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Digital Audio Insider is David Harrell's blog about the economics of music and other digital content. I write from the perspective of a musican who has self-released four albums with the indie rock band the Layaways.

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April 19, 2010

A Long Tail Experiment
by David Harrell
A Long Tail Experiment
Last spring, some research by Will Page (PDF), the in-house economist for PRS (the U.K. equivalent of BMI and ASCAP), received a ton of coverage. Page believed his numbers refuted the "Long Tail" theory, at least for music consumption. The sales figures for the U.K. iTunes store revealed that -- unlike the trends observed by Chris Anderson of the listening habits of Rhapsody subscribers -- the majority of tracks in the iTunes catalog had never been purchased. At the time, arguments were made about the shape of the sales curve and whether or not Page was using the same definitions as Anderson. (Page seemed to imply that the theory predicted that 80% of sales would come from the tail, while Anderson gave a much smaller percentage.) These details aside, the fact remains that Page's research revealed that most digital tracks weren't purchased, a seeming contradiction of the main music example in Anderson's original 2004 Wired article and his subsequent book.

Yet it's not difficult to reconcile these results -- Page and Anderson might both be right. Keep in mind that the music example Anderson gave in the original 2004 Wired article was based on data from a Rhapsody catalog that included less than 1 million tracks. Page examined sales from a catalog of more than 10 million tracks, so it's really no surprise that he saw a much larger number of "dormant" tracks.

The other thing to consider is that there's probably a huge difference in usage within a subscription service vs. sales within a download store. If you're a subscriber to Rhapsody, Napster, or Netflix, there's no additional cost associated with any individual song or film you choose to consume. Indeed, Anderson suggests so in a response to the initial reports of the Page research:
It could be that the pay-per-track model discourages risk-taking and exploration of new music, which is not an issue with Rhapsody, which uses an all-you-can-eat subscription model.
While eMusic phased out the "all you can eat" component of its subscription service years ago, the behavior its subscribers seems closer to that described by Anderson than that observed by Page. An early 2009 press release, which referred to the PRS study, touted the fact that approximately 75% of the eMusic catalog was downloaded at least once in the prior year.

Although tangential to the dormant track conundrum, another issue with the "Long Tail" theory for music sales is that it has too frequently been misinterpreted to imply that artists could somehow expect to earn money from "Long Tail" sales. Anderson, of course, never made that claim -- he suggested that aggregators of content (retailers and service providers such as Amazon.com, iTunes, eMusic, Netflix, etc.) were the ones who would profit from the Long Tail phenomenon, not the individual creators of that content. As I've noted here before, a single play by a Rhapsody subscriber might be enough to include the track in the Long Tail of music consumption, but that single play results in a payment of approximately one cent, hardly enough to think of as actual income.

Back in August, I started a Long Tail experiment of sorts. My current band, the Layaways, is something of a Long Tail act, in that while relatively unknown, we've consistently sold something, if only a few downloads, every month for the past five years. But I was curious to see what might happen with a music act without any Internet footprint, a defunct band with no website and no material currently for sale in any form -- CD, mp3, etc.

So I uploaded a single song from one of my very first bands to Last.fm, making it available for streaming and free download. This group existed in the dark ages before mp3s and music blogs, and we released three "cassette only" albums (we were too broke to release anything on CD or vinyl!). While we sold a few hundred cassettes at gigs and local record stores, as far I could tell, nothing from them had ever made it online in any form. I tagged the track a few times with appropriate descriptions and waited to see what happened.

Nearly eight months later, 30 listeners have heard the song 50 times. The most-frequent listener of the song has played it 10 times and it has been added to one playlist. (I'm not disclosing any details about the song or linking to here because I'd like to keep the experiment running.) Last.fm doesn't supply stats on how many times a free track has been downloaded, so I don't know how many of those listeners liked the song enough to acquire a free mp3 version of it.

I'm not sure if this result proves anything about the Long Tail -- the only thing I can safely say is that if something is uploaded to Last.fm and tagged, someone will hear it. Perhaps this is simply a testament to the popularity of Last.fm and how its tag-based streaming radio service works. The song I uploaded isn't available for sale anywhere, so I don't know if anyone would have actually paid for it. Besides, given how subjective musical tastes are, it's difficult to read that much into what happened with a single song. If an equally unknown song were deemed an undiscovered classic by the first few people to hear it, perhaps it might have taken off somehow, if those listeners were inspired to share or promote it.

But despite the relative "success" of my mystery song, one thing seems certain: The amount of available digital music has increased enormously since the original Long Tail article, and it will continue to expand each year. Unless the number of music listeners and their aggregate listening hours increase at a similar rate (I doubt they will), it seems likely that the both the number and percentage of dormant/unpurchased tracks will continue to increase as digital music catalogs grow.

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    THE LAYAWAYS

    Out Now -- "Maybe Next Year" -- The New Holiday Album:

    <a href="http://thelayaways.bandcamp.com/album/maybe-next-year">Joy To The World by The Layaways</a>

    "This is a sweet treat, deliciously musical without being overbaked for mass media consumption." -- Hyperbolium

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    "These are songs that you want to take home with you, curl up with, hold them close -- and pray that they are still with you when you wake up." -- The Big Takeover

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    More Layaways downloads:

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