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 MusicianCoaching.com 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
    Joel, 25 Jan 2010 @ 9:45am

    I think Silverman is missing the point of the internet -- the important line should not be which artists sold 10,000 records or more, but rather which artists were able to make a living (i.e., have their band/music be their full-time job) outside of the major label system. With the internet, it is incredibly difficult to get the word out on your music and to reach 10,000 potential customers (so having hundreds of thousands of impressions). That being said, even if you only find 1,000 true fans who will buy your album, you both a) get a larger cut of the profits without the label, and b) can leverage that interest into additional sales. I'd be willing to bet that while, even today, it is difficult to reach 10,000 sales without a major label, you can make a living with alternative business models.

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