Digital Audio Insider -- the economics of music and other digital content

  digital audio insider


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.

My personal website has links to my LinkedIn and Google+ pages and you can send e-mail to david [at] thelayaways [dot] com.

If you enjoy this site, please consider downloading a Layaways track or album from iTunes, Amazon MP3, Bandcamp, or eMusic. CDs are available from CD Baby and Amazon.


Analog Industries
Ars Technica
Brad Sucks Blog
Broken Record
Digital Music News
Duke Listens
Future of Music Coalition Blog
LA Times Technology Blog
The ListeNerd
MP3 Insider
Music Ally
Music Machinery
Music Think Tank
The Music Void
New Music Strategies
Online Fandom
Pakman's Blog
Rough Type
Virtual Economics

The Big Picture
Core Economics
The Long Tail
Marginal Revolution
The Undercover Economist

17 Dots
Shake Your Fist
Sounds Like the 80s
Unleash the Love

January 2006
February 2006
March 2006
April 2006
May 2006
June 2006
July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007
February 2007
March 2007
April 2007
May 2007
June 2007
July 2007
August 2007
September 2007
October 2007
November 2007
December 2007
January 2008
February 2008
March 2008
April 2008
May 2008
June 2008
July 2008
August 2008
September 2008
October 2008
November 2008
December 2008
January 2009
February 2009
March 2009
April 2009
May 2009
June 2009
July 2009
August 2009
September 2009
October 2009
November 2009
December 2009
January 2010
February 2010
March 2010
April 2010
May 2010
June 2010
July 2010
September 2010
October 2010
November 2010
December 2010
January 2011
February 2011
March 2011
April 2011
May 2011
June 2011
July 2011
August 2011
September 2011
October 2011
November 2011
December 2011
January 2012
February 2012
April 2012
May 2012
June 2012
August 2012
October 2012
November 2012
December 2012
January 2013
February 2013
March 2013
June 2013
August 2013
February 2014
March 2014
September 2014
December 2014
March 2015
October 2015
November 2015
December 2015
October 2016
May 2017

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, 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, 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.) 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 and tagged, someone will hear it. Perhaps this is simply a testament to the popularity of 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.


link 3 comments e-mail listen to the Layaways on Spotify

More Digital Audio Insider: Newer Posts Older Posts

Subscribe:   RSS Feed

Add this blog to, Digg, or Furl. Follow David Harrell on Google+.

The Digital Audio Insider Twitter feed:
    Apple stock analysis

    Digital music jobs: Looking to hire? Looking for a job? Check out the digital audio insider job board.

    Popular Posts

    A Long Tail Experiment
    By the Numbers: Using Statistics to Quantify Audience Devotion Owes Me Sixty Cents
    An Interview with Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven
    Price Elasticity of Demand for McCartney
    Sony and eMusic: What I Missed

    The Digital Pricing Conundrum series:
    Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four


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

    <a href="">Joy To The World by The Layaways</a>

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

    "Perfect listening to accompany whatever holiday preparations you may be making today." -- Bag of Songs

    O Christmas Tree - free mp3 lyrics and song details
    Away In A Manger - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, iTunes, Amazon MP3, or Bandcamp. Listen to free streams at

    album cover art from The Space Between

    <a href="">Keep It To Yourself by The Layaways</a>

    "...about as melodic and hooky as indie pop can get." -- Absolute Powerpop

    "Their laid-back, '60s era sounds are absolutely delightening." -- 3hive

    "...melodic, garage-influenced shoegaze." -- RCRD LBL

    Where The Conversation Ends - free mp3
    January - free mp3
    Keep It To Yourself - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, iTunes, Amazon MP3, or CD Baby, stream it at or Napster.

    album cover art from We've Been Lost

    <a href="">Silence by The Layaways</a>

    "The Layaways make fine indie pop. Hushed vocals interweave with understated buzzing guitars. The whole LP is a revelation from the start." -- Lost Music

    "Catchy Guided by Voices-like rockers who lay it on sweetly and sincerely, just like Lionel Richie." -- WRUV Radio

    Silence - free mp3 lyrics and song details
    The Long Night - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, Amazon MP3, or iTunes, stream it at, Napster, or Rhapsody.

    album cover art from More Than Happy

    "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

    Let Me In - free mp3
    Ocean Blue - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, Amazon MP3, or iTunes, stream it at, Napster, or Rhapsody.

    More Layaways downloads:

    download the Layaways at eMusic download the Layaways at iTunes

    the layaways website