Saturday, April 26, 2008

Can the "long tail" save music?

The traditional record industry is in upheaval, as CD sales slide and illegal downloading continues to climb. Some artists, such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, have been able to make money by taking their music directly to their fans -- offering it on their websites for whatever fans want to pay, and trying to make a living from related products such as boxed sets or signed cover art. But can connecting with fans directly replace the traditional record label model?

Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired magazine, has been researching whether it's possible for artists to make a living from what his Wired colleague Chris Anderson calls "The Long Tail" -- in other words, the niche markets that exist outside of the mass market, which the Web makes it possible to tap. Kelly admits the Long Tail is "a decidedly mixed blessing for creators," however. The phenomenon doesn't raise the sales of most artists by very much, he says, but it does add "massive competition and endless downward pressure on prices."

At the same time, Kelly's theory (which will become part of an upcoming book called The Technium) is that it should be possible for artists to succeed provided they can come up with what he calls 1,000 True Fans. If each of these fans either pays for music or buys other content that is worth $100 or so a year, then an artist should be able to make a living, he argues -- not become filthy, MTV-style rich, but at least make a living. But is that really possible?

On his blog, Kelly describes a letter he received from Robert Rich, a musician who specializes in what's called "ambient" or "trance" music, which is a decidedly niche market. Rich, who had a couple of albums that sold well in the 1980s, says that he has been able to support himself by marketing directly to his loyal fans -- but just barely. And, he says, it is a lot of work, since he has to do all of the technical and production work (he can't afford to pay someone) and then has to drive himself around to play for small groups of fans here and there.

"If it weren't for the expansion of the Internet and new means of distribution and promotion, I would have given up a long time ago," Rich says in his letter. "In this sense, I agree wholeheartedly that new technologies have opened the door for artists like me to survive. But it's a constant struggle." The musician describes how he is "my own booking agent, my own manager, my own contract attorney, my own driver, my own roadie. I sleep on people's couches, or occasionally enjoy the luxuries of Motel 6."

In the end, Rich says, he continues because he is devoted to his art, and says that while the Internet makes it somewhat easier, the end result is the same as it has been for artists for generations: "Starving artists will probably remain starving, although perhaps with new tools to dig themselves a humble shelter; and as in the past, some of these artists will use those tools to build sand castles or works of great art."

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