Trying To Get To You

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Thoughts On Niches and the Long Tail

Nowadays, it’s taken for granted that we live in an era of “niche.” We have several-hundred cable channels, YouTube, websites to appeal to anyone’s deepest interests and literally an infinite amount of entertainment and information options at our disposal. And we are told that reaching a broad audience is now just about impossible. It’s all part of the Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” thesis; in the future, entertainment products will sell less of more – meaning that there will be fewer blockbusters but more things will sell over time – and it’s been taken for granted, especially by techies, to be true. (Not all of them.)

But is this theory true and does it effect how art is made? Once upon a time, popular art was designed to be, well, popular. Up until the late 70’s, movies and music, even if substantive and complex, were intended to reach as broad an audience as possible. From the 30’s to the 60’s, the biggest Hollywood films were written to reach everyone. In popular music, be it rock or r&b, just about everything was made with a mass audience in mind. Even the godfathers of punk – the Velvet Underground, Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5 - had designs to hit the top. Back then, it was the only game in town.

In left-of center rock, that hasn’t been the case for almost three decades. The failure of 70’s punk to break commercially in the U.S. spawned a self-sustaining alternative music economy where music from the fringe could emerge and thrive, which obviated the need to try to please the mainstream. And in the face of the failure of punk to reach a broad audience, an attitude emerged from the punk and post-punk world that just about any commercial music was to be looked upon with suspicion at best, and utter and complete derision at worst. (That was an attitude fostered in self-defense; the Ramones were devastated when they realized they weren’t going to be an enormous band.) In the post-punk world, just like the folk world of the early 60’s, selling a lot of anything usually inspires cries of “selling out.” (The history of jazz post be-bop is similar – the avant-garde took over the vanguard of the music, its popularity declined, and it ceased to be truly popular music.)

In the R&B world it is, of course, different. In the R&B and Hip-Hop game, you’re either huge, or you haven’t made it. (There are a few exceptions to this – but the alternative hip-hop scene has no real cache in the urban areas where the music comes from.) Dr. Dre and Jay Z brag about being great businessmen. (No revered indie-rocker would ever call himself a businessman.) Black music is still a blockbuster game, no matter what anyone says. While it is true that those blockbusters sell less than they used to, there's no popular black music scene that exists powerfully on the margins the way indie rock does in the rock world. (There's no Pitchfork for black music.) Big hits are venerated in black music. One can't say that about Radiohead or Wilco.

So in the black music game, the Long Tail has no real resonance, but in the world of indie rock and post punk, it does. Why is that? I would assert that it’s because due primarily to cultural differences – i.e., attitudes about the worthiness of the pursuit of popular and mass success, money and rebellion, rather than a fundamental truth about how technology is affecting our consumption of media. The Long Tail is a theory that exists in theory, not reality, and in the veneration of the theory, it has accumulated resonance, and people have begun to work within its confines. So instead of believing that they can reach a big and broad audience, artists who work within the limited vision that they see as possible and "appropriate" for their music. For years, I've seen many talented left-leaning rock artists making insular music designed to reach a narrow audience. And as a result, they make insular and small music with little lasting resonance. And this had been happening way before records stopped selling.

In June, I attended a conference at the Advertising Age convention in New York. At one of the panels I attended, the panelists touted the fashionable wisdom that the “Grateful Dead Model” (where you give your music away and make your money touring) was the way for artists to go. A nice theory, but it ignored the fact that the Dead only made more money on the road because on their best nights, they were transcendent live, and they were pretty crappy record makers. (It also ignored the fact that they never really gave their music away, but that’s another matter.) Not to slag them (they were all smart guys), but I bet they couldn’t name ten Grateful Dead songs between the five of them.

I only bring up the point to remind music lovers that most tech people who come up with these theories don’t really know much about music or art. They see the world through the prism of their world – technology. All the theories in the world about technology and its interaction music can be made irrelevant by one epochal song. Here’s hoping that song comes soon. Niches may be a fact of life, but it is the role of great create art to tear up and expose as folly assumed truths about what’s possible - in both music and in life. And it's fun when great stuff is popular, too.

6 comments:

Boy at Heart said...

I can see your point here. Let's face it. All of us artists, musicians etc. want to make a living doing what we do, rather than a job that we don't.

This means that we need to sell enough of our art or find clever ways to monetize it and bring about people's awareness of it to pay the bills. I think the longtail approach is a good way to gain focus on what you have to say through your art and direct it to greater things.

With the technology available, we can do this and spread the word to groups of people who are already more likely to be on our wavelength and into what we do.

In the (not so) old days, we had to hope that someone in a position of power would love our music so much that they would put up huge sums of money to get us the exposure we needed and in turn sell enough records to make a living. Not many options there, seeing as it's totally out of your control to rely completely on a third party for success. Especially when they have thousands of others all asking them for the same helping hand.

If you focus on your niche. I.e. Target potential fans that are more likely to be into what you do without having to blanket "flypost" the entire web then you can build yourself a platform, a following and thus sow the seed for greater things.

I think that if you set your sights small then you will get small, no more. If you set your sites big then you have the possibility of getting big because your focus, attention and efforts will encompass opportunities that can make that a reality. By starting with a smaller, targeted campaign as a part of a bigger plan I think the long tail has value.

The bottom line is that there is a place for everything. The long tail theory is fine, but like anything else, it is not a replacement for anything.

The mistake many people often make is that when a new idea comes along, the instinct is to drop the old when integration of different approaches that work for you is key.

Well that's how I see it anyway.

Justin Boland said...

Given your role in the industry, I think you need to take your own biases and blinders into account, especially saying something like "There's no Pitchfork for black music." -- it's called Okayplayer.com and you should definitely check it out. There's a number of other sites that come to mind, too, like Nahright.com or Art of Rhyme.

Anyways.

I think in terms of what the media and the music industry are promoting and profiting from, no question, small-time might as well not exist. But there was a huge backlash in the late 1990s when Common and Black Thought did ads for sprite -- and absolutely, the word "Sellout" was evoked the entire time.

There's a whole separate Universe of hip hop purist culture -- CULTURE, not music, not business, and for these people KRS-One is a hero and Dr. Dre is...well, a sellout.

It's definitely not a solid line, because anyone with an honest brain will admit that Jay-Z is an exceptionally talented rapper and it's pointless to hold his success against him. But there's a lot of major success stories that your top-down narrative misses completely -- QN5 and Rhymesayers both come to mind: artists who have banded together, defined a unique sound, and built MASSIVE fan bases off what was considered "niche" indie music.

Granted, Rhymesayers is from Minnesota, but QN5 is right in downtown Brooklyn. Check them out sometime -- they're thumping the shit out of their better-funded competition on Last.fm right now.

Kerim Friedman said...

Interesting post. But I think its important to keep the concept of the "long tail" distinct from that of segmented markets. The long tail is about the ability to make money by having a huge catalog of books that would cost too much to keep on the shelves in a brick and motor store, but cost next to nothing to keep available in digital form. The iTunes music store is a long tail phenomenon. Segmented markets are a different story. The question here is whether you can make money by more narrowly focusing on a particular target audience, thus alienating other potential customers. BET is a product of segmented markets.

You argue that one cannot make money by making music which narrowly targets either black audiences, or aficionados of black music (I'm not sure which). I assume you are correct about this, but I'm not sure what the reason would be. Is it that the distribution channels are not working? The purchasing power of African Americans in 1997 was $469.4 billion. Surely there are opportunities there to make money if one had the proper distribution networks? I believe that such segmented markets existed historically - such as during the Motown era. So why can't they survive in the digital era?

matthew said...

I sympathize with the point about lowered expectations creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I do.

However…

The struggle to reach the top also changes the quality of creative work. Edges are filed blunt, risks are left untaken, and soon the point of making the music is no longer pushing boundaries, but meeting bottom lines.

Ask Aimee Mann. The tunes that brought her back into the public eye in 1999 via the Magnolia soundtrack had been previously shelved by the record company as being unsellable.

Personally, I’m trying a middle way, psychologically. I would like very much to get mainstream exposure, and will be putting my new album out in as many places as possible in hopes of achieving such attention. However, because that is not my primary goal, I have kept commercial concerns out of the recording process, thus it has potential appeal to niche markets as well. I tend to lean towards pop singability anyway, but then so do many indie bands. Some don’t, though, and there is room for all kinds in our widely fragmented music market.

Ditto the commenter who advised us not to conflate niche markets with the long tail. They are related, but are not the same thing.

Anonymous said...

The long tail theory doesn't apply to Black music?

What about African music?
What about Reggae music?
What about Dancehall music?

There are a ton of musicians out there in these genres that are making a decent living traveling around the globe performing and selling music to the people who may or not be black, but love that particular niche...It may not be making people Jay-Z rich, but quite a few of these artists can do more than keep thier lights on.

What about them?

Ben Lazar said...

Well, what about them? Those genres all had artists that made livings prior to the advent of the Internet, so I'd say not much has changed.

My point is that The Long Tail theory, that has it that the Internet will fragment consumer interest and choices because there is so much more choice, is not necessarily true. It's true to an extent, but a much smaller one that I believe Chris Anderson was positing. And I think that black popular music (emphasizing the word "popular") is proof of that. There is far less audience fragmentation in black music then there is in rock n' roll, with all of it's various sub-genres.

You can line up 50 people all who say they love rock, and there's a good chance that they won't be familiar with the others favorite artists.

If you line up 50 people who all love hip-hop, it's overwhelmingly likely that they'll all be familiar with Jay-Z and his music.

That was my point.

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