Finding The Long Tail In Music

from the it's-out-there dept

In the past we've had an ongoing discussion with some folks on this site concerning whether or not it's now a better time to be a musician than before the internet became central to everything music-related. We've argued that today there are more options and more opportunities for bands than ever, and that's only a good thing. It doesn't mean that every band will be a success or can make a living. That's never going to be true (and has never been true, either). Many will still fail, but there are more tools and opportunities that if you learn to embrace them, you can absolutely do much better than you ever could under the old system -- which required massive backing to become successful. It was the golden lottery ticket story of musical stardom.

Last week, we wrote a post about an interview with Tommy Boy Entertainment boss, Tom Silverman, claiming that just 14 unsigned artists "broke the obscurity line," -- which was defined as sales of 10,000 albums. Amusingly, three days after this post, I met Silverman on an airplane over the Atlantic... and only realized it was him when he started talking to the guy seated next to me about my post not realizing who I was (small freaking world). We had a brief, but quite enjoyable conversation, and while I see his point, I'm still not convinced his conclusion is correct on the issue of breaking artists (his view of business models, however, seems right on). Meanwhile, in the comments to our post, Peter Wells from TuneCore disputed Tom's numbers. Since then, both have expanded on the discussion.

Tom provided more details on the number of totally independent success stories (decreasing the sum from 14 to 12 due to the fact that they had mischategorized 2 of the bands) over at the site. He then went on to claim that the long tail doesn't seem to be working for the music business:
Clearly the ease of making and distributing music does not benefit "breaking" music. Breaking music requires mass exposure which requires luck or money or both. I can say with great authority that less new music is breaking now in America than any other time in history. Technology has not helped more great music rise to the top, it has inhibited it. I know this is a bold statement but it is true.
Certainly bold words, though they did not address my original criticism with the point -- which is that number of albums sold is a poor measure of "obscurity" (or non-obscurity, as the case may be). As I said then: "You don't have to sell albums to become well known, and just because you're well known, it doesn't mean you sell albums. It's not the best proxy for figuring this stuff out." This week, at Midem, musician Hal Ritson of The Young Punx put it much more succinctly: "Sales are not how you measure success any more. You figure out how to get as many people as possible to hear your music, and then you figure out if you're profitable." Also, I still think it's wrong to only count totally independent artists in this list, because many artists signed to labels (both indie and majors) may use new technology to help breakout (with or without massive support from their labels).

Either way, even beyond that, it looks like Silverman's numbers may be suspect. Peter Wells Jeff Price (from Tunecore) followed up Peter Wells' comment on our site with a super detailed post about the problems with Silverman's numbers -- which rely on Nielsen SoundScan data, which Wells Price notes is massively incomplete. He quickly names multiple artists who sold hundreds of thousands of tracks, which aren't measured by SoundScan, and suggests the real issue isn't that new artists can't break, but that the measuring system doesn't take into account how they break these days.

I have to say that Wells' Price's post is quite convincing. It's incredibly well-detailed and provides multiple examples of clearly successful (and hardly obscure) artists that aren't counted by Silverman's method. I still think that the points raised by Silverman about new business models in his original interview were dead on (and even he made the point that sometimes it made sense to release albums totally for free and use other ways of getting money -- which under his own definition would have made them impossible to "break out."). But it seems like there's an awful lot of evidence that our original assertion is still true: there are plenty of artists that are, in fact, breaking out thanks to new technologies -- and many are able to do so without a label. Whether or not it's "harder" to break out today due to increased competition may be another issue, but I'm not yet convinced this is a real problem.

Filed Under: breaking artists, data, long tail, music, peter wells, sales, soundscan, success, tom silverman
Companies: nielsen, tommy boy entertainment, tunecore

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  1. identicon
    Lonnie E. Holder, 27 Jan 2010 @ 6:55am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:


    I started with a rather easy point that is getting ignored by all the hyperbole and reasons why people should be able to find new music...which is where the problem lies.

    Go back to the basics of marketing:



    Now, let us say that there have traditionally been (arbitrary number) three advertising routes, 1, 2, and 3. Let us say that because of the longevity of those selling routes, they are well know. Furthermore, those routes require no action on the part of potential customers because routes 1, 2, and 3 will expose customers to music while they are performing other activities, which is quite ideal.

    Now, let us say that (arbitrary number) routes 4, 5, and 6 have now been developed to address potential customers. However, let us say that routes 4, 5 and 6 require focused attention by a customer rather than being something a customer will be exposed to while doing other activities.

    Customers accustomed to routes 1, 2, and 3 will be naturally resistant to making time to TAKE ACTION to FIND music rather than having music FIND THEM. They already have routines in their life, and routes 4, 5 and 6 require them to break those routines. Automatically, routes 4, 5 and 6 become de-prioritized, and may be so de-prioritized that they are not used.

    The problem for POTENTIAL SELLERS is to figure out how to get their music exposed to POTENTIAL BUYERS while POTENTIAL BUYERS are doing other things. Why? Let's do the math.

    There are several different kinds of POTENTIAL BUYERS (probably more than I will list).

    POTENTIAL BUYER 1 is a casual and occasional listener of music. POTENTIAL BUYER 1 will occasionally buy music when they hear something they like. They do not seek music. POTENTIAL BUYER 1 makes up X1% of the POTENTIAL BUYER population.

    POTENTIAL BUYER 2 is a casual and frequent listener of music, listening to music in the background while performing other tasks. POTENTIAL BUYER 2 may buy music if something is particularly interesting. POTENTIAL BUYER 2 makes up X2% of the POTENTIAL BUYER population.

    POTENTIAL BUYER 3 is a casual and frequent listener of music, listening to music in the background while performing other tasks. POTENTIAL BUYER 3 often buys music if something is particularly interesting. POTENTIAL BUYER 3 makes up X3% of the POTENTIAL BUYER population.

    POTENTIAL BUYER 4 is an avid listener of music, but most always while doing other things. POTENTIAL BUYER 4 always has the radio on, or a CD, or has a music station on the television while doing hobbies or working around the house. POTENTIAL BUYER 4 may buy music encountered via these other activities if the music is particularly good. POTENTIAL BUYER 4 makes up X4% of the POTENTIAL BUYER population.

    POTENTIAL BUYER 5 is an avid listener of music, but most always while doing other things. POTENTIAL BUYER 5 always has music playing in the background while working or doing hobbies. POTENTIAL BUYER 5 buys a lot of music heard while doing other activities and owns a sizable music collection. POTENTIAL BUYER 5 makes up X5% of the POTENTIAL BUYER population.

    POTENTIAL BUYER 6 is also an avid listener of music, but in addition to listening to music on the radio and television, does some searching for music on the internet or via other means when time permits. POTENTIAL BUYER 6 purchases most music based on music heard via traditional routes, represented by X6%, and some music by newer routes, Y1%.

    POTENTIAL BUYER 7 is also an avid listener of music, listening to music about equally between traditional routes and new routes. About half of POTENTIAL BUYER 7's purchases are made as a result of hearing music via traditional means, represented by X7%. The other half is made as a result of hearing music via newer routes, represented by Y2%.

    POTENTIAL BUYER 8 an avid listener of music, and does listen to music via traditional routes, but POTENTIAL BUYER 8 makes seeking out music a priority and finds most new music by newer routes, represented by Y3%.

    Now, music sold as a result of hearing via traditional routes is represented by:

    X1% + X2% + X3% + X4% + X5% + X6% + X7% = X total percent

    Music sold by newer avenues that require a listener to seek music rather than music finding them is represented by:

    Y1% + Y2% +Y3 = Y total percent

    Now, as I have pointed out time and time again, X total percent is much bigger than Y total percent. I have also pointed out that waiting for people to find you is rarely a good strategy. Some companies and products have "gone viral," as people like to say today, but most products have to get a ton of exposure to make that happen.

    I am quite surprised at your statements. You are the person who has time and again said that you need to connect with fans. Connect with fans is not equal to wait for fans to find you.

    There have been several posts that have discussed some of the ways that artists can make use of even newer routes to get their music exposed to people who might buy. Having music play on web sites I visit (like Techdirt) or from a popup is cute. EXPOSURE. Wow.

    My point seems so simple and yet everyone has it turned around that I have to TAKE ACTION TO FIND...fill in the blank. No, music is all around me. It is in commercials, on the radio, on television shows (to the point that the music played on a television show is described at the end of some shows with the name of the artist and title of their album and how to buy it). Wow. And the artists are almost always new artists. Wow.

    I will say this once more because it is worth saying, and I am merely repeating what you have said TONS of times:

    If you want to connect with fans, you have to get exposure. Waiting for them to come may work for a very small number of people, but for most people, the connection requires hard work by the artist. Waiting for people to find you on Pandora (or any other web site) is a short road to failure.

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