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
    Lonnie E. Holder, 26 Jan 2010 @ 6:49am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Mike:

    Really? If it takes you 30 seconds, it's taking longer than it should. Seriously. You go to the site, type in a single band that you love and you're good to go. Claiming it takes too much time is ridiculous.

    Mike, I will endeavor to give a try later this year. After I get my basement refinished.

    Except, I have to go there, on my computer, correct? Seems hard to do in my car or at work, where I listen to music the most. I cannot access Pandora at work.

    Um. Ok. You sound like someone complaining that bands don't put out 8-tracks any more. Really not sure what to tell you, but it does not support your point.

    lol...I never had an 8-track, and thought the format was kind of dumb. I did have multiple cassette players, but absolutely loved CD's.

    If you want to get Pandora on the go, it's available on a variety of mobile platforms that work quite well. I've used it in the car and it works great.

    I guess I will have to figure out how to do that.

    I should be able to access new music through pathways I currently use versus having to do something different. Radio is incredibly convenient because I always listen to music while I am driving.

    I mostly listen to podcasts when I drive, and it works great. I guess I'm just confused by what your issue is. There are tons of tools out there, and your complaint seems to be that they don't work, but what you really mean is you won't use them.

    I have never heard a podcast, and am clueless as to how access them. But, you see my point. I, and more than 90% of all adult Americans, continue to hear music most often on the radio. You can ignore the market opportunity represented by these people, or you can figure out how out how to creatively use modern technology to reach people, not have them reach you. The song that played on the web site is a cute idea. I am sure there are more. Just putting your music on Pandora and praying just seems like a poor way to get access to the billions of people not using Pandora (or any other internet site).

    I don't know what to say to that except no, the tools you don't use won't work for you. But they do work for plenty of others.

    True. However, I still represent the majority of the market. Worse, I love to buy music, and would buy more music, if I encountered music I enjoyed. I encountered that music in the past on the radio (though rarely, these days), and on MTV or VH1 (where have all the videos gone?). I still listen to the radio, but I don't even have time at home to watch MTV or VH1 any more.

    If you have a potential audience of 200 million people, but those people do not routinely seek music on the internet, how do you get the music to them? The question is simple. The answer requires creativity, if an artist wants to be successful.

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