The Long Tail Isn’t So Long After All

mariasci | December 22, 2008 3:30 am

Two British researchers have published a study rebuking the “Long Tail” idea that in the digital economy, you can survive by selling less copies of each item, yet more variety of total items. Instead, they found that “more than 10 million of the 13 million tracks available on the internet failed to find a single buyer last year.” The British researchers also found that “for the online singles market, 80 per cent of all revenue came from around 52,000 tracks” and for albums, 85% did not sell one lousy copy all year. “I think people believed in a fat, fertile long tail because they wanted it to be true,” one of the researchers said. The idea’s original author, Chris Anderson, said that the new study consisted of only one data set and so proved nothing, although a data set consisting of all the music available for sale on the Internet would seem to be a reasonably significant one. But how about those people bullish on online music specifically? Surely they must be troubled by this news, right?

Nope! Hypebot’s reaction:

Does this meanthat we should all be back to chasing hits? No, but if correct, the study should remind us that making music available for sale is the beginning and not the end.

Ah, that must be the problem: no one bought those 10 million tracks because they just weren’t marketed right. If only they had some sort of company that could market and promote them without the artists having to pay them money up front! Or, I guess, if only the artists weren’t so lazy making music and touring and working day jobs when they should be friending people on MySpace.

This should be a huge story for everyone that talks about digital music, because this is exactly the kind of evidence that’s been missing from the debate. We know what major labels do wrong, and we know what people think should be done differently. But we don’t know whether that works. This makes sense, in a way; it’s easy for a blog to reprint a press release for a new company whose model conforms to your ideological expectations, but it’s hard to do the legwork to see if those companies are actually successful months or years down the line. It’s easier just to assume that what you think will work will work, or if it doesn’t, to assume this is due to the big evil major labels manipulating things. But this is not how the world works. If the new model is better, it should be beating the supposedly failed establishment, and if we care about music, we should be asking ourselves honestly if the new model is actually working by checking back on things and assessing their success. If they’re not selling music, then they’re not working. Period.

Much of the new digital economy seems to be new ways to distribute music, not new ways to make music. Widgets that stream, unlimited download services, pop freeganism, yes; but the content is supposed to make itself magically. In creating our new model, we’ve taken the myth for the truth, assumed that the heroic lone artist is how music actually get made, when of course, it’s not. A single artist can always make music on their own, for free. But that’s not how most music gets made, and without an actual revenue stream, which can only come from selling music (even if the “long tail” exists, at that end of it no one would be able to actually turn a profit from touring), then all of that is lost.

Long Tail theory contradicted as study reveals 10m digital music tracks unsold [The Times via The Daily Swarm] [Photo of a long-tailed tit via Sergei Yeliseev]