The Death of the Long Tail

Long Tail CoverToday MIDiA Consulting is proud to announce the publication of an important new report: The Death of the Long Tail: The Superstar Music Economy.  The report is available free of charge to Music Industry Blog subscribers.  (If you are not yet a subscriber to this blog simply enter your email address in the box on the right hand column of the home page.)

The 21st century decline in recorded music revenues continues to send shockwaves throughout the music industry and although there are encouraging signs of digital-driven growth, the impact on artists is less straightforward.  Total global artist income from recorded music in 2013 was $2.8 billion, down from $3.8 billion in 2000 but up slightly on 2012.  Meanwhile artists’ share of total income grew from 14% in 2000 to 17% in 2013.  But the story is far from uniform across the artist community.

The Superstar Artist Economy

The music industry is a Superstar economy, that is to say a very small share of the total artists and works account for a disproportionately large share of all revenues.  This is not a Pareto’s Law type 80/20 distribution but something much more dramatic: the top 1% account for 77% of all artist recorded music income (see figure).


The concept of the long tail seemed like a useful way of understanding how consumers interact with content in digital contexts, and for a while looked like the roadmap for an exciting era of digital content.  Intuitively the democratization of access to music – both on the supply and demand sides – coupled with vastness of digital music catalogues should have translated into a dilution of the Superstar economy effect.  Instead the marketplace has shown us that humans are just as much wandering sheep in need of herding online as they are offline.

In fact digital music services have actually intensified the Superstar concentration, not lessened it (see figure).  The top 1% account for 75% of CD revenues but 79% of subscription revenue.  This counter intuitive trend is driven by two key factors: a) smaller amount of ‘front end’ display for digital services – especially on mobile devices – and b) by consumers being overwhelmed by a Tyranny of Choice in which excessive choice actual hinders discovery.


Ultimately it is the relatively niche group of engaged music aficionados that have most interest in discovering as diverse a range of music as possible.  Most mainstream consumers want leading by the hand to the very top slither of music catalogue.  This is why radio has held its own for so long and why curated and programmed music services are so important for engaging the masses with digital.

Music has always been a Superstar economy and there will always be winners and losers in music sales, with the big winners winning really big.  Over time the improved discovery and programming in digital music services should push the needle for the remainder artist tier but a) it will not happen over night and b) it will still have a finite amount of impact.

The Catalogue Size Arms Race

Matters are worsened by the music services’ catalogue arms race which has become entirely detrimental to consumers’ digital music experiences.  Action needs taking urgently to make sense of 25 million songs, not just through discovery and editorial, but also by taking the brave decision to keep certain types of content, such as sound-alikes, outside of music services’ main functionality.

Until labels, distributors and artists come to together to fix the issue of digital catalogue pollution – sound alikes and karaoke especially – the Tyranny of Choice will reign supreme, hiding 99% of artists under a pervasive shroud of obscurity and giving the Superstars another free lap of the track.

Staggered Advances: A Proposal for Better Streaming Income for Artists

I was at a rather good concert last night and while pondering what share of the few thousand in the room had actually bought the artist’s latest album I came up with the germ of an idea for how artists can be better compensated from streaming.  This is the proposal…

The overriding artist streaming concern is that streaming will cannibalize album sales and result in lower income.  Many labels and others counter that streaming will deliver at least as much revenue but over a longer period of time.  Because labels have big catalogues of music they benefit from ‘scale’ more quickly than artists how have much smaller catalogues. A label may measure the increased income from a million more subscribers in hundreds of thousands of dollars, but an artist may measure it in 100’s of dollars.

So is there then not a case for labels changing their income distribution models with artists?  Namely increasing advances by a factor of X and then instead of paying that in one lump sum, distributing it to the artist say every quarter for 3 years?  Let’s call this the Staggered Advance. This would effectively give the artist a salary from the label and take the worries about income per stream out of the equation.  The down side is that many more artists may never see actual royalty income than do so now, as it will be harder for them to recoup.

The challenge is what ‘X’ should equal.  To address that question, see the workings below. This hypothetical artist income model assumes the following:

  • 100% of an artist’s fan base are now paying subscribers
  • The artist is a performer and songwriter
  • An artist earns $2.00 from a CD
  • The artist receives 50% of a $0.01 per stream pay out
  • A typical album is bought by only 60% of an artist’s fans and that the remainder, if they were on subscription services, would stream the album
  • Streamers would also listen to some back catalogue

Hypothetical Artist Income Model – Music Industry Blog artist streaming income model

The net result of this model is that an artist can expect to earn from his/her fans about half what s/he would have earned from selling an album.  Which means that a Staggered Advance needs to pay out twice the amount to the artist than is currently paid for standard advances.

Bear in mind that ‘at scale’ streaming services should expand that base of listeners further with streams from casual listeners, and new additional income from core fans when the album is re-listened to as a catalogue album in the future.  So the total income (i.e. not just from fans) will be higher.

Also a crucial assumption here is that the artist’s core fans will listen to the album an average of ten times.  But that is predicated upon the album being good enough to make fans want to listen to the album that many times.  This means that if an artist releases a duff album that fans only listen to twice on average then the income difference will be 80% less than from album sales.  So there is a clear implication here: a poor album will earn an artist a lot less on streaming compared to albums sales, but the difference will be a lot less for a good album.  This is the democratization of music spend.

There are of course multiple additional variables and extenuating factors but the point of this exercise is to create a strawman for directional comparisons (you can download the excel model to test yourself by clicking on the link below).  This proposal also comes at a time when labels are moving away from bigger up front advances, but it may be that this is the only truly viable tool the labels have at their disposal to be able to soften the impact of the transition to streaming for artists.  Labels and streaming services alike need artists onboard and artists need streaming to make commercial sense for them.

Is this a step in the right direction?  Download the model, play around it, stress test the assumptions and let me know.  Hypothetical Artist Income Model – Music Industry Blog.

Making Freemium Pay: An Artist’s Perspective

With the much anticipated US launch of Spotify and the successful IPO of Pandora there’s a very palpable sense of momentum in streaming music.  And that’s great news, the future of music revenues will depend upon a successful transition from distribution based models (downloads, CDs etc) to consumption-era models (on-demand streaming etc.).  Yet, there’s a growing sense that the current Freemium business model just isn’t fit for purpose.

I’ve written before about the challenges of squaring the consumption circle (see my post here for more).  There is a direct tension arising from record labels feeling they don’t get enough from ad-supported music, and from the services themselves feeling that they actually pay too.  To complicate matters even further, it is becoming increasingly apparent that artists aren’t getting enough out of ad-supported music either.

Slicing the Digital Income Pie

Singer / songwriter Benji Rogers of Marwood (and who also happens to be the founder of the great direct-to-fan funding music site Pledge Music) generously offered to share his digital revenue data to illustrate how his income spreads between different music services.

Looking at Benji’s digital music revenue for March and April (see figure 1) the glaring disparity between download stores and streaming services is immediately apparent.  In terms of units of activity (i.e. a stream or a paid download) streaming services are way out in front, with 92% of total units for the period, yet in revenue terms the relationship is reversed, with them accounting for just 3% of total income.  (You can read more about Benji’s digital music income here).

Now of course streaming based services are always going to generate a significantly lower unit of income than a download, but the inverse income-to-unit relationship here is misaligned to the extreme.

What Happens If / When Downloads Go Away?

The other side of this equation is the vastly important role that downloads play in artists’ recorded music income. The download revenue is effectively bringing the income dynamics of the old CD model into the digital equation.

But there is also massive risk with the download dependency.  Download sales growth is slowing and there is little evidence that the 99 cents download model translates well outside of the iTunes ecosystem.  Worse still, the current momentum in digital music business models and behaviour is in streaming not downloads.  Take a look around: Amazon, Google and of course Apple have all jumped on the locker bandwagon.  And as Benji’s data illustrates painfully well, streaming is where consumers are going too.  While downloads may not disappear entirely, their role is set to lessen markedly in the midterm future and most of the alternatives in play from the big three players generate much lower income for artists.

Premium, Ad Supported, Freemium…Streaming Just Isn’t Adding Up for Artists

And to be clear, this isn’t just a problem with Freemium.  Streaming services as a whole just aren’t delivering enough income for artists.  Spotify is much maligned for the raw deal it is perceived to give artists, yet when you look at the average-pay-per stream Spotify actually pays out more than that darling of premium services Rhapsody (see figure 2) despite the majority of Spotify’s streams being ad supported rather than premium (something feels broken there).

The simple fact is that the disparity between paid downloads and streaming is unsustainable.   It just isn’t tenable that 3 paid downloads from Amazon can still deliver 50% more revenue than all the streaming services combined over the same period and yet have less than 1% the activity level of those services.

Is Freemium No Longer Fit for Purpose?

No one in the Freemium value chain thinks that they’re getting enough income: not labels, not publishers, not artists, not the services themselves. It looks increasingly like the Freemium model itself is fundamentally flawed, that any fix will do little more than paper over the cracks.  And the new wave of locker services are only marginally better.  They share the same fundamental revenue share dynamics when compared to download income (for all parties).

So what is the answer?   As I said in my June Midem post (click here to read more), first and foremost business models and products must be innovated.  There simply aren’t enough levers left to pull in the ad supported streaming business models to fix the problem.  That doesn’t mean that services such as Spotify, Pandora and We7 don’t have a future, they absolutely do, but their future lies in successfully bringing in business partners to subsidize  premium tiers of their businesses to make music feel-like-free or close-to-free for  mainstream customers (see my previous post on Digital Music’s Third Way for more on this).  Spotify’s US launch will bring a great new music experience to US music fans, but Spotify will need partnerships like it has struck with Virgin Media, 3 and Telia Sonera in Europe if it is going to be sustainable.

But most importantly we need a new generation of music products that leverage social, user participation, access models, multimedia and device connectivity to the full.

Ad supported streaming can evolve, it doesn’t need to be the Neanderthal of digital music’s evolutionary chain, but unless evolution happens quickly there is a very real risk that many artists will start seeing their recorded music careers face extinction.