The Long Tail of New Music

Lately I have been thinking about The Long Tail, a term coined by Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. The term refers to a distribution theory and is taken from a book Anderson wrote called The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (2006). Here is what it looks like:

The Long tail

In the diagram above, the long tail is represented by the yellow tail, and bestsellers are represented by the green part on the left.

Basically, what Anderson argues is that low demand products that have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters, if the store or distribution channel is large enough. I am not so sure that the long tail correlates to high quality, just distribution or perhaps micro-distribution and perhaps individuality.

What interests me is the implication this has for composers and new classical music. It should be obvious to everyone by now in the classical music world—performers, composers, conductors and record companies—that the future of recordings lies in digital distribution, and for better or worse, physical recordings will become extinct, at least in their current form. Don't get me wrong: I love the physical sensation of holding a CD or record (especially records: those were cool—all those big photos!), but the efficiency of digital media is just too enticing, technology is constantly getting better, and album art, program notes and the like are becoming easier to access via digital players.

But how does this effect composers?

I think technology and instantaneous track switching will create a new form of classical music, one that's more malleable, more like a Mashup. It is already happening, but is still not that prevalent. If customers can combine individual tracks in the order they want, what's to stop them from combining parts of pieces, modulating them instantaneously (both with pitch and tempo), and creating whole new pieces? Cadenzas from one concerto or recording by a certain artist could be added to another. This process requires at least some level of musical intelligence and patience, but it is becoming easier to do over time.

The big mistake is thinking that our Garage Band culture and level of education can always substitute for the artistry of those who toil their whole lives, creating work that is truly earth shaking, moving and timeless. What we end up with in a creatively free YouTube society, one in which the tools are easy to use but the education and craft are still difficult (after all, plugging our brains into a sort of Matrix, Total Recall upload scenario is still not really here yet, at least in an off-the-shelf sort of way) is either appropriating someone else's ideas and calling them our own (which many of us do anyway, but often in a subtler fashion) or creating work that is vapid, lacking depth and silly. Don't get me wrong, I love silliness more than most composers, but are we really going to cherish Evolution of Dance in 50 years?

Laurence Lessig, that bastion of free creativity, has some interesting ideas on this front, but as far as I know, he does not really create, he just pontificates, and he gets some of it wrong. Creative Commons is an interesting and extremely useful idea, but sometimes, it takes the mind of one individual to create something truly fresh and extraordinary. Lord of the Rings, Berio's Sinfonia, The Ring Cycle, and other classics could not have been created in a YouTube culture. Maybe that will change, but for now, it hasn't.

We have the potential to create works with infinite variables, and have them all available, all the time. This type of world will reply on filters we can trust: excellent librarians, store clerks (online or off) with PhD's, and so on. We simply won't have time to filter it all ourselves. Perhaps the Amazon approach to reviewing will help filter for us, but who knows what the level of education is of the people doing the reviewing? Wikipedia, as much as I love it, has a similar problem, but at least there is always a way to correct someone if they are wrong, and you hope that over time, correct information wins out over incorrect by virtue of its correctness.

With modern classical music, it seems that The Long Tail will end up being a sort of Deadhead type of availability of potentially infinite variables of different works, whether via recordings or something truly creative. The question is, how many Long Tail creations will actually equal the quality of the best of the best sellers? Does quality correlate to availability? We shall see...