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.