In a lengthy treatise at Billboard.biz, Glenn Peoples takes a microscope to the various theories of "The Long Tail" and arrives at some rather startling conclusions.
Drilling down beneath the surface of the big numbers (i.e. the decline in unit music sales, generally, over the past 5-10 years), Peoples finds all kinds of intriguing details that suggest that little has changed in terms of what people are spending money on. The "hits" still rule, the top 200 albums still dominate by a healthy margin, and the middle-to-end of the "tail" remains a neglected ghetto. Thus the conclusion:
Indeed, labels have continued to focus on finding hits for a reason: It's almost impossible for them to make real money any other way. (Even if a company or act decides to give away music in order to play live or sell other goods, they still need to reach a significant audience to make that pay off.) Elberse, for one, doesn't think content companies should focus on hits any less than they do now. "I don't think they need to go about their job any differently now than they did 10 years ago," she told Billboard. "They will still bet on a few projects more than other projects in their portfolio and hope they will become the winners that pay for the majority of things that don't make a profit."
It's going to take a study of equally epic proportions to find what weaknesses may lie in Peoples' conclusions, but I'll offer one theory (in the absence of any actual research): Perhaps commercial interpretations of "the long tail" — i.e. what sells -v- what doesn't sell — miss the point. Perhaps the real point is that what people are "consuming" out there on the end of the tail — is the stuff their listening to for free.
I know from my own experience that I'm listening to a LOT more music for free these days — via Lala.com, MySpace (yeah, uck), or individual artists websites (all legitimate, not illegal, sources). Some of those patterns are not going to show up in a study that is focused on what is generating measurable revenue. You can't do a survey of where the sales are and use that data to evaluate what is being consumed elsewhere that is not being paid for.
And then there is the comment a friend made over coffee today. "We keep searching for the new model. But things continue to drift and morph and evolve. Maybe the real problem is that looking for a 'new model' is itself a function of the 'old model.'
In which case, Peoples' conclusion — that we are not yet liberated from the tyranny of a hits-and-blockbuster driven culture — might be right. For now, anyway. Nobody ever said old models die easily — or fast.
Billboard Magazine runs an interesting article in this week's digital edition that attempt to challenge numerous myths about consumers' use of various digital media — and the consequent continued reign of various "old" media like broadcast radio.
The report, from some outfit that calls itself "The Council for Research Excellence" tracks "752 days of audio media usage in five markets… in the spring and fall of 2008" and concludes that "many myths about how people today listen to music" are false.
For example, the report challenges the myth that "People don't listen to the radio any more," by stating taht "Broadcast radio has of 79.1% "reach" and gets an average of 122 minutes per day from listeners."
Similarly, the myth that "Nobody listens to CDs any more" with the news that "CDs…are second in reach (to broadcast radio) and get an average of 72 minutes per day from users.
Other "myths" that get challenged are "Young people are over CDs," "The iPod has killed of the radio and CDs" and my own personal favorite (given the thrust of this whole blog), "The computer is the new stereo."
Now, admittedly, I'm no expert in statistics, but… what's the old saying? "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." In other words, given the right questions, and the right sample, you can get statistics to say damn near anything you want them to.
For example, take that first "myth" this report supposedly shatters, the one that says "People don't listen to the radio any more." I would be the first to admit that, despite my inclination toward listening to digital media on my computer or iPhone, I still listen to plenty of radio. But I almost NEVER listen to music on the radio. When my radio is on, I'm listening to something called "NPR."
I don't know if I'm typical, atypical, or leading the way the way between the two, but you can bet that when I'm listening to music, it's either my computer, my iPhone, or satellite radio (which according to this study accounts for only 7% of listening, -v- 51 percent for "broadcast radio." I listen to CDs only occasionally, and typically only when it's something that somebody has given me that is not available in any other format.
There are two things that intrigue me about this study, which I willingly share without any "statistical" evidence whatsoever to back them up.
The first is that the report is a snapshot — and given that the stats are over a year old, a rather faded snapshot at that. But what's really missing is any sense of the trends involved.
For example, to dispel the "myth" that "The computer is the new stereo" the report tells us that a mere "10.4% of sample use their computers to listen to a digital file while only 9.3% streamed audio…"
From my perspective, I think that's an encouraging number — particularly the notation that almost as many people are listening to streaming audio as are listening to downloaded files.
But what I want to know is: how many people listened to streaming audio 2, 3, or 4 years ago? I don't want to know that static statistic, I want to know the trend. That the number is rising or falling tells me more than what it is right this minute.
But what for me is most intriguing about this report is where it comes from. According to their website, the so-called Council for Research Excellence "consists
of 35+ senior research professionals who are all Nielsen media clients.
As such, we represent advertisers, agencies, networks, cable companies
In other words, the CRE is a research front for the mainstream, mostly analog, mostly broadcast media industry. Broadcasters and cable networks and their patrons and brethren. I don't see any digital companies in the mix. So why am I not surprised that the results would suggest that broadcasting reigns supreme and nobody is listening to anything digital (except CDs) ?
Hey, I've got an idea. I think I'll conduct my own scientific survey of the people in the coffee shop where I'm writing this post to see what they are all listening to through the buds in their ears.
The results are conclusive: Of the two people here who are sporting earbuds, both of them inform me that they are listening to… iTunes. That's 100% of our scientific sample listening to digital music — and using their computer as their stereo. And exactly 0% listening to broadcast or radio of any kind.
While I'm at it, I asked the barista what's playing on the sound system in the coffee shop. He had to think it over a minute. "I'm not sure, he said, "it's either iTunes or Pandora." And then his co-worker chimed in "iTunes is the ONLY thing I EVER listen to…"
Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are the charming duo who starred in the 2006 (!?) romantic musical "Once" and now perform together as "The Swell Season." Strict Joy is their second album together, and it's a marked improvement over the first, which was mostly the soundtrack from the movie.
The first album was notable for the raw, raging quality of Hansard's vocals, which tended to overpower Irglová's more delicate performances. That over-the-top quality derived from Hansard's roots as a street singer (as portrayed in the film) who had to rely on extended vocal histrionics to hold the attention of passersby. In fact, the vocals on that first album can be grating; after you've gotten past the novelty of hearing the songs from the movie again (like Falling Slowly), the album is difficult to listen to. My wife put it on in the car the other day and as soon as I heard the first notes I was, like, "urgh… not that one again…"
But this album is going to hold up to multiple listenings. Hansard seems to have matured as a singer; Where he unleashed great fury in the first album, on this one he holds back, content now to let the power of the songs surge from other sources while he plumbs his own vocals for a different kind of depth. The effect is most notable on The Rain and High Horse, where pulsing, multi-layered instrumentation provides a firm bedding on both Hansard and Irglová weave their intricate, contrasting harmonies.
This new album was featured a couple of weeks ago on NPR, and offered in its entirety, and it looks like you can still listen to it there. However, now the album is in release, and you can listen to it the first time for free via Lala.com or drop a buck and listen to it all you want. I'd say it's a buck well spent.
There is also a "Deluxe Edition" of Strict Joy that contains more than thirty tracks; it looks from the listing like some of them are live versions of songs from the movie and the first album. I haven't listened to that one yet, but you can get the "web album" at Lala for a whole $2.79.
I spend a good part of the day doing state-of-the-artists research on the web (aka "surfing"), and ran into the name of Matthew Ebel a couple of times as an example of somebody who has mastered the art of digital career building.
I first heard of Matthew earlier this year when a Twitter friend posted about Matthew's weekly Monday Ustream concert-in-his-basement webcasts. I tuned one in and liked it enough to buy the iTunes version of his CD "Goodbye Planet Earth." When I ran into his name today, I remembered I had that album and listened to it again.
I'd forgotten how much fun — and how well produced — "Planet Earth" is. If you haven't heard Matthew before, it's well worth a listen.
Yesterday, Google and a handful of music and tech types converged in a small auditorium in the basement of the old Capitol Records building in Los Angeles (you know, that cylindrical edifice that supposedly looks like a stack of records on a spindle?) to announce the details of the "Google Music" search service.
It's hard to imagine a more perfectly anachronistic location for such an event: Within a monument to music-as-a-product, yet another announcement heralding the end of that era.
Now speculation is rife re: what it really means. Is this new layer of search results a "game changer"?
The actual service is pretty straightforward, about what you'd expect Google to come up with, and it would appear that Google has chosen its partner services wisely. This video will give you some idea how it all works:
Essentially, what this new search function does is integrate a pop-up music player from either MySpace or Lala.com into Google's search results. That in of itself is probably not a big deal. It's convenient, but that doesn't make it a "game changer." Hell, the game changed ten years ago. Everything now is an incremental improvement toward the inevitable, and this new development certainly qualifies on that score.
The incremental improvement that the Google Music search layer offers is the likelihood that its convenience will get millions more users accustomed to the idea of having "access" to a vast music library instead of "owning" just a tiny subset of that library.
Both MySpace (with its new subsidiary, iLike) and Lala.com are included as the primary providers for the Google service; both provide streaming audio players that pop up in their own window once the results of a music-related search are delivered. There doesn't appear to be any particular logic as to which player comes up, and when asked at the event yesterday Google's spokesman would say only that the results are evenly distributed between the two partners.
Clearly the big winner in this new set up is Lala.com. With this single stroke, Lala suddenly achieves the sort of "household name" status that MySpace enjoys — despite MySpace being a hideous wasteland. Lala, by comparison, is elegant, clean, comprehensive and useful. And it can't hurt that this Google announcement comes on the heels of an alliance with that other Internet-swallowing monster, Facebook.
The big loser is the "30-second clip." Soon enough, any music service that continues to rely on song snippets as an enticement toward purchasing whole song downloads is going to start to wonder where their traffic went. Are you listening, iTunes? Do you see the handwriting on the wall yet, Amazon?
I'm always surprised when I get into a conversation about music (and by default nowadays, that means music the Internet), and discover that whoever I'm talking to has yet to discover the myriad and joyous functions of Lala. "I just changed your life," I tell them, and once they start using it, the reaction is something along the lines of "I should have known about this sooner."
Now everybody who searches for anything related music via Google is going to find out about Lala and begin to use it.
After the formal announcements and presentations by Google, MySpace/iLike and Lala, there was a panel discussion of sorts featuring a couple of artist types (Mos Def, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic) and a couple of label types (Syd Schwartz of EMI, Wendy Nussbaum of UMG, Steve Savoca of indie Domino Records). They all tried to wax meaningfully about what this portends for their businesses. They kept using words like "monetize." Because apparently they still think people are going to keep "buying" songs.
But Bill Nguyen — CEO and Co-founder of Lala — gave away more than he probably intended when he started waiving his iPhone around and bragging about Lala's pending mobile app (which is still in beta).
Asked by somebody in the audience "How do you monetize all this free stuff? Is there an option to buy?" Nguyen whipped out his iPhone and described how having a service like Lala makes "everything I just bought available to me…" What he neglected to say is that what he's "bought" is not the 99c download — but the 10c "web" track (and I will bet that becomes a flat-monthly fee sooner rather than later).
I don't think any of these panelists fully realize that they are jumping into an abyss without a parachute. This may not be the game changer, but the game is certainly changing — again — and this new service could be a big part of the end-game.
So it was most intriguing to hear Steve Savoca of Domino Records talking about the need to "change consumption behavior" — particularly after stating that "50% of our business is digital." Then he went on to praise the new Google service as "instant gratification… a zero friction music experience…"
Which makes me wonder if he's even listening to himself, or if he hears the real consequence of what he's saying. Because if this service takes hold, and if vast numbers of users begin to get comfortable with "access" to — instead of "owning" — music, that 50% of his business is going to shrink by a factor of 10. His dollars are about to become dimes. And then pennies. And then… poof.
Again, from the consumer perspective, this is all great. I'm hearing a lot more music now than I've ever heard. As Google's Marisa Mayer (VP Search Products and User Experience) correctly pointed out, more efficient search "means people find more things in same amount of time."
But the big behavior change that Google Music takes farther down the field (and remember, we're already well inside the 10 yard line…) is the expedience of streaming over downloading. With Lala's player jacked into the search results, a whole new legion of users is going start thinking "hey, for a dime a track, I can listen to TEN TIMES as much music as I can listen to by downloading MP3s…" and then the Dominos of the world are really going to start falling.
The most telling moment of the whole nearly-90-minute press conference came very close to the end, when one of the journalists in attendance asked the panel how the revenue from these transactions is going to be distributed.
Mos Def — who had been sort of mumbling and incoherent earlier in the proceedings — pointed to the 800 pound gorilla in the room: " "they don't want to talk about that," he said, clearly enough for the whole room to erupt in laughter. Nervous, gallows-humor laughter.
You have to give the label conglomerates some kind of credit; by getting on board with something like this, they at least acknowledge that the technology is now their master, and they are doing what they can to adapt (finally). You just have to wonder when they're going realize that the train is going over a cliff.
Enough already. I learned about some bands I've never heard of before at yesterday's press conference. Now I need to go "consume" some more free music…
One of the pivotal debates in this whole "Celestial Jukebox" reality is "what is recorded music worth in an era of infinite access?" The disturbing, if approximately correct answer is "something close to zero."
That's a great price point if you like listening to music – not such a great price point if you happen to be the poor creative shlub who is writing and recording the music.
So here is Techdirt's Michael Masnick explaining the economics of scarcity (physical products) -v- the economics of abundance (digital copies) in an easy to follow "UPS" animation, complete with circles and arrows:
Here’s an album and performer who grabs you from the first bars, from
the first verse. I think I’d heard the name then saw Charles
Alexander’s nod on Facebook to a Lefsetz commentary this morning. As usual, went
straight to Lala to see what the fuss is about. Follow the digital
bread crumbs… I’ve found my “new music fix” for the week.
I suspect we'll be hearing quite a bit about the Google+Lala.com alliance that is supposed to be officially announced sometime today. In the meantime, there are other angles on the Lala story that warrant some attention.
Yesterday Ars Technica offered up a nice recap of how Lala.com reorganized itself over the past several years to stand now at the threshold of game-changing status by virtue of its pending alliance with Google. But a bigger story lies in what is pending for the iPhone.
It appears the cloak of secrecy is being pulled back from the iPhone app that Lala.com has had in beta-testing for a couple of weeks now. And the Associated Press is reporting that the app will be touted as the tool that sends MP3 downloading into the ash-heap of digital music delivery:
"There's no downloading, no links to click on, it's just there," said Lala co-founder Bill Nguyen, who described the concept as the start of "the end of the MP3."
The advantage of having songs in MP3 files is that they can be downloaded and played on a variety of devices and computers. Meanwhile, streaming services pump music directly to a computer or mobile device, but not in a form that the user can store and play any time, even while offline.
Lala's iPhone app aims to get around that downside of streaming while taking advantage of the device's power as a music player (it has an iPod inside it, after all) and undercutting the prices charged on iTunes, where songs generally cost 69 cents to $1.29.
Once users pay 10 cents to have a song streamed from Lala, they can hear the track essentially any time. The songs that a user listens to most often in the app or designates as favorites are automatically loaded in the phone's memory, which is the step that allows them to be heard any time, even out of cell phone range.
That last provision sounds like something of a hybrid, and is not unlike what is already being attributed to the iPhone app for Spotify. That capability at least allows for the possibility that you're not always going to have access to decent wireless broadband (as I did not over the past five days in the West Carolina mountains; not even downtown Asheville, NC had decent 3G service. What's up with that??).
But based on my own experience, I don't think what Mr. Nguyen suggests is an exaggeration at all. Lala.com — especially once it gets on the iPhone — is a potential game changer, because it has the potential to get users accustomed to the idea that they don't need to "own" the music they want to listen to.
This is all great for us as end-users, but I still want to know what is going to happen to the already crumbling economics of the music business when "a dime a track" becomes the norm.
If getting on board with paid-for downloads was the light at the end of digital music tunnel, then Lala.com's dime-a-track model on the iPhone is the locomotive behind the light.
Oh, Garth Brooks is just gonna have a heart palpitating seizure when he starts getting wind of this news.