The death of the long tail?


longtaildeath400Music industry analysts MIDiA Consulting have recently produced a report entitled ‘The Death of the Long Tail: The Superstar Music Economy.’

The concept of the long tail model is based upon a broad spectrum of sales across a lot of different artists, rather than a large percentage going to a select few.

The system that was predicted to define the music industry in the digital age is now being reversed, in an unexpected trend leading back towards the dominance of superstars!

Chris Anderson defined the system in 2004 for Wired Magazine as follows:

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.

Here is a picture illustrating this idea:



However, MIDiA’s report indicates that both digital and physical music revenues are increasingly unevenly spread. The tragic thing about this observation it’s arrival after the perceived democratisation of the music industry due to digitalisation. Many consumers and artists alike assumed that increased access to both independent and signed musicians would lead to less power for the chart-topping few, who previously dominated radio or television airplay and were thus fed to the masses who had no other easy way of discovering different artists.

Contrary to these expectations, recent developments in the music industry mean that it is now being defined as a superstar economy – the opposite of a long tail system. Statistics show that the top 1% of artists are earning 77% of revenues. In spite of recent increases in overall revenue for musicians, this balance is disturbing – it means that there are millions of artists out there whose music is simply not making much money or progress on the musical map.

For example, the top 1 % of artists earned $300 million in 2013, while the other 99% was left with $90 million. As Stuart Dredge states in Music ally: “the $300 million is a larger amount of income shared among a smaller number of artists making the effect doubly impactful.”

Unfortunately, it seems that the old hierarchy has been maintained, and the gulf between superstars and working musicians is even wider than before. The huge increase in music that is distributed both physically and digitally merely serves to make the situation worse for those who are not in the top 1%, by increasing competition. What can we do about this? One good thing to remember is that it is not only signed musicians entering the top 1% – independent musicians have also entered the superstar ranks, via their own distributors and efforts. The evolution of streaming models and payment methods alongside alternative sources of income such as YouTube Monetisation, Sync Deals and Government Funding should mean that the long tail economy is able to bite back in future!