‘The Long Tail’ Is BS – 1% Of Musicians Make 77% Of The Money


A new report from media consultant MIDiA offers some ‘tough love’ for musicians hoping to make money.

In the The Death of the Long Tail: The Superstar Music Economy, they’ve found that the 1% of musicians make 77% of the money:

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.

The also argue that the concept of ‘The Long Tail’ – the idea that the rise of the Internet and the democratization of media would make it easier for niche artists to make a living – is BS:

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.

The last part seems especially important for musicians working outside of the mainstream.

While record stores used to provide a venue for music fans to browse a huge variety of music, screenspace at online retailers tends to be dominated by a few mainstream artists.

Do niche musicians trying to make money have it harder than ever? Leave a comment and let us know what you think!

via musicindustryblog

42 thoughts on “‘The Long Tail’ Is BS – 1% Of Musicians Make 77% Of The Money

  1. The rest of the American economy is headed for that kind of distribution too so don’t mourn for musicians mourn for humans.

      1. It’s been happening for millennia, but what makes it more amazing is that 99% still drop their pants and apply the Vaseline with out a grumble!

        1. I anxiously await your solution to the global political and economic imbalance. I strongly suggest staying away from Marxism, though. The Soviet Union wasn’t exactly a rousing success.

          1. Marxism was only ever designed to work in a small heavily industrialised country, like Germany, or the uk. Russia therefore has communism. Not Marxism.

            1. Yes! actors and musicians/artists are always the best source of the solutions to world problems, to be honest I never understand why politicians even bother to ask experts in certain fields when there are so many musicians around to do it….;)

              1. Well, I’m sure if you ask a “government expert” why jazz is dead they would say it was the musicians union, demanding 70$ a day for session work just caused all the jazz gigs to go overseas! I mean that’s their excuse for the demise of every other industry in america, why not the music industry too! Oh yes, those experts are so smart, they save us from having to think for ourselves!

            2. marxism and communism are not the same thing. please educate yourselves on these things. i’m not talking down. i educate myself too.

  2. This looks at only element of Chris Anderson’s findings. Yes, by virtue of marketing spend, more people will go online looking for a particular artist. At the same time, they more likely to find others they may be interested in. Artists that record labels wouldn’t touch because they are so niche.

    I think the smaller, lowest selling artist by say Amazon’s standards, still has a greater following than they would have in 90s where no one would look for them at a record store. That’s the other side of The Long Tail.

    1. I used to find all sorts of cool music at record stores, and the owners would often suggest stuff I might like.

      Online stores suggest what sells best, instead.

      1. Old style record stores used to exclude 99% of all the music being made and played. It was an illusion of choice. The internet lets everyone make their music available. Granted, it can be very hard to find, but at least we all have a chance now. That was not the case until very recently.

    2. Yes! In the early 90s to make money in the music industry you had very few options. Get a record contract (good luck!), play in cover bands, or work retail in a record store (suck!). But today there are many good paying jobs that didn’t even exist then. Things are only getting better.

      1. The report authors note the paradox of ‘The Tyranny of Choice’ – you give most people infinite options and it just confuses them and they go for the ‘safe choice’ and buy the latest Beyonce album.

      2. Funny, I had no problem being signed all through the 90’s right until 9/11 when it all started to go to shit. If you weren’t signed in the 90’s then you probably weren’t good enough! Haha! Sorry but true. Now derivative, amateur “music” clogs the internet so that people, in a whole, go for the blockbuster rather than wade through so much chaff for a little wheat. Harsh but true…

  3. All this means is that you have to be clever about how you market yourself. You could have the greatest music, but you’ll be lost amidst a sea of equally-“good” musicians if you don’t stand out.

  4. This is only a particular way to interpret results. In the very recent past, that 1% earned an even greater majority of the money! Things are trending better, not worse. This report also does not take into account all the ways outside of the music industry that audio professionals can earn money. Game audio, film audio, sound libraries, sample sets, virtual instruments, forensic audio, etc, etc. And most importantly, any musician can now make their music available to the entire world through the internet. That was absolutely not possible just 15+ years ago. And likewise, audiences have a much greater range of options for finding music, affording music, and developing a wider pallet.

    Compared to the last several decades, things are freakin great for musicians right now, and only getting better! You just need to get over the “I need to be a rich rock star” attitude and get back to authentic reasons to make and share music to realize it.

    1. But, if as you say, the distribution is getting better why do the digital sales skew even more towards the top 1%?

      Also, you say making virtual instruments is another way to make money working with music but I bet the income distribution for synth developers and manufacturers is even more lopsided. Moog, Dave Smith and Korg probably make more than everyone else combined, likewise Native Instruments, Rob Papen and u-He probably make more than all the other soft synth developers.

      It’s definitely a great time to be making music, I agree with you there…but the inequality in income distribution is not just a matter of living a “rockstar lifestyle”, it means the majority of music people are making who may not care about money are not getting heard either. The money represents ears and people are just not listening to stuff that’s made by amateurs on the bottom of the food chain. So if you are passionate about music and “don’t care about money” this chart should still matter to you.

      1. Well, I agree with you except for the hardware/software sells…

        A company like Spectrasonics did sell over 300,000 Omnisphere licenses (around $499), which is way way more than what a company like DSI or Arturia could sell with their Mopho and/or MiniBrute listed to the same prices. And hardware has an higher production and distribution cost…

        BUT, not all software developers are as successful as Spectrasonics and NI. Just like all hardware manufacture are not as successful as Korg (which is doing both hardware AND software now).

            1. Yes, you’re right. I stand corrected.
              Still, I don’t see Spectrasonics having sold $150 mil of Omnisphere licenses.

      2. You are proving my point here by assuming everyone selling something NEEDS to be making tons of money at it. The truth is, selling a little bit on the side is still a viable cool thing for many people to do that did not exist at all before. An entire middle ground has opened up where there used to be nothing. If it’s all about money to you, then you are missing the point of making music in the first place. Many people find their preferred comfort zone somewhere in the middle.

    2. Stats? Proof? You can say what you want but this report had the numbers. Post some numbers or keep your Pollyanna-ish, utopian, divorced from reality clap-trap to yourself, please.

    1. yeah, if people really want it they’ll pirate it. unless you have a PR machine behind you giving it away for free only helps the site hosting.

  5. I love it when I hear, “record stores/iTunes/Pandora, etc. only show 1% of all music out there.” What do you expect? Most music out there SUCKS and there is no market for it and… these are businesses. Their sole mission is to profit. If you’re in the arts to make money you have already fooled yourself – your focus is skewed. Create to create.

  6. It’s actually called a monopoly. Yes you can start your own music label, but forget about radio distribution, which is still a stop earner. These corporations prevent non-labels from getting beyond the web, unless they get so popular they are consumed. I do believe that there are many more independents out there now, more then any other time, and that is definitely better. Just a shame that public radio and television unfairly favour these corporations.

  7. The music industry has always been polarised. People see rockstars or even some artists like Yanni(Lol) as gods and the rest of the working class musicians as second class citizens. Like if playing an instrument, writing a song, making arrangements, recording, etc… weren’t real jobs at all.

    But, the thing that worries me the most is the overall perception of the value of music and other media to the average joe. Since people have had the power to download free music from torrent websites and alike, I’ve met people who refuse to pay, on so called principle, even one dollar for a song they like. They discard it as ridiculously expensive justifying themselves by saying that if they payed for all the music they listen to, they couldn’t afford their 1000 song per week downloads. I live in Mexico, and I’m not talking about the standard, underprivileged, third world country majority. I’m talking about the people who drive BMW’s, own real-estate and dine out a few times a week in the most expensive joints of the most expensive city in latin america(Mexico City). In their logic, all recording artists are rich, all producers are even richer, anyone can make an album with a 300 dollar interface, a 50 dollar mic and a very cheap guitar, so how do we dare charge such an obscene amount, of a single dollar, for a song. I’ve discussed the absolute ignorance in this perception many times, never even getting a single acknowledgement that what they do is just down right wrong.

    In this day and age we have services like spotify, etc… and don’t get me wrong, they are great and I am a very engaged user. I am grateful that MY music listening habits aren’t as costly as when I used to save every penny in my teenage years to buy a couple of cd’s per week. But to the majority, it just ads to the concept that music has no value, and it shouldn’t be supported by their money.

    I don’t believe that is this trend is their fault. I believe that as a community of musicians we have made no effort to educate the people that listen to our music(our clients if you will). Yes there are jobs in the music and recording industry in general. But they are limited, because there has never been a time in history where the demand for media was so high, but the public recognition, and the value of the people that create that media was so low.

  8. What do you expect? The entertainment industry is a machine from the top down. This is how everything is going now. The search for real talent has been replaced by predictable formula, and the market is closed to outsiders. The top 50 chart spots are for sale to the highest bidders (for real) and the general public wouldn’t know quality or authenticity if it crawled up their ass and bit them on the liver. It’s the same in music, film, and anything else the mainstream machine gets its soul scouring hands on. The game is rigged, and the house ALWAYS wins.

  9. Most people today do not care about music as an artform, but they just want some noise in the background. So they listen to the radio or to the featured artist on streaming services like spotify and have not interesed in the creators of the music. It is used and not valued.

    1. That is one effect of the embarrassment of wealth and the post-iPod/YouTube/Spotify era. It used to be that your choices for recorded music were so limited (listen to whatever is on the radio or listen to records at home) that it was kind of a big thing. Record albums were bulky and expensive, requiring a significant investment of time, money, space, and effort to acquire them and play them.

      It reminds me of how computers used to be this rare thing that only existed in exotic laboratories staffed by white-coated technicians, but now everyone has one in their pocket. Recorded music seems to have become commoditized. It’s no longer a rare or special thing.

      There’s also the competition problem: if you are a classical composer, you have to compete with the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. If you’re a rock musician, you have to compete with the likes of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. You’re probably not better than they are, so why should anyone buy your album when they have a clearly superior alternative? I think the only way out of this trap may be live music.

  10. Selling recorded music may be going down the tubes, but there’s never been a better time for live musicians and making music for enjoyment.

    I spend more money than I ever have on music, but usually I’m buying musical instruments and amazing software, buying tickets to live performances, or buying recordings directly from musicians, usually after a performance that I liked, or from people I actually know.

  11. The superstar music area is an unreachable world of it’s own. Every musician should sell most of their music exclusively on Bandcamp – so the audiences are forced to spent money for musical diversity and most of the money will flow to the artists. My suggestion: 70% of your tracks on Bandcamp and the rest for the streaming distributers. Soundcloud and youtube for teasering your music, experiments and live events.

  12. Making music is a luxury and way of life . I look at it these days like lets say a surfer or mountainclimber…get a part time job and enjoy your thing as much as possible – if you are good it will eventually pay off with out making toothpaste commercials or being one of them industry puppets. To make a living in music I reckon like stated above you have to play gigs , sell music equiptment/software or yes..suck satans cock via advertisement & major deals.

    Thumbs up for bandcamp btw…best independent place out there, but you do need to make an effort to generate your own traffic & audience to get them sales.

  13. Here’s the thing, ..looking to streaming services as a significant source of income for most musicians is not viable. It’s already too mainstream and saturated with corporate interests, Back when Tower Records was in every town, no serious indie band would waste it’s time trying to crack that nut. The smart ones worked on getting their albums placed in the underground record stores. That’s where the real fans are anyway – right? The internet does make things more democratic in some ways, but there will always be a “herd mentality”, so there’s nothing new here.

    If any of us have truly walked the path of creating a career in the arts, then we know one thing for sure – thinking outside the box is mandatory. If the herd is running in one direction – that is a sure cue to run the other way fast. We have to blaze new paths. The streaming services of today will replaced by something else tomorrow and so on and so on.

    The concept of the “Long Tail” is all wrong when you apply it to mainstream media, which is what the streaming services have become.. But when you create and / or discover new or untapped resources, that’s what the long tail is all about. We see this everyday on our site. Session musicians and engineers earning income by doing remote sessions. It’s a new way, and the early adopters and trail blazers are the ones reaping the rewards.

    The people who will shape the next 10 years of the music business are already creating and discovering new ways of doing things. They’re finding new avenues of income that are uniquely suited to them. They;re connecting with fans through blogs, podcasts, videos and more. They’re not fighting a mentality that isn’t built to serve them anyway.

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