Life and death in the long tail of music

One of my favorite pastimes is shopping for and collecting vinyl records. Old recordings, new recordings, hard-to-find recordings, you name it. If it’s an album that I like, or has a song that I like a lot, I need it on vinyl. It’s an odd obsession, perhaps. Odd because it is neither logical nor practical to seek out music on a medium stuck in the previous century. I could tell you that the sound of analog has something that digital formats lack, and maybe it does, but that’s not why I’m obsessed with it.

I’m obsessed with the tactile nature of it, the thrill of flipping through stacks of records looking for that hidden treasure, the feel of a record in my hands, the smell of an old piece of vinyl, and the aesthetic joy of dropping it on my turntable, watching it spin, hearing it crackle, and listening to the music. I relish organizing my collection, keeping it alphabetized within my own genre classification scheme. I even like the labor involved in getting out of my chair to flip the record. It’s my way of getting to know the music. I also really enjoy playing my records for others, finding the best mix, finding that song that blends seamlessly with Billie Jean, and so forth. I’m not a DJ, but I like playing one in public occasionally.

It’s a harmless passion, you might say, one that might lighten my pocketbook a bit but brings me immeasurable joy, so what’s the problem? The problem is that another of my passions, technology, is radically changing the music industry, and ultimately I fear it will make my obsession impossible to satiate. Music stores, even those bland, boring major retailers, are dropping like flies. Vinyl is expensive to make, and once DJs fully transition to cool shit like Final Scratch, the major market for wax will vanish, and vinyl will go the way of 8-track tapes. CDs, ever more so.

My recent trip “back east” to DC is a case in point. Like most places, the DC area used to be thick with quality record stores. Vinyl Ink, Phantasmagoria, Smash, DCCD, 12″ Dance Records, to name a few. It seems like only yesterday that I couldn’t turn a corner in DC without tripping over a record store. But on this last trip, it was as though a music-borne plague had hit the city, killing off record stores by the scores. Vinyl Ink and Phantasmagoria are ancient history, no surprise there. But DCCD was shuttered and abandoned. Melody Records (or Melody CDs, it should be called, because there is no vinyl) seems to have gone the way of Wal-Mart, selling only the top 40 titles that make me yawn. Nothing in there for me, or anyone else evidently, since it was empty. So I bounced over to Georgetown to visit Smash! Records.

Smash was a mainstay of my youth, selling all the artifacts of the punk-rock lifestyle: records, Doc Martens, T-shirts, leather jackets, spiked bracelets and punk-rock accoutrements of every shape and size. But I was dismayed to find the store literally shutting down as I entered it. Dying before my very eyes! Movers were hauling off boxes of records and merchandise and store workers were dismantling the shelves. “We’re closing down for a while, looking for a new location,” the cashier informed me. Right now? Right this second? After like 20 years on the same block? WTF, mate?

Bewildered, I got back into my step-dad’s convertible and pointed it back towards Dupont Circle, where I hoped to find DJ Hut (nee 12″ Dance Records) still open and healthy. Driving east on P Street, past 20th, I peered up to the second floor space where DJ Hut was supposed to be, half expecting to see another abandoned storefront. I was relieved to find the lights still on. DJ Hut was uninfected, so far, with this insidious virus. I popped in and browsed around for a while, found a few things I was looking for, and a few things I didn’t know I was looking for. As I was checking out, I remarked to one of the owners that it seemed like all the music stores in the area were dropping like flies. “Yeah, people prefer to steal music rather than buy it, so this is what happens,” he lamented. It would be cruel to debate the finer points of the new economy with a guy who has been watching his peers die off and his sales plummet. It’s like trying to explain to a dying man that he’s not really dying from lung cancer per se, but rather from his own addiction to cigarettes, which of course probably caused his cancer. Who cares what the ultimate cause of death is or whose fault it is? The point is he’s dying and it sucks.

It sucks for me too, because I happen to love visiting physical music stores, digging through the crates, chatting with the shop owners, and buying records. As I left I pondered, and not for the first time, the nature of this ‘disease’ killing off small music shops, and the music industry generally. What’s going on? Is it really those darned file-sharers, downloading music to their hearts’ content and not paying a cent for it? Is it the greedy music executives, shoving stupid manufactured hits down our throats and insisting we pay $20 for the privilege of owning it? Or can it be all explained by the “new economy,” the effects of the Internet on traditional business strategies, and that much-hyped “Long Tail” theory.

The answer is yes to all of the above, and particularly the last question. This is the dark side of the new economy. Small retailers (and large ones, but who gives a shit about them?) will adapt or die. Independent recording studios, recording engineers and artists will adapt or die. Just take a look at all the great shops, and the not so great shops, closing down. This is death in the Long Tail.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Long Tail, it’s a very interesting and timely term, not coined but capitalized by Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired, and wonderfully illustrated and described in his book “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less or More.” Anderson argues that the Internet, with its unlimited shelf-space and efficient distribution channels, is redefining the marketplace for all sorts of things, from music to books to movies to obscure products. The notion is that successful businesses can and will “sell less of more.” Traditional businesses, particularly in the music industry, have focused on the most popular products – think Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, etc. They have focused on these popular products because statistically they sell the most. They work on the 80-20 rule: 20% of the products comprise 80% of the sales. Put another way, why would Wal-Mart waste their shelf space on some obscure artist who sells 1 CD a week when they could use that space for the latest top 40 artist who sells 30 CDs a week? It’s a question of logistics, and the response from a business perspective is to stick with what sells. Yet what Anderson found, from analyzing the data from many different sources, is that when the artificial bottle neck of physical shelf-space is eliminated, as it is on the Internet, then there is a powerful market for less popular music. Forget about the 80-20 rule, nearly all products in an Internet based business – say Amazon, NetFlix, Rhapsody, iTunes Music Store, sell well. It’s all about allowing an avenue for niche markets, something major retailers rarely did, but is the lifeblood of independent music stores.

Intuitively, most readers of this post will appreciate niche markets, and the Long Tail thesis. Most of you, or at least the few that I’ve had the privilege to meet, live in and for the Long Tail. We all listen to obscure music – call it indy, underground, alternative, whatever. We might take a trip up to the ‘head’ now and again, consuming more popular products, but we actively seek out new, interesting and/or obscure cultural artifacts.

So, if the Long Tail thesis proves to be true, then we all have a great deal to be excited about, and plenty to fear as well. It should be easier for us to find and obtain what we are looking for. Recommendation services should be able to tell us what we will like. It will be easier to buy what we like because we we’ll find it and buy it online. Artists will be more motivated to put their music out there, because there will be less over-head, less risk, and less expectation associated with releasing one’s work. At the same time, it means that traditional means of consuming the art we are so passionate about will change, dramatically. It also means that what we covet, this secret love and appreciation for undiscovered music, will be exposed for the world to see and consume.

There is a profound richness to the Long Tail. This is an extraordinary time for music, literature, movies, and art of every shape and form. Artists should have hope that they don’t need to break into popular culture to survive. They can find a happy home in the Tail. In my view, it’s where culture truly lives. It’s not in the big hits, the popular ‘culture,’ but in the stuff sitting out on the Tail; authentic expression that, if things go right, might find it’s way into the popular consciousness.

But the problem is that, for all of the life in the Long Tail, there is death as well. And I’m not totally prepared to stop grieving the loss. For every exciting opportunity to find and obtain stuff, there is another closed record shop, shuttered bookstore and dead cultural center. Gone will be the days when we pop into a local store, talk to the owner, and learn about some new artist or idea. Instead, we’ll get a similar outcome (being exposed to something new) without the face-to-face interaction or tactile joy of handling a cultural artifact. And for me, personally, the prospect of no more wasted afternoons at a record store is difficult to swallow. In the Long Tail economy, if you can call it that, we might be exposed to more kinds of culture, but we also have to adjust our expectations, hobbies, and behaviors to function in this new landscape.

This ‘malaise’ killing off small music retailers is incurable and only part of a much larger trend towards direct consumer interaction. The only hope for these folks is to adapt to the new landscape and find a way to survive, both as artists and consumers. It’s heartening to find that many small shops understand this, and are opening online shopping sites where users may browse and buy stuff over the Internet. Thankfully, some folks get the tacit rule of the new economy: Adapt or die. That’s the way it’s been throughout our existence, so why shouldn’t the same hold true today?

8 responses to “Life and death in the long tail of music”

  1. Lane says:

    Hey Brooke, commenting just south of you in Palo Alto.

    I still think the “electronic 90’s” have been better for music that not. Yes it has changed the way things are distributed and yes I miss 12″ jackets as much as anyone. (And in some cases that jacket was better than the music on the wax inside,)

    But the whole revolution has fostered more music, not less. It has empowered more artists, not fewer. (In fact one real downside could be that more people can now indulge in delusions of artistic greatness at the risk of thier future economic well-being.)

    Yes the physical culture that attended music for the last 40 years is long gone (I too loved Smash Records, as a refuge from all the things that led me to Washington in 1987.) But that’s that, I now love websites and . . . (I don’t have that much time to waste anymore :{ !

    In any event, in the world of music it is about the sound. And now a days there’s more of it than ever!

  2. brooke says:

    Hey Lane,

    I agree. Not only more music, but better access to that music, thanks in large part to the technologies that are simultaneously pushing demand down the long tail and knocking off the physical retailers — Sites like Amazon, iTunes, Rhapsody, etc, P2P networks and the filtering technologies (like recommendation systems) that help us sort out the noise and get to the good stuff. On balance, we are far better off with all the changes underway in the music industry.

    I wish I shared your indifference towards the loss of small record shops though. I use some websites also, but can’t imagine not being able to walk into a shop and flip through the crates. There is also something to say for the engineers and producers who rely in large part on a traditional business model to survive. With things as they are now, it’s as though there is no safe ground to stand on professionally. I feel for the lot of them; but like I said, it’s time to adapt to the changes underway.

  3. Lane says:

    It’s weird, the music business is weird. I wouldn’t want to be in it. I didn’t mean to sound indifferent to small record shop owners but they know they are connected to the whole system and that system never privlidged the artists, it’s always been set up to the advantage of the business people.

    I agree that the “looking” at music isn’t there anymore. Hours wasted at Musicland and The Record Bar will never come back, I’m glad I had them. But I also think of something Joni Mitchell said in the New Yorker “the music business stinks, I hope the whole thing goes down the toilet.”

    I hope these changes will help the artists, we’ll see.

  4. Tim Wager says:

    I, too, mourn the loss of many a great vinyl outlet, but get great finds (and have wonderful interactions with people) at yard sales. Nothing gets somebody talking like buying their old copy of, say, the Diva soundtrack. They’ll tell you about how they loved the movie and saw it fifteen times and used to listen to the record all the time. Knowing that they’ve long ago tossed out their turntable and have no room for records, they’ll reluctantly take a dollar for the record, happy to have had the experience of chatting with some random stranger about old memories. Then I get to take the record home and listen to that sucker and file it away, along with my new memories of meeting someone new. That’s what I call a good time.

    Sure, I don’t really find out about current music like I used to from record store owners, but I do find things that I’d never ever have found out about. I once scored a goldmine of 10″ records from Romania — jazz, folk songs, classical, etc. — from a woman who went to Eastern Europe in the mid-60s on some cultural exchange trip. Finding things that are very rare indeed, that I never heard of before, that I just *know* from looking at the sleeve that I’m going to love . . . please, may it never end.

    I wonder where yard sales fit into the long tail. Or Ebay, too.

  5. Dave says:

    Can you really praise the long tail and simultanesously mourn the death or vinyl retail? Isn’t the long tail better served by digital media? Isn/t vinyl mere nostalgia — it’s easier to roll a joint on a record sleeve than a copy of The Wire?

  6. brooke says:

    Interesting comments! Lane, it’s funny to quote a famous rockstar about how crap the music industry is. I mean, where would she be without it? It’s not as though she woke up one day as a rich, influential rockstar. She is a product of the industry just like any other artist. Just looking at her chart rankings for her 20 odd albums, over half are in the top 40; all but one is in the top 100. I commend her for wanting to pursue her art on her terms, but were it not for her popular success, she’d have to do that art in the evening when she got back from her shift at Wal-Mart. At any rate, the music industry is pretty nasty, and hopefully the changes underway will be good for artists and fans alike.

    As for Dave’s questions, my answers would be yes, not really and “i can do that blind folded, handcuffed, during a tornado, holmes.”

    Seriously, I think it’s fair game to discuss the negative aspects of this new economy — namely the challenge it poses to ‘good guys’ like small record retailers who are getting squeezed out of their jobs. Maybe, hopefully, they survive online. Maybe some of them can keep their doors open. But the whole thing about the Long Tail is that it supports variety and mass customization. Maybe you want your music in a digital format. I want it in digital and on vinyl. So I don’t think vinyl is mere nostalgia.

    As Time notes, as long as demand remains, vinyl is another niche market that can live on in the digital world, perhaps in that giant yardsale in cyberspace, eBay. It certainly does now, I find all kinds of crazy shit on eBay. The one problem for vinyl is the manufacturing costs. It costs a lot to make a piece of vinyl. The equipment costs money, there is a lot of skill involved, etc. Books can be printed on demand and mailed to you, vinyl not so (yet). So many artists, particularly artists whose works I might want to buy on vinyl, probably won’t press their stuff to wax because of the cost.

    But if I may go futuristic on y’all for a second — in the last chapter of The Long Tail, Anderson imagines a world where we all “3D printers” in our home offices (these exist in a form now, but they are pricey), Such devices could feasibly allow us to order something on line (say a song or album), download it, and print it at home, wax, sleeve, liner notes and all. Hell yeah. It’s crazy talk, you say, but as Anderson notes “It sounds like science fiction, but then again so did having an entire music library in your pocket just a decade ago.”

    I’ll still miss those geeky record shop owners, though…

  7. i doubt major cities will lose their record stores soon. retail in DC has always seemed a little shaky to me — same with its venues for good movies. but i can walk to half a dozen or more used vinyl shops within minutes of my office and those places seem to do as well as ever, fat old bearded owners and all.

    i liked your post. i’ve been itching to buy a turntable. it’s been about 15 years since i’ve had one. i don’t know what happened to my limited vinyl collection (i grew up on tapes rather than records) but i’m eager to spend some time rifling through used bins in the village. jeremy and nikki both had neat little suitcase turntables at home and jeremy kept playing his john yoko 7″ (covers of magnetic fields’ “papa was a rodeo” and smog’s “the morning paper”) and i was grooving on the retro technology. then we went to dinner at lisa t’s house and on their hi-tech turntable they were playing hall and oates, rock and soul part one. ah, summer. could anything sound better?

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