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The Long Tail... or why we're sellin' records retail instead of releasing them

Written by Tommi on 22.07.2008 15:31:20

Blog image for entry The Long Tail... or why we're sellin' records retail instead of releasing them I wanted to take a minute to explain a bit why we're spending most of our time expanding our shop (both online and brick+mortar at Pitkämies). A lot of people are constantly asking me when we'll release more records, so here's an unreasonably long answer to the question!

I'm sure at least some of you are familiar with the term "The Long Tail" coined by Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine. In short, it states the following:

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.

The ramifications of this theory for indie music business in a nutshell is this:
1) Record stores - especially digital / online ones - will make the bucks.
2) Small to medium labels are fucked.

Let me elaborate on that a bit. The modern world, what with all it's internets and such, has opened a HUGE - or actually a MEGAHUGE array of options for music consumers to choose from when they decide what they're spending their hard earned listening time on. I'd like to emphasize that I used the word time instead of money here, because a big bulk of the music we all listen to is acquired for free, legal or otherwise. The fact of the matter is, there's about 1000000 bands with 100000000 songs of music out there for all of us to choose from whenever we feel like broadening our scope all readily just a few clicks away. Whether you're downloading / streaming them, buying them digitally or ordering the records online. The amount of stuff to choose from is just overwhelming. Overwhelming + 2. The amount of music produced (also taking into account that a vast selection of music from the past) is increasing so much faster than the amount of people listening to it.

The long tail has always existed. It's a well-known fact that a small number of hits accounts for most of the sales at any given time and this is nothing new. The thing that is changing - rapidly! - is that the tail is getting longer and slimmer. When I was a kid, my options for music I was listening to came from my buddies a handful of zines (Toinen Vaihtoehto, Mutiny! etc), Osku & Ike of Oskun Divari and TV. Compared to today's standards my tastes were pretty much limited and regional by default, since obviously it was easier for me to learn about stuff like Bad Vugum -releases and such than about some small scene in some far-off country. Most of the stuff I listened to was very much from the long tail, but the long tail at the time was dramatically shorter and thicker! Being a part of a niché culture wasn't really lucrative, but it was very much feasible. At least compared to today.

One of the key things of the long tail is that in general there's not very much happening in the middle: you're either in the short head or in the long tail. Being an indie label that releases music that doesn't really have a shot at ever reaching the short head -part, we're really pushed between a rock and a hard place. Our part of the tail is getting slimmer every day and even if we already have a back catalogue of over 40 items, that's nowhere near the diversity needed to actually make the long tail profitable.

Hence the shop.

The reason why there's a sudden flourish of small record shops in Finland is very much hard evidence that there's a huge interest in buying recorded music at the moment. The #1 reason for this obviously is the withdrawal of the biggest chain store Free Record Shop from the Finnish market. This further illustrates that as the long tail grows longer, also the short head shrinks, which obviously spooked the TOP-40 oriented chain out of business.

The Long Tail states that the modern digital business age is the time of creators in the short head and aggregators in the long tail. Indie labels with no hope of reaching the short head and not enough products to justify anywhere near aggregation are not really compatible with the scenario. Record stores, however, are in essence aggregators. With our store we just crossed the magic boundary of having 1000 different items in stock. Most of those items we stock around 3-5 items and we plan to increase our offering a lot more in the future in just that same manner. There are very few records in the world we can't get a handful of units sold of, but I have a hard time figuring what would be a record that we could release that I could see us moving at least 1000 units of. Except for Radiopuhelimet.

This is where the drama for me personally lies: We're not the only ones having this problem. Like I stated before essentially all indie labels are in the long tail and due to that they are - to put it bluntly - fucked. The tragedy in this is that at least for me personally approximately 95% of all the interesting and forward-thinking music in the history of recorded audio has been released by small to medium indies and now that their conditions of survival are being swept away, I have a hard time seeing how music as a culture can move forward and evolve. I shudder at the thought of a future where music is based on zero-budget amateur-stuff and mass-targeted surefire hits with nothing in between. I'm not saying there's anything specifically bad with either end of the spectrum (I do love Justin Timberlake and I sure as hell love Daniel Johnston!!!), but the middle part that's in danger here is pretty much the area where most of the interesting stuff goes on.

Of course it could also be that I'm over-reacting and from the ashes of the "indie-revolution" springs something even more vivacious. I have no doubt that the bedrooms and garages of the world are filled with talented people just waiting to get their groundbreaking stuff out there. Maybe indie labels such as If Society are the dinosaurs that need to get extinct at this stage. Musical evolution has always thrived on the revolutionaries of yesterday getting stale and irrelevant. There's nothing like frustration towards the status quo to innovate change. Too bad the prophets of digital bliss had promises of the big boys getting hit the worst when the digital revolution comes. Well guess what: the digital revolution came and it's the big boys that are thriving and us good honest dudes who are staring down the barrel of a gun.

To put the whole thing in a nutshell: We're not releasing records, because we just can't get them sold. We're selling records retail, because it's less of a risk (or less of a sure shot of losing a lot of money) and seems to be paying off. We're super-bummed about the situation and if it were up to us, we'd put out a record or two every week.

Check out Chris Anderson's site on The Long Tail. His blog usually contains a lot of very interesting thoughts on the phenomenon.

ps. Don't forget the small ones still putting in their time, money and love to put out important records regardless of the circumstances. Do yourself a favor and keep buying independent music.
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