Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Tail Tales

During a year-end blogathon at Slate featuring Jody Rosen, Ann Powers, and myself, Ann linked to a London Times piece that attracted a lot of attention. It purports to provide statistical refutation of Chris Anderson's long tail theory and support the truism that 80 percent of a retailer's profit comes from 20 percent of his or her stock. The whole thing's worth reading, but here's the nut:

A new study by Will Page, chief economist of the MCPS-PRS Alliance, the not-for-profit royalty collection society, suggests that the niche market is not an untapped goldmine and that online sales success still relies on big hits. They found that, for the online singles market, 80 per cent of all revenue came from around 52,000 tracks. For albums, the figures were even more stark. Of the 1.23 million available, only 173,000 were ever bought, meaning 85 per cent did not sell a single copy all year.

Since many critics find the long tail theory professionally comforting, you can see why they're batting this around. And before I go on it should be noted that what they're batting around is only a piece of, well, arts journalism. It's a report on a report on a report--the actual research will be published in book form, to what they authors hope will prove royalties-generating hoohah, later this year. Could be full of holes that are now invisible.

Let us assume, however, that it's not. One of the authors is an economist at Britain's largest performance rights organizations; I bet he has good data and am willing to assume he isn't lying about it. Instead, look at the figures in the excerpt again. Think about them not as percentages, but as raw numbers. The 80-20 rule is based on a brick-and-mortar model in which stocking, say, 100,000 different items is at best physically impractical. Yet what we're told is that 52,000 singles made not inconsiderable profits in the course of a year (might be a longer period of time, but it still doesn't much matter). In that same period, individuals purchased copies of 173,000 different albums. Percentagewise, not so impressive. As raw numbers, staggering--inconceivable two decades ago.

Pondering this, I called my friend and boss Tim Quirk at Rhapsody, a subscription music service that pays to reprint some of my reviews, and asked him for some numbers. He told me that Rhapsody has nearly 700,000 albums by some 260,000 artists in its library, and that, amazingly, some 90 per cent of them are accessed by somebody or other every month--maybe artists and their mothers, but somebody. Perhaps more significantly, 15,000 Rhapsody artists get what Quirk calls "solid play" every month, and another 35,000 or 40,000 significant play. Once again, look at the raw numbers. These aren't sales--just streams. But they are paid for--for $15 a month, Rhapsody subscribers get unlimited streaming privileges to the Rhapsody library. That means there are 50,000 musical artists with a significant fan base among Rhapsody subscribers.

Now another set of numbers--mine. My chief claim to fame as a critic is that since the Consumer Guide started in 1969 I've reviewed some 14,000 albums. That may not be a world record--staffers at the trades go through dozens a week--but it's a lot. Working 12 hours a day 365 days a year, it would take me two years to hear all of them again once. Yet those numbers pale against 50,000 artists with significant fan bases. Of course, I hear and reject maybe seven or eight times as many records (often for just three tracks or so) as I review--that's how I do my job. As a critic, I believe that many of those 50,000 artists aren't worth people's time--even allowing for the genres I have no use for (let's say that's 25,000 of them). I believe I can point people toward music they'll get more out of than the music they listen to. That's how it works for most critics. It's one reason we do what we do. That means I'm just as glad some of those 1.3 million albums don't sell piece one. I don't think they don't deserve to. But though I'm not entirely sanguine about the proliferation of choices, I'm glad the long tail is out there. Which it is.

Articles, Jan. 2, 2009

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