Long Tail Sells Little Music, Research Claims; Anderson Questions Methodology

Turns out the “long tail” may not be as long as some people thought. Though Chris Anderson’s theory holds that unlimited online retail availability means perpetual sales for archive and niche media content, UK music royalty collector MCPS-PRS says only 173,000 albums were bought through 2007 from a total of 1.23 million available; that means only 14 percent ever got a sale.

This is a small update (via Times Online) to a study the organisation’s economist Will Page presented in November, which found, in the singles market, only about three million of 13 million available were bought, and 80 percent of sales came from 52,000 tracks. That could disprove the theory that, even the most unlikely of out-of-print tracks will be bought by someone, somewhere. Back in November, Anderson complained that Page hadn’t released the dataset, but speculated it may have involved mobile music purchases (mBlox founder Andrew Bud was Page’s research partner), which Anderson said don’t tend to follow his “powerlaw shape”. Anderson reiterated the complaint today to Times Online, which Bud told: “The statistical theories used to justify that theory were intelligent and plausible. But they turned out to be wrong. The data tells a quite different story.”

It’s little surprise that the long tail turns out to be more nuanced than some might have thought – even sales of artefacts within the tail are likely to be influenced by rare external factors. Case in point: Jeff Buckley’s 1994 Hallelujah reached number two in the UK Christmas singles chart as a response to X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke’s cookie-cutter number-one cover, and also topped Billboard’s Hot Digital Tracks chart earlier this year, following an American Idol cover. It’s also unsurprising that fewer albums are bought from the long tail than singles, which are the primary unit of buying online music. None of this disproves the long tail theory. But Page’s finding that the majority of songs didn’t get any buyers – that’s another matter, and one Anderson will be keen to debate. Page speaks at England’s Great Escape festival in May.

Photo Credit: Taras Kalupun