Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Man, That's a Lot of Holes

Lots of interest (okay, nerdly on-line levels of interest) about a recent study in the UK that seems to indicate that our economy 3.0 savior, the Long Tail, may not have nearly as much salvation on board as some have hoped.

Read the London Times article and the thoughtful response from Mike at Idolator. Between bouts of overdosing on rum balls and Kiefer-ing my Christmas tree I decided to add in my on two pence.

My understanding of 'the Long Tail' is that all those sales of obscure items (books for Amazon, music for iTunes) will eventually make money for the retailer. That is what makes it a viable economic theory, it works for the company selling the individual bits of rarely desired stuff – not necessarily for the creator of the things being sold.

If the overhead is low enough – cheap rent to store all of Amazon’s books in warehouses in remote Kentucky or Utah, or even cheaper hard-drives full of audio files in Cupertino for iTunes – then selling one of something per year can theoretically be profitable. As long they are also selling one per year of many, many, many other things.

This is where people seemed to get confused – the Long Tail works for the retailer, not the maker of the music or book. The Long Tail, and this new British study seems to back this up, makes no guarantees that this kind of economy of smallish scale will work out for the actual content creator. In fact, it kind of shows that it doesn’t.

For a long time (pre-digital) the record labels hunted for hits believing that the blockbuster (as in movies and most other entertainments) were the things that propped up the company while they searched for the next hit. A small number of really successful artists/albums would allow labels to sign and promote enough new artists to find the next hit-maker (and also the hundreds of duds and failures that actually soak up the majority of the profits from Michael Jackson or the Crue).

My take on this is that this study does not contradict the Long Tail theory at all. This study shows exactly what the Long Tail theory would predict – amongst the handful of things that do sell, there are many things not selling much if at all.

Look at the famous Long Tail chart with that sliver of yellow extending out to the right. That is the ‘Tail,’ the vein of gold that can be mined for unanticipated (and untold?) profits. This study from the Times does not focus on the narrow sliver of sales – this study is about ALL that white space above the yellow. All the digital songs that don’t get sold, or maybe not even searched for. The study doesn’t say there is no gold in the mine, their numbers just reveal there is lots of worthless dirt piled on and around the nuggets of gold. Lots and lots of dirt.

My two main conclusions:

  1. The Long Tail might work in the real world. Maybe, maybe not – this study doesn’t seem to prove or disprove the relevancy of the theory. I think the main factor in the workability of Long Tail-style sales is how low the seller can get the friction. How little overhead can they have and how much raw earth can they have on hand to allow customers to sift through to find their own personal gold. Maybe it is not possible in the real world for this to truly work (like perpetual motion) – but these new numbers don’t really shine much light on it.
  2. Being the artist creating the records that sell zero copies (or even the ‘winner’ that sells one) in a year must be no fun. But that, too, is not anything new.

Here’s to a fat tail (heh, heh) in 2009. Happy Holidays and a joyful New Year.

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Monday, December 08, 2008


If a musical act or artist is good (or lucky) they get to stick around long enough to have a lengthy and profitable career. If they are really good (or extra lucky) they might stick around so long they don’t want to be in their own videos any more.

This post is about the game of ‘hide a band’ that certain videos play. Squirreling away the artist in the deep background (or out of the clip all together) because their looks no longer appeal to the demographic is a tried and true technique.

Let’s be clear. I am NOT talking about the kind of (often indie/alt/dance) artists that never appear in their own videos. I am also not talking about a creative concept that is based around not showing the performance (Smack My Bitch Up) – especially if the artist has other clips that do feature them prominently (Firestarter).

I am also NOT talking about the director that often chooses to use flaming people or dancing Oscar Winners. This ‘no star on screen’ idea goes way back (Queen) – and can often make for highly effective clips. I am also not talking about putting supermodels or Fletch in your video as surrogates, none of these videos mentioned above really seem to qualify as band hiding.

The phenomenon I am talking about is an artist who has been front and center in their videos, but then – as age and the rock and roll lifestyle take their toll – they step aside to let a younger face carry the day. Hide-a-band is actually easiest to recognize when you look for a clip that the artist/band is in, but their performance is pushed to the margins. The artist is there, but like a magician’s assistant – wouldn’t you really rather look at someone pretty?

The past masters of this genre are clearly Aerosmith. With their dueling Silverstone videos for ‘Cryin’ and ‘Crazy’ – the band was able to keep the parking lots rocking by giving the MTV viewers some age appropriate eye candy to distract them from the parent-aged musicians who actually made the songs. Aerosmith was IN these videos, but the focus was definitely moved over to someone or something else.

Bon Jovi used this approach with ‘It’s My Life’ where the video spends most of its time with a teen-friendly protagonist fighting his way towards the band’s performance. The New Jersey rockers are definitely in the clip – but there are plenty of stunts performed by a teen to make viewers think of their own, obstacle plagued adolescence rather that marveling at ‘What the f&*% happened to the guitarist’s face?!?

Mick gave us Shannyn Sossamon, Lenny Kravitz and some nausea inducing body-mounted cameras so we wouldn’t notice that he was not with the rest of the Stones.

Elton John even had a young and sexy Timberlake play Elton John, well before he got the gigs box dicking and jizz mopping.

There must be more. I keep thinking there was a late-period George Michael clip like this. Send any suggestions along while I hide my ancient visage over here behind some parkour guys or hipster skateboarders.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Never Gonna Give You Up

Hey guys,

It has been a long time since I posted. How long? Well the stock market was still a place you might want your money. Tina Fey was still most famous for her ‘day job’ on 30 Rock.

Also, that was before the launch of MTVmusic.com. I have lost major stretches of my waking life clicking around through the old clips on mtvmusic. Yeah, for the intertubes!

Other sections of the net still do some music video things better than mtvmusic. Youtube gets the latest Britney news out there. Onsmash still has the best collection of what is ‘new’ at least for urban music (and stony studio interviews). Right now mtvmusic is kind of a nostalgia machine (check the top viewed list for Buggles and Dire Straits) – but I assume that as the site develops it will get more ‘modern’ traffic.

I wish mtvmusic had a better ‘these are the newest clips we have added’ section. Even the main mtv site does that better. I wish that the ‘date added’ for the videos on mtvmusic was the date the video was released to MTV and not just the date some intern added the digital file to an mtv server. Didja know ZZ Top’s ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ was from 2007?

But these are minor quibbles. The picture quality on mtvmusic is great compared to the YouToogles. You can sort by director and see that two of the first three Isham-helmed clips are Metallica and the third is Nsync. They even have the alternate ‘pop-up’ versions of some clips.

Older videos never aired on MTV with director’s credits. Who knew, way back in 1988 that there even was such a thing as a music video director? Some of these classic clips have had the once unlisted credit included on mtvmusic. Others have not.

update: Check out the old-school opening slate on 'Billie Jean' - a hand-written label off the original tape box.

Obviously the site is not ‘done’ and more functionality and monetization (catchphrase alert!) is sure to come. The search function seems to work one day and then not the next, but that will get dialed in. It finally seems like MTV is in on the joke the internet is pulling.

This is change we can believe in.

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