The Long Tail Will East Itself: Covers and Tributes Make Up 90% of Digital Music Service Catalogues

In the early days of digital music, stores and services fell over themselves to boast about their burgeoning catalogue sizes.  Back then, when majors didn’t license widely, it really was something of an achievement to break the 1 million tracks mark, catalogue size was often a good indicator of the comparative breadth of choice among services.  But by the second half of the last decade, most of the majors had most of their catalogue online in most of the stores and services.  Independent labels lagged for a number of reasons but the majority of the independents (by market share) were also on the majority of services by this stage.  And yet since then, the average catalogue size of digital music services has grown from 4.3 million in 2008 to 16.4 million in 2012.  What fuelled this new catalogue arms race? It would be nice to think it was down to labels digitizing vast quantities of back catalogue, or even because of a surge of semi-pro artists.  The answer though, or at least the lion’s share of it, is much less appealing. Digital catalogues are so much bigger now because of filling and fluffing from covers, tributes and karaoke tracks.

Covers and Tributes Make Up 90% of Digital Music Service Catalogues

To test the theory I looked at the available tracks on iTunes for 10, randomly selected, top tier artists (see figure).  The startling key takeaway is that on average just 10% of the tracks listed for an artist is actually music by that artist.  And bear in mind that many of those tracks are duplicates.  The average U2 song for example, is listed multiple times ranging from original albums, remastered albums, EPs, greatest hits, compilations etc.

The vast majority of the remainder of tracks listed for an artist is filler drivel, endless cover versions, tribute acts and karaoke tracks.  As Peter Robinson highlighted in 2009, many of these cover versions sound all but identical to the original, while others have full intent on being identikit copies but poor musicianship and production leaves them sounding pitifully poor.  In among there are the occasional example of leftfield creativity, such as ‘Bass Parodies of Coldplay’ by Joe Bob’s Upright Bass Trio.  But artistic expression is hardly being tested with the likes of ‘Yoga to Coldplay’, ‘Led Zepellin Lullabys’ or ‘Dance Tribute to Lady Gaga vs Black Eyed Peas’.

When the Long Tail Goes Untouched

So just how much of the current 16.4 million songs on digital services are ‘the real deal’?  Back in 2008 24/7’s CEO Frank Taubert stated that 66% of his service’s 4.5 million tracks had never even been downloaded once (and remember these are the guys who power the vastly successful TDC Play unlimited free music service). That means that just 1.5 million tracks had been played, which is pretty close to the 1.6 million tracks we get if we apply the 10% rule across the entire 16.4 million catalogue count.

The number is probably bigger than that though.  eMusic responded to Taubert’s 66% claim with their own: that 75% of their 4 million tracks had been downloaded at least once.  But even if we take a straight average of the two (i.e. 44% of catalogue is untouched) we are still short of the complete picture.  Because even those tracks that have been played at least once will include multiple versions of the same song (e.g. album version vs single version).  Nielsen underscored the dynamic in 2009 when they reported that 3.6 million tracks sold less than 100 copies and just 1% of tracks were responsible for 80% of sales.

The Pseudo Long Tail is Killing the Real Long Tail

It is at this stage we start to see the core of the problem.  The short head will always dominate the long tail, but no more so than when the genuine long tail (the experimental artists, the up and coming, the niche genres) gets drowned out by the pseudo long tail of karaoke and 3rd rate covers.

Discovery in the long tail is already a potentially market-crippling problem.  It is time for music services to stand up and be (down) counted.  16.4 million songs means nothing if the vast majority is useless filler.  This is not to say that there isn’t a place for this strata of bottom-feeder music, but that place is not as part of the main results of original artists.  At the very least music services should file those tracks away in their own section.  But even if they can’t bring themselves to do that, they should stop listing these tracks in total catalogue sizes. The 90% filler tracks paint a misleading and confusing picture of digital music availability.  The best solution of all though is for music services to do away with them all together, and if there is really a market need for them, then let some niche player fill that gap instead of blighting real music services.