS of music they do not have a RESOURCE to release.
AOL could take the WHOLE market over if they THOUGHT about it.
Walk up to the RECORDING industry and say..
we will give you $0.20 per song sold, and you give us access to sell ALL your songs and music.. AFTER the cost of digitally converting and conversion. And we will sell it at $0.50 per song. NO DRM, NO packaging, NO shipping, NO lawyers, NO middle men..
The music is STUCK in some storage area ROTTING. There is music people are looking for, that cant be found unless you BUY some Time/life subscription..
Getting rid of the Lawyers and DRM saves >1/2 the price of making an album.

markryder (profile) says:

mike masnick you talk an argument that wrong

I keep reading your weird views on the Internet and music and you just don’t get it its annoying because you act like you know something but clearly you have no idea?

I’m not sure of your history in the music business for you to air your righteous sounding but totally non-intelligent views on this subject but to me you sound like a punter rather than a music maker or distributor of music. Your view is so UN knowledgeable of how music works?

Do you just write these things for the money or have you got a vested interest in the topic you write?

All the time it’s how easy it is to get music and it obviously better for the artists and not the record companies and more people are making music so that is good.

Dude since the beginning of time people have been making music in their heads so no more people make music now than since the beginning of time the art is in making good music into something that people want to get involved with and that people actually want to buy and that’s become harder to find because people like you seem to think everything is everywhere and so everyone can find everything they want and music is only the bit you like and nothing more.

That’s is not the case

I have been battling with giving iTunes my music since 2000 that’s just before the iPod was released I have a vast catalogue of underground dance music and they offered me a contract to distribute it I declined because .40 pence was stupid for a track and I wanted to sell albums so people got the whole project, ever since then its been the same thing with iTunes and me until recently I accepted a deal but still i’m reluctant to put my music on there because they really have killed the concept of an artist creation (which is an album)
And don’t come with that rubbish about how only a few records are good on an album and that’s the music company’s fault because you show your ignorance with comments like that.

An artist makes an album thru their art and they don’t banter to the public unless they are a pop band bantering to a pop fan base

Generally the artist is making all the music how they want it to sound

Just because you think there is only one hit on it doesn’t mean it full of rubbish it just means you don’t get it

May people buy an album and don’t get it but after a few play they do and that’s the magic of an artist to get the message they want across not the message YOU expect from them

But the artist gets what they are doing in n album and they want other to get it. People like you who just want the pop hit are not truly supporting the artists work or trying to understand it you just want to cut and run and that is exactly the iTunes model so please don’t diminish a respected report from someone who has some credibility with their view.

Has iTunes made being a real artist difficult? YES

Has it helped kill the album? Definitely!

Do people like you understand what you going on about? I don’t think so

Are albums full of rubbish and only one good track? Only to people like you!

If you are writing articles like this you need to put up your credentials so people can judge weather you are just a blabber of words of someone with a history to voice some real opinion!

I’m 20 years of success as an underground artist/producer Google me.


PaulT (profile) says:

Re: mike masnick you talk an argument that wrong

So… what you’re saying is that you refused to sell music how people actually wanted to buy it, and now you’re pissed off because iTunes have gotten successful by supplying that demand?

During the 90s, I bought hundreds of white label vinyls and other dance music SINGLES because that’s what I wanted to do. Am I now a bad guy for not giving you money for an album I didn’t want?

“Has iTunes made being a real artist difficult? YES”

No, it hasn’t. If you, as an artist, only want to sell albums that’s your prerogative. It’s not Apple’s fault if the vast majority of other “artists” out there release mediocre collections of songs rather than coherent albums, nor is it their fault that most music fans have been ripped off ad nauseum by these mediocre collections and thus only want the singles.

Oh, and Apple DO sell albums, btw. They give everyone a choice between singles and albums, it’s the customers who choose the former. Apple don’t force anyone to buy the singles if they actually want the full album…

ECA (profile) says:


you sound like an advert.
I understand the concept of ALBUM, and love a great many of them, esp alan parsons, JMJarre, and a few others..
Its the individual that selects the Song/album and what they like.
Im talking about being able to go to a site and get the 50+ year old recording, that hasnt seen the light of day for 49+ years.
I want KIDS to hear the OLD stuff, and wonder about the NEW.
I want artists to be able to make MONEY, rather then the Corp that holds there music.
The other trick, as with radio, was Exposure to THOSE that LIKE IT, or MIGHT like it.
releasing a few LOW quality samples could get you a following.
Getting in a car, bus, Taxi and hear your music and they ask, “who was that” and your name gets around..
They look you up and find your music..
There is TONS of music out there, and TONS that havent been heard from in DECADES, unless you wish to sign up with TIME LIFE..

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Terrible post

Wow. What a terrible post. You attribute a quote to Elberse that isn’t hers, and is in no way a reflection of what the study concludes. Search for “Bye Bye Bundles” (the actual title of her paper) and you will know. Sloppy journalism by TechDirt.

Wow. What a terrible comment. You claim I attributed a quote to Elberse when I did no such thing. I clearly said that it was a writeup about her study. Sloppy comment by anonymous.

The Anti-Mike (profile) says:

One of the things I find funny in all of this is even the poster children for the “internet music marketing” deal, from Reznor to Corey Smith pretty much all without exception release “albums”. It is the very nature of what they do, they don’t tend to write single songs, they tend to write a collection of “where they are now”. Mr Smith’s latest record is 11 tracks, and his entire website is redone not to support a single song, but to push the album (and the mental space that comes with it).

Singles were done as a way to (a) make music radio friendly, by pre-selecting tracks to play, and (b) as lead in sales towards purchasing the whole album.

Often in the late 60s through mid to late 80s, the single was either a shorten (abridged) version of the song or was different from the album version. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida was a 17 minute plus album side song, and released as an under 3 minute single (radio friendly!). These days, the single selection process is often done just to guide radio through an album. The first single is usually selected by the label / band and the subsequent singles in part selected through feedback and what more open format stations may have been playing, especially in the rock field.

Singles often were songs signficantly different from the rest of the album, which could lead to some feeling of “bait and switch”, as an act might try to appeal to a more commercial audience to get airplay, hoping to hook them onto a more experimental or less commercial music type through the rest of the record.

Even Trent Reznor knows the power of a single, and pretty much every one of his recordings had at least one “single” song. Often those singles were somewhat different from the rest of the recording. Closer is a great example of a single (release as Halo 9) which didn’t exactly match up to the rest of the record, it was signficantly more commercial and easily accepted on a superficial level by a wide audience.

Led Zeppelin, kings of rock, did the same thing. Every album had a single, every album had a classical blues song. Every album had a “big piece” on it, and every one had a ballad. That single sold the rest of it solidly.

Yes, even back in the day, the proverbial “mix tapes” were made (everyone had them), but true fans would listen to the artist from one end of the album to the other, discussing the relative merits of the A side to the B side. Was the power of Zeppelin 4 in the A side powered by Rock n Roll and Stairway to Heaven, or the more sublime Going to Califonia and When The Levee Breaks ruling the B side?

Perhaps Mike you might want to ask your poster children why they don’t just release a new song every month, and why they want and stack them up in albums, when they clearly do not have to anymore.

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