Musings From the Tail

NOTE: This blog was originally posted at BretAlexanderMusic.com

The Real GigThere is a book called The Long Tail that I would recommend every musician should read. It’s not about music specifically, but many of the stories included in the book are about the music business. Basically, it’s a book about economics. The premise is that the future of selling is “selling less of more”. Applied to the music business, this means that it is better and more realistic to sell 100 people 10 records than to sell 1000 people 1 record.

To clarify further, it is better to feed 100 diehard fans with multiple releases over the next 3 years than it is to try and get 1000 people to buy the 1 release that you took 3 years to make. Either way, you sold 1000 records. But with option A, you now have 10 collections of music and some happy diehard fans.

The book puts out the premise that with the democratizing of the production and distribution of music there is infinitely more choice, both in actual music you can consume and in the ways to get it. So with all this choice people are buying less of more. Music doesn’t sell in the numbers it once did, but a bigger variety is being consumed. There is so much more to choose from. Everyone is splintering into thousands of little niches. So your best course of action as a creator is to nurture and take care of the core people who are really passionate about what you do.

To paraphrase Russell Simmons, “I am interested in the person who buys my records the day they come out. That is the guy I want to keep happy. Everyone else is just buying a pet rock.”

Many of you may remember years ago when Pearl Jam was releasing live CDs of all the dates on their tour. It was a controversial, almost laughable idea at the time. The wisdom was, “Who in the hell wants 12 live versions of ‘Evenflow’?” Of course, the answer was “A shitload of people do.” Pearl Jam understood their fans. Now it is commonplace to be able to find such records of your favorite bands on tour. No one is laughing now.

Basically, the book is called The Long Tail because if you look at a graph of what people buy, there is a “head” and a “tail”. At the head are the Justin Bieber’s and Rihanna’s of the world who sold X million downloads, CDs, whatever. In the tail is X million local bands that sold 10 records each. The head is a small group of big sellers. The tail goes on forever. In the grand economic sense, each group sold about the same. So the tail is worth something.

Most of us are somewhere in the tail. The far right is the hobbyists and people who just play for fun. The middle is where the vocational, day to day musicians live. That’s where I am.

The personal computer and the internet have totally changed the ballgame for the music biz and just about every other business on the face of the planet. It’s very tricky to be in the middle of the tail and survive. For example, I have been producing records for over 20 years. When I started there was a console and an analog tape deck and you had to know how to make good sounds come out of that. Now every Tom, Dick, and Harry has some sort of recording setup with built in sounds that sound pretty darn good. It’s laid out logically. A 10-year-old can figure it out. The tools of production have been democratized.

It used to be that you had to get a record deal to get into stores so the masses could find your music. That has been democratized too.

So you don’t need to buy time at a million dollar studio or sign your life away to a major label to get your music heard. That’s good news, right? Yes, it is.

But…with democracy also comes more garbage. Anyone can make a record, so “anyone” does. Many of them suck to the high heavens. Recording tools are cheap so everyone and their brother has a “studio”. Hell, a lot of them make records for free, man. Once again, many suck beyond words. But shitty as they are, they take a toll on the pros who spent their lives learning how to produce, engineer, play and write on a real level.

But still, I’m going to say this is a good thing. There is more garbage, but looking at the numbers there is more good stuff out there by opening up the playing field than if you had to go through the same rock and roll boot camp of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

But…I emphasize the word “good”, not “great”. I don’t think all these new tools have created any more “greatness” than 40 years ago. Not by a long shot.

A friend of mine (who worked at a major label) once compared the new music business to the wild, wild, west. Everyone is just homesteading wherever and trying to make a life for themselves. You have to chop down the trees, build your own house, gather your own firewood, and catch your own food. Homesteading.

You have to do everything yourself. And that means booking, teaching lessons, playing shitty gigs for cash, producing, making your own records, working in a music store, etc. etc. You can’t specialize anymore. There are no company men in the world of vocational musicians. No one is going to take care of you just because you show up every day.

So that makes me ask the out there question: “How many amazing records would Led Zeppelin have made if they had to spend all day catching fish?” Probably not many.

So, in that way, the democratizing of the music biz may be good for the geek down the street who wants to put his new music video about farting on YouTube. But it is going to make for a much tougher road for the next Jimmy Page. Unless he has a rich uncle.

So there you have some musings from the tail. So I guess the conclusion would be that all this democratizing is good overall for music and fans of music. There’s more music available to everyone. But it makes it much rougher for guy or girl with real talent and no means who wants to rise above it all.

Still, musicians always find a way to survive. It will always be this way. Perhaps we will come up with a better way of doing things. Maybe today’s homestead will be tomorrow’s castle. And the spoiled brats who are our musical grandchildren will inherit the whole mess. Isn’t that the American Way?


The Real GigBret Alexander is the owner of Saturation Acres Recording Studio as well as the guitarist and chief songwriter for The Badlees.

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