Hit-oriented media survive digital age

Washington Post

According to a popular new book called “The Long Tail,” the music that really matters on iTunes is the many thousands of songs that only a few people buy. But check out the iTunes home page and look who’s smiling: Christina Aguilera, Nelly Furtado and Ashlee Simpson.

Chris Anderson argues that the infinite capacity of the Web means that hits are passe and we have entered the heyday of little gems. The obscure, even esoteric bits of pop culture that struggled for air through the decades of three TV networks, a handful of hit music radio stations, five big record companies and tiny neighborhood record stores can now finally breathe freely.

The music industry is Anderson’s primary evidence for his thesis that Americans have spent their lives viewing the world through the prism of hits, “not because that’s all we want, but because distribution channels have been so limited,” as he told U.S. News & World Report. “But as the physical marketplace has turned into a digital marketplace, there’s a lot more shelf space. Distribution costs have gotten so low you can offer practically everything.”

With record stores closing, radio stations moving away from music toward talk and listeners finding new tunes on MySpace or iTunes rather than on the radio, Anderson suggests that we’re entering a nirvana of niches -- a new, democratized way of buying and selling music that will greatly diminish the role that hits and hitmakers play.


A Billboard magazine study of music sales shows that brick-and-mortar retailers make nearly 80% of their sales on the top 1,000 albums. In big-box stores, where the selection is usually quite small, the top 100 albums often account for more than 90% of sales. Now compare that with an online retailer, where the top 1,000 albums make up less than one-third of sales.

Whereas a Wal-Mart might stock just 50,000 songs, an online music service such as Rhapsody keeps a catalog of 1.5 million, and what Anderson finds important is that Rhapsody sells at least a few of almost every one of those titles. That’s his long tail of songs that extends out infinitely from the old spine of giant hit tunes.

Anderson’s subtitle, “Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More,” celebrates the success of iTunes, Netflix and Amazon as Web-based businesses that have shown how to make money without needing the hit mentality. “A very, very big number (the products in the tail) multiplied by a relatively small number (the sales of each) is still equal to a very, very big number,” he writes.

But Anderson ignores another side of the music business -- the powerful evidence from radio and even from those online music sources that people still want to hear the hits. One day last month, the home pages of iTunes, Rhapsody, Tower Records and a local radio station each touted the work of at least three of these four artists: Furtado, Aguilera, Gnarls Barkley and Rihanna.


And it’s not at all clear that the new technologies will entirely replace the old, hit-oriented media. A new study of consumers’ music habits by Bridge Ratings finds that 45% of listeners still discover new music on FM radio, while only 20% use music-sharing websites and 13% depend on Internet radio for that purpose. Even among teens, the survey found that broadcast radio remains the most popular source of new music, though by a smaller margin than for adults.

New technologies do expand consumers’ individual choices, sometimes in dramatic and thrilling ways. But what happens next is generally a restoration of the human longing for community and even conformism. When FM radio came along in the 1970s and pushed aside AM radio’s Top 40 all-hits approach, a plethora of musical niches popped onto the dial and the radio industry sliced the audience into the demographic categories that advertisers sought to reach.

By the late 1970s, Top 40 radio had lost its hold on a mass audience, AM radio was marginalized, and for a time, radio’s fresh, new niches gave listeners something to call their own. A generation of young people grew up enraptured by their hometown’s rock station or soul outlet or light rocker, and Americans went their own ways musically. For the first time, they could ignore what was happening in genres of music they couldn’t stand.

But music niches on the radio soon hardened and programming grew stale. The same radio industry that just a few years before had deemed successful only those stations that drew huge, 20% shares of the audience now discovered strong profits in settling for 2% or 3% of the audience, as long as that share was made up largely of the station’s target demographic. The narrowed definition of business success led to a similar constriction of stations’ artistic goals, and listeners tired of stations that had once thrilled them.

Although Anderson is right that niches can produce a satisfying bottom line, the fact remains that in almost any field, creative, ambitious people want to reach out for as large an audience as they can find. That appeal to the masses is true not only for musicians and DJs, but most important for the audience as well. Radio and pop music lost their way when they restructured their business to make huge, cross-genre hits almost impossible to achieve. Blockbusters survive in the movie, TV, book and museum businesses -- the success of Anderson’s “Long Tail,” for example, is not limited to the subculture of business books -- because consumers of pop culture are interested not only in enjoying or learning from the product but also in the social value we gain from being part of a broad communal experience.

Anderson dismisses the power of songs, movies and TV shows that speak to a mass audience, deriding them as a superficial form of connection. Human beings are “rather more tribal,” he writes. “We’re deeply connected with a few people.”

True enough, the digital revolution has demonstrated the allure of thousands of tiny online affinity groups, many with real emotional meaning. In the music world, blogs and sharing sites are creating their own mini-communities of like-minded listeners. But that is happening underneath a continuing longing for a mass culture. The desire to listen to what the other kids are listening to, even when it’s lousy stuff, is as fundamental as speech and song themselves.