Why doesn’t iTunes have a long tail?

One of the supposed strategic advantages of online retailers like Amazon and iTunes is their much larger stock of products.

long tail musicAs Chris Anderson has described, if we look at the distribution of popularity of many products (such as books, movies, songs, search phrases) there is a very lengthy tail of titles and choices which the mightily heterogenous world of consumers might be interested in purchasing. Certain firms are very well positioned to take advantage of this long tail phenomenon by either catering solely to some portion of the tail (some micro-niche), by making search for such products practical, and/or by holding massively diverse portfolios.

Amazon has been lauded as a success story based on the last two elements, especially through its aggregation of the used books market. It would seem to do a reasonable job on the music side of things.

Elsewhere in the music market, CD Baby has sold more than 5 million CDs by independent artists (from a current stable of around 278,000 titles) thus tapping into the micro-niche end of the spectrum.

The other big player is Apple’s iTunes, which reportedly has more than 8 million songs on offer. But this is where it seems to fall down.

I have been recently revisiting some CDs from my pretty large collection, in particular a minor Aussie hit album from the mid-1990s by a band called the Clouds. This release charted way back when, along with efforts from other local outfits like Ratcat, The Falling Joys, and The Hummingbirds.

The strange thing is that these albums, once popular enough to justify record deals, have disappeared from the retail environment. They are NOT available from iTunes, nor are they still in print as physical releases.

The bands, their publishers and their original record labels have dropped the ball here. Surely there is little to no cost or risk in getting this material listed on iTunes. Likewise, Apple is being far lazier than I expected in building up the inventory of their store.

Is there perhaps a niche role here for some entrepreneur in identifying back catalogue for iTunes? This could extend to some shopfront for fans of this sort of music (and presumably the same for many other niche genres). A physical counterpart to this is Collingwood’s Aztec Music which rereleases long-lost 70s and 80s albums on vinyl.

At the moment, folks are forced to illegally share access to a considerable portion of history’s record music. When, exactly, will this long tail shift out of the black market?

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7 Responses to “Why doesn’t iTunes have a long tail?”

  1. Steve Sammartino Says:

    I really interesting insight. Where the opportunity for entrepreneurs isn’t about technology, but knowledge. The knowledge that the stuff exists (or existed in the bricks & mortar world) and demand is there should the cool stuff from the past re-appear. I’ve no doubt there’s enough long tail music for a new service to emerge to capture demand. Also the way search engines work, it would surely bubble to the top of Google for fans to find easily.

    It reminds me a great deal of the current ‘cooking / chef’ phenomenon which I think is more about the fact that we are the first generation to lose the basic skills of cooking and growing food which has been inextricably linked to human existence.

    Steve.

  2. Tom Osegowitsch Says:

    Here’s a link to some recent research into the long tail:
    http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2338

  3. Tweets that mention Why doesn’t iTunes have a long tail? « International BS Blog -- Topsy.com Says:

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  4. ethanhuynh Says:

    The author was confused by the term “long tail”. IMO this term is best used to visualize how a model works (Amazon’s long tail of books, Google’s long tail of niche keywords and search results…), but when applying this concept strictly to a specific model to see if it’s a long tail business it can yield biased conclusions. He cannot find one specific album on the store doesn’t mean iTunes is a no “long tail” store. Or like when I cannot find a book on amazon it doesn’t mean Amazon is a no long tail business.

    So rather trying to conclude if iTunes is a long tail business by looking for one specific item and see if it’s available, a better and more precise way to do it is to look at the stats (quantity of “niche” songs sold compared to the more popular ones, revenue earned from those niche songs …) to see if iTunes selling a large number of unique items in relatively small quantities.

  5. Gibbon Says:

    The article assumes that older releases are unavailable due to laziness. This is not always the case.

    Recordings can be deleted for any number of reasons including: infighting, copyright issues, legal issues, embarrassment, ego, lack of interest, changing trends.. you name it.

    In some cases the rights, once sold to a label, can exchange hands so many times, that ownership can’t even be determined.

    In particular, if any of the affected parties go out of business, the songs can end up in limbo for eternity.

  6. the long tail « interlucation Says:

    […] Why doesn’t iTunes have a long tail? (internationalbs.wordpress.com) […]

  7. Andre Sammartino Says:

    Just an update: the Clouds and Rat Cat are now available on iTunes. The works of the Falling Joys and The Hummingbirds (plus others of note such as The Welcome Mat) remain elusive…

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