What would happen if a never-before-digitized song was quietly put online by a member of a long-disbanded rock band? Would people find and listen to the song, proving that long tail music will eventually find a listener? Or would it go unnoticed?

David Harrell, currently of the band The Layaways and the keeper of the Digital Audio Insider blog, decided to run an experiment. He uploaded to Last.fm a song from a previous band that was only released on cassette. None of the band’s songs are currently for sale, and Harrell does not believe any of the songs ever found their way online. It’s just about a perfect test song.

Eight months later, the song amassed 50 streams by 30 listeners. One person streamed the song ten times and added it to a playlist. Harrell does not know how many times the song was downloaded because Last.fm does not provide that information.

Since Last.fm allows songs to be tagged, people found the song because of the descriptive tags Harrell included when he uploaded the track. While he goes out of his way not to read too much into the results of his experiment, Harrell does believe any track that is uploaded and tagged will find a listener. “Perhaps this is simply a testament to the popularity of Last.fm and how its tag-based streaming radio service works,” he writes. Keep in mind, however, that Harrell is a rock musician, and Last.fm subscribers have proven to be quite fond of rock music. Had he uploaded a polka track, he might have had different results.

Consumers’ willingness and ability to sample obscure and unpopular music is an unsettled controversy. The themes of Chris Anderson’s book “The Long Tail” were embraced by not only the digital elite but popular culture as well. But, Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School, argued businesses need not shy away from investing in hits. Research by Will Page and Eric Garland has found that P2P traffic closely mirrors that of actual purchases, indicating consumers will still seek out popular music even when able to choose from unlimited niches. In “The Long Tale?” I described the shifts in music purchases – album sales had become less hit-centric while individual tracks had become more dominated by a small number of hits. Last year, The Economist found a continued prevalence of hits in an increasingly digital world.

Does Harrell’s experiment confirm or reject the themes of “The Long Tail”? It depends on your point of view. That a song by an obscure band received 50 streams by 30 listeners could be viewed as proof that search and cataloging technologies can help any artist find an audience. Those listens may be few and far between, but they do represent a shift of attention away from more popular artists.
Or, as Harrell points out, this experiment could be viewed as proof that an artist residing in the long tail are lost amidst a growing amount of never- or infrequently heard music. Even though his song doesn’t suffer from a total lack of total anonymity, Harrell understands the difficulty in getting listeners’ attention.

Writes Harrell:

[D]espite 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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