Tales of Long Tail's Death Greatly Exaggerated (Guest Post)

Tracy Maddux.

(Photo: Courtesy of Tracy Maddux)

Tracy Maddux is the CEO of CD Baby, which provides distribution, monetization, and promotion tools to over 350,000 artists.

Many in the music industry criticize the concept of the Long Tail because they believe the tail is thinning or simply because they think the idea of selling fewer titles of more albums is bad for business. Some believe that a select group of tastemakers should continue to choose repertoire and only push those selected recordings to a mass market. Others criticize the Long Tail because they decided it did not come true fast enough.

When you look at the music industry from the perspective of an artist who is just starting out, many of the traditional paths to making money are just not accessible. It shouldn’t be up to the established industry to decide who should succeed. It’s up to fans.

The Long Tail represents the true spectrum of music, not just the select few artists the mainstream system considers “marketable.” Music fans are tired of cookie cutter music and our research shows they are increasingly spending their money on indie music. Not only are new industry players creating a more sustainable system for some artists, but, together, we represent the true triumph of the Long Tail. Music that had no access to the market in the old system can thrive. Artists that don’t fall into the spectrum of "popular music" can earn a living.

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New Music Seminar visionary Tom Silverman put forth the idea that the music industry can be a $100 billion per year industry. I think it’s absolutely possible, because we see growth in both traditional and new avenues of monetization growing fast. We must create opportunities for music fans to financially support musicians, and for musicians to access and develop these additional streams of revenue.

It’s up to any individual who wants to find self-expression in music to decide whether to make it available to the rest of humanity. The technology for artists to make their own recordings has become hyper-available. The Pandora’s box of easier content creation is open. Should the music industry ignore, fight, or foster it?

The era of choice for the music fan has not yet peaked. As marketing guru Seth Godin puts it, “The epic battle of our generation is between the status quo of mass and the never-ceasing tide of weird.” Choice is where today’s trend of easier content creation and the advent of new models of consumption meet. These two trends, working together and fostered in the independent music scene, are good for both expression and consumption.

Recent reports about global recorded music industry sales trends do not align with what we are seeing in the pool of the 350,000 independent artists we distribute. While the IFPI reports that overall global recording sales fell by 3.9% in 2013, that was not our artists’ experience last year as evidenced by the following data. IFPI also reports overall global digital revenues climbed by 4.3%, in spite of a 2.1% decline in download revenues. At CD Baby, we experienced a triple digit increase in subscription revenues offsetting falling growth in downloads, netting an increase in overall digital revenue by over 10%. We are ahead of the curve on subscription as a growing revenue stream because people want choice, and airplay on the Internet puts fans in the programming seat.

Our sales of physical media (CDs, vinyl) bucked the trend even more, growing by 12.4% in 2013, while IFPI reports that globally physical sales fell by 11.7%. Variety in format supports more diverse consumers, points of purchase, upsells, and opportunities for fan engagement.

In addition, independent artists are “turning on” new revenue streams as the new industry introduces tools to let them monetize YouTube and other sync opportunities, and make it easier for songwriters to register their works with the PROs and start participating in publishing revenues, tools that used to only be available to the upper echelon of composers.

The head of the Long Tail starts in the Tail. There wasn’t a market for artists like Ingrid Michaelson, Mary Gauthier, or Joe Purdy until they created it using D.I.Y. platforms to get started. You have to start somewhere. This story of starting on one of these new platforms  and advancing a successful career has repeated thousands of times.

Many conversations about the industry break artists down into two groups: those good enough to be on a label, and those who aren’t. In those conversations, it really has nothing to do with “how good” they are, but whether the artist can make a platinum hit that will recoup the massive cost of promotion. That leaves an enormous amount of amazing, diverse music that the old system classifies as “not worth it.” Not only are those artists worth it, but, in the Internet age, music fans are seeking and discovering this music. To ignore the Long Tail is to ignore a sizable chunk of the future of the music business.

 

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