Is the Music Industry still a Superstar Economy?

Over the past decade, technological evangelists forecasted emergent digital technologies empowering the masses of smaller, niche artists, whilst weakening the supremacy superstar artists have within the music industry – this has been coined as the theory of the long tail, the economic notion that our culture is increasingly shifting away from a small number of ‘hits’ at the head of the demand curve and towards the huge number of niche tracks in the tail.

However, data collected throughout the Audiomonitor waves, suggests that this theory is being disproven. Pop has consistently ranked as the top genre, this time at 44% – superstars are in fact capturing the vast majority of consumer listenership, and their share is increasing, not decreasing, through the rise of new online access models, like online streaming.

When you examine the causal symptoms to this effect, two triggers emerge. Music fans now have greater choice, both in terms of access and price, as digital technologies have enabled artists and record labels to distribute a wider variety of music to potential worldwide audiences cheaply and easily – and this has created a diverse and endless supply of music that consumers can listen to. However, offering too much choice causes ‘choice paralysis’ – faced with an almost endless choice of music, listeners are overwhelmingly sticking to the hits. If a consumer has access to every piece of music ever made how do they find anything? How do they discover anything other than what they already know? And once they’re past that point, how do they form a lasting relationship with a transient digital file that exists in the cloud, rather than a physical object they can see and touch?

This, coupled with the second trigger – quality – further explains why the tail of demand is looking distinctly thin compared to its much ‘fatter head’. More artists and labels releasing more music does not necessarily mean more quality, it’s quite the opposite, as the ‘quality gate’ has effectively been removed. There have been murmurs amongst analysts in recent years that the internet could act as the slayer of the dominant major record labels, making A&R and long-standing distribution channels obsolete as music fans and artists can now bypass traditional ways of connecting with each other.

However, with a staggering amount of music on offer, now more than ever does the consumer need a filtering process, and one thing record labels do is act as a crucial filter of quality and taste. A&R teams find great new talent, while at a DIY independent level artists can all too easily succumb to a culture of self-satisfaction and artificial positive feedback from those closest to them (friends, family and early fans providing praise rather than the honest truth). This leads to a plethora of sub-standard music becoming available, and thus the vast catalogues of music available to everyone mostly consisting of small start-up artists that simply aren’t good enough – It’s perhaps no wonder that 20% of the 30+ million tracks available on Spotify have never been played.

This leads to the suggestion that the reason why emergent technologies and services haven’t ignited a long-tail era for music is much more straightforward. Whilst the internet and connected devices have revolutionised music consumption, offering users infinite amount of tracks instantaneously, the pool of genuine talent is as limited as it has always been and this is still governed by the gatekeepers and taste makers that manage it.

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