Friday 15 May 2009

The "skinny tail" of music downloading

A new report from Will Page, Chief Economist of PRS for Music and Eric Garland, CEO of digital research group Big Champagne hopes to lay to rest the theory of the long tail in copyright when it comes to music consumption - pointing out that whilst it was first thought that the long tail could be applied to the digital music world - where 20% of products would provide 80% of sales and 80% of products provide the remaining 20%, when it comes to music its actually a very very 'skinny tail', and that illegal download sites just reflect the popular mainstream.

Page and Garland, who outlined their findings at the very civilized Great Escape conference in seaside Brighton on the 14th May, gave some interesting examples of the effect of both legitimate music industry practices and download sites in the digital sphere, pointing out that the Beatles sound recordings, which are not legally available anywhere in the digital realm, consistently top download charts. Using the fact that Lady Gaga's latest hit Poker Face which topped the UK's charts was illegally downloaded 388,000 times during one week of the Pirate Bay Trial alone, they said that consumer demands are now so narrow that if the charts launched today they would be probably be looking at a 'Top 14' rather than a 'Top 40' hit parade. It seems that illegal downloading sites provide such wide choice - and little if any information on new or complementary artists - the breadth of music available means that people do not have time or do not want to search for the tracks that they might like and instead restrict their searches to what they see in the media, and what their friends are listening to. This, says Page and Garland, rather debunks the theory that in the great new digital age consumers would feast widely across the massive long tail of sound recording culture. The pair give some interesting recent examples of the effect of illegal downloading and posed the question of why sales of U2's recent album were so much lower in weeks three, four and five after release than their 2004 offering How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb ? Saying that apparently it wasn't because "it was crap" as one wag in the audience suggested, Page and Garland pointed out that clearly illegal downloading was having a negative effect on legal sales but then so too were changing consumer habits - with some customers (legally) buying just one or two tracks - rather than the whole album.

I don't think the paper actually comes to any real conclusion as to what will happen, in fact I am not sure anyone in the music industry could predict what will happen next year let alone what business models will be workable in ten years, but the report concludes that "free streaming might be viewed as being in competition (or tension) with music downloading, or it can be considered the perfect complement. Regardless, the tandem rise of music hording and listening primacy signal an ugly potential economic consequence for the recorded music business: the further erosion of legitimate music sales" adding that "P2P networks are now, for better or for worse, part of the music market. But understanding these networks solely as places where opportunities are foregone until these networks are shut down may be clouding our ability not only to rationally assess what is really happening, but also to effectively construct a response. In essence, we may face a certain paradox of choice of our own as we consider our response to these networks. Such a reassessment of the marketplace and our response is an important direction for subsequent research".

My thanks to my fellow blogger Hugo Cox for pointing me in the right direction and for these handy links!

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