…or maybe the Musical Long Tail is partially hidden…

Just a handful of the thousands of self-released albums in my collection.
Just a handful of the thousands of self-released albums in my collection.

In my previous post, I reflected on the growing disparity of revenue earned by musicians through the traditional channels of recordings and live concerts. It seems that we’re seeing things skewed towards Superstars earning a larger proportion of the economic pie over time–and by some accounts it’s a larger proportion of a smaller economic pie as traditional labels and concert venues show declining returns.

This all seems to indicate that the Long Tail doesn’t really exist, or at least, is nowhere the size that some have theorized which implies that it is much more difficult for musicians to earn money.

But since I’ve been blogging about Sampling bias recently, let’s take a different look at this.  Going back to the piece quoted in the previous post we have “the top 1% account for 77% of all artist recorded music income.” As I said in my post, Who has the time to listen to 75,000 CDs anyway?, there’s a breakdown of the proportion of sales per release:

Not only were fewer albums released, but the weakest sellers took up a smaller share of new release sales. The 60,000 titles that sold from 1 to 100 units represented 0.7% of all sales from titles released in 2010. In 2009, 0.9% of sales came from the 80,000 titles that sold from 1 to 100 units. So there were quite a few new albums that sold fewer than ten units.

Put another way, the 60,000 new releases that sold 100 or fewer units averaged just 13.3 units per title.

These numbers reflect commercially released albums which are officially tracked as they have UPC barcodes which facilitate sales, especially now as we’re in a digital age.  These sales can be tracked relatively easily. As I mentioned in that post, though, there are the “Non-sanctioned” Albums of self-releases or DIY label releases which hearken back to the demo making aesthetic. The image I posted is a small sampling from my own collection of releases which I’ve bought from artists at shows–all of which do not have a bar code so aren’t typically found in retail outlets (either brick and mortar or digital).

When I was most active in the underground experimental scene I would regularly pick up hundreds such releases a year whether through trading, purchasing, or as “gifts.” I actually ran my own experimental music label and all of the 30 or so releases I put out were of this sort.  I’ve also released roughly 40 albums as Noiseman433 through various DIY labels around the world which also fell into this category.  Usually released in limited quantities, and often with hand-made “artsy” packaging.

As you can see from the image above there are a few cassette tape releases and one 7 inch record. These older media have made a come-back with underground artists as they are rarer media which adds to the collectibility of the release. About a dozen of my label’s releases were cassette tapes, and a handful of my noise releases were on cassette tape.

So of the tens of thousands of releases which can be tracked and which sold from 1 to 100 units, we could conceivably estimate many tens of thousands more which probably sell in a similar range (usually by design because of the limited quantities). I wouldn’t be surprised if the ratio of high selling tracked releases to low selling tracked releases is comparable to the ratio of low selling tracked releases to low selling non-tracked releases, which could mean that the long tail might be quite a bit bigger than the MIdia study indicates.

Also, while the DIY label or the individual artist may incur all the production costs of the release, given the lack of a middleman in most cases, and the lack of a need to compensate other folks normally involved in the recording and post production of the album, the artist likely sees a bigger return on each album than what would normally be had by a traditional commercial release. As many of theses types of releases also often become the currency in a trading market, even if we could track sales, this would surely skew what actual moved units are.

To put this back into the context of sampling bias in discussions of classical music, since much of the freelance market for classical music happens well outside the trackable concert halls with ticket sales of the large organizations, we’re hardly in a position to talk about any ultimate decline in the art form. The only way to do so is to continually reference a small subset of the whole field and use it as indicative of the whole industry.


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