Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Dark Side of the Long Tail

The other week I read this article on LinkedIn, by Anita Elberse at Harvard Business School, which cites figures saying the top 1% of performing artists account for 56% of concert revenues. It was interesting timing, as just a day or two after the article was published, Nigel Godrich and Thom Yorke from Atoms for Peace said they were pulling their music from Spotify, because they say the music-streaming service screws musicians, particularly up-and-coming ones.

I talked about Chris Anderson's second book, Free, a couple of months ago, but I still haven't gotten around to reading his first, The Long Tail (in which he coined the phrase). Nevertheless, the book's subtitle - Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More - gives a good idea which side of this debate Anderson falls on. And in fact, Elberse's disagreed with him on this before, so this is all clearly a long-running argument that I'm getting ready to stick my oar into.

I wasn't entirely surprised when I read Elberse's article, or about Godrich and Yorke's Spotify protest. I've read elsewhere (can't remember where, unfortunately) that iTunes is actually the best-paying digital market for artists - they make something like a hundred times more in royalties and so forth on iTunes than they do on services like Spotify. And for all the talk of long tails, it makes sense to me that, per Elberse, artists like Madonna would still command a larger share of the market than all of the bands who, just a few years ago, wouldn't have had any sort of distribution at all.

This probably comes down to how consumers react to choice. If you're looking on Ticketmaster's website for a concert to go to, you'll be confronted with a page full of artists you've probably never even heard of, with the odd familiar name sprinkled in. Too many choices like that means your brain shuts down and you lose all desire to make a decision; or in other words, screw all these guys, I'm going to see Justin Bieber.

On Spotify, meanwhile, try as they might to improve recommendation engines and stuff like that, your best bet for finding something to listen to is to search by artist or album name, and you can only search for artists whose names you already know. Which means that you have to be the proverbial informed customer - but who has the time for that? Or, once again in other words: screw all these guys, I'm listening to Coldplay.

Maybe that's all glib. But my point is, while digital music is undeniably a big step forward in allowing unknown bands (or authors, if you want to talk about publishing) to get their work out without going through the traditional gatekeepers, just being allowed on the shelves isn't enough to move units. And even marketing campaigns can't fix everything - if you're only big in Minnesota, that's a step forward, but you're still competing with established artists who are big everywhere.

All of which is to say, the long tail is an extremely useful meme when talking about categorizing things (you have your top five sellers, and then your ten thousand others), but with apologies to Chris Anderson, I still don't see it as the future of business, unless somebody figures out how to control a large enough portion of the long tail. And then by definition you're no longer part of the long tail anyway.