Using Chris Anderson's 2006 book The Long-Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, proponents have argued that the growth of long-tail online radio would destroy commercial radio.
Listeners would no longer be hostages of big commercial radio groups playing the same few songs.They could now break those shackles and find online radio stations that play their favorite music regardless of how obscure their taste in music might be.
We first raised doubts about the financial viability of long-tail radio in a January post, where we shared the findings of a study that showed that despite access to millions of different songs on sites like iTunes, the majority of people download the same few songs.
Since that post, more and more evidence has surfaced confirming our doubts.
Most people buy the same albums
Recent data on album sales suggest that greater access to a wider range of music doesn’t change the fact that most people buy the same albums.
At the recent New Music Seminar, it was revealed that of the 98,000 albums that sold at least one copy last year, only 2,058 sold 5,000 units, 1,319 sold 10,000 units, and only 85 sold 250,000 units.
In other words, 98% of last year’s albums sold fewer than 5,000 copies.
A very small proportion of the songs released each year are hits. At least one person out there loved each of those 98,000 albums, but only 1% of those albums were popular enough to become mega-hits.
Pandora continues to add users while playing few songs
Streaming services have song libraries in the millions. For example, Rhapsody has a library of over 9 million songs.
Pandora just celebrated reaching 60 million registered users. It manages to give the illusion that every one of those 60 million users can listen to a personalized music channel, just for them.
They manage to do it with a library of well under one million songs, less than one-tenth of the songs available on Rhapsody. On top of that, the library isn’t much bigger than when the service had half as many users.
A library well under one million songs serving 60 million users means that a large number of users have a personalized station that sounds pretty much like a lot of other people’s personalized station.
While Pandora generates mostly rave reviews, Indie music people are less than excited about their approach, complaining that Pandora doesn’t explore new music very deeply. And it’s true. Most new music submitted to Pandora for addition to their library is rejected.
Rather than exploit the long-tail opportunities of personalized radio, Pandora has taken a very conservative approach, playing the hits. The service’s growth seems to suggest that users don’t miss long-tail songs.
A Hit is a Hit is a Hit
One more confirmation of the myth of long-tail radio is the evidence that radio hits are download hits, which are social network hits, which are YouTube hits.
BigChampagne is a media tracking company. They decided that the traditional Billboard charts based on sales were obsolete. They decided to design a new chart that took into account many more measures of a song’s popularity, things like activity on social networks, YouTube video rankers, and any other place people were exposed to music.
Their Ultimate Chart would break the shackles of 20th century thinking and finally give us a 21st century tool to find out what today’s digital generation really likes. And what does the chart tell us? Did it finally confirm that music tastes are much more diverse than radio exposure would indicate?
According to NPR:
If indie music lovers were hoping that some of their standard bearers carried weight on the web that didn't translate to charts like Billboard, they're out of luck so far. It turns out the Ultimate Chart is not all that different from the actual Hot 100, though for the week ending July 13, Shakira's "Waka Waka" snuck on and Internet King Justin Bieber flexed his way into the top five. You can also search by artist; no surprises there either.
Shakira and Justin Bieber. Couldn't have seen that coming. So no long-tail on social networks either.
Has the Internet proved that tight playlists are a liability? No. Should radio stations continue playing a tight list and ignore those complaints that you play the same songs over and over? Yes.
There’s a reason big radio dogs wag a short tail. That’s what listeners want.