Files shared on P2P services skew more toward hits than had been previously believed, according to a preview of a research paper on the long tail of music's black market. The study was done by PRS for Music chief economist Will Page and Eric Gardland from media tracking company BigChampagne. The study was previewed in the April 16 edition of Music Ally's The Report.

Said Page of the study, which will be debuted at the Great Escape Music Convention in Brighton, England next month.

It's early days, but it does appear that more tracks are actively swapped on P2P than are sold in the legal market, but the actual distribution remains very hit heavy, skinny tail.

Said Garland:

The reality is that the global file sharing phenomenon is completely unlike iTunes or any of the other online music shops. Free MP3 downloading preceded the paid marketplace on internet, and continues to be a real challenge to the market. The exchange of unlicensed MP3s is a formidable competitor to internet sales -- in fact, it dwarfs the paid offerings. ... File sharing communities are the domain of the unreleased, the so-called out of print, live tracks, odds and ends. If it's been recorded, and anybody anywhere has ever wanted it, it is likely to be freely available somewhere online.

The hit-heavy shape of a distribution curve goes counter to traditional beliefs about the ability of the Internet to shift demand for hit titles toward the niche titles that have limited physical distribution. But today, the shape of the long tail - and its value - is being reconsidered by economists. Last summer, Harvard Business School's Anita Elberse raised eyebrows when her article "Should You Invest in the Long Tail?" that she found hits to be even more popular online. Some people dappled in niche content, she found, but they still favored the popular titles that mainstream consumers favored.

Page has studied the long tail for a few years. In an interview after the Telco 2.0 Executive Brainstorm(pdf), Page explained some of his findings from a study of year of digital music sales data for the MCPS PRS Alliance's 50,000 songwriters and 5,000 publishers.

...we found that only 20% of tracks in our sample were 'active', that is to say they sold at least one copy, and hence, 80% of the tracks sold nothing at all. Moreover, approximately 80% of sales revenue came from around 3% of the active tracks. Factor in the dormant tail and you're looking at a 80/0.38% rule for all the inventory on the digital shelf.

Finally, only 40 tracks sold more than 100,000 copies, accounting for 8% of the business. Think about that -back in the physical world, forty tracks could be just 4 albums, or the top slice of the best-selling "Now That's What I Call Music, Volume 70" which bundles up 43 'hits' into one perennially popular customer offering! This chart really drove home the theme of the presentation: what does the 'long tail' actually mean, and for whom? If you're a for-profit aggregator, it means one thing, if you're an individual copyright holder, it means another. Again, this is something the debate has largely overlooked to date, yet everyone 'down here on the ground' increasingly recognizes it.