Monday, September 1, 2008

The Long Tail--Or, Tracking Down Obscure Titles

This weekend I drove my family down to see my Mom and Dad. A good time was had by all. The kids were sufficiently cute to impress the grandparents; the grandparents were sufficiently doting to impress the kids. Everyone got to show off what they've been doing and working on (including the Happy Boy, who is now--I kid you not--sounding out letters. The kid is not yet nineteen months old, doesn't even talk, and yet knows how to make the sounds of many of the letters! I tell you, the Leap Frog videos are really, really effective). And I even managed to get sucked into the swirling vortex of Backyard Maintenance, and wound up helping my Dad repair a section of downed fence.

But just in catching up, my Dad inadvertently got me going off on another crusade: he mentioned an album that he'd recently heard on the radio that he really liked, and mentioned that he'd had some trouble finding a copy--at least, at a reasonable price. It's a pretty obscure title.

My parents listen to a lot of music--and their tastes tend to be pretty sophisticated. They listen to a lot of orchestral and choral music by the great composers; many operas, oratorios, and singspiels; some jazz and ragtime. They have entire racks full of CDs. They would be able to clean up at Name That Tune, so long as the music in question was from prior to the 20th century; and if you limit it to 20th Century orchestral or choral music, they'd likely do very well there too. And, of course, they have their favorites. They could tell you something about most of the big-name opera singers in the world right now, including whose voices they like, and whose voices are so-so, and whose voices they really like.

In fact, to me it seems as though they've gotten to the point where they have most of the non-obscure classical music out there. This means, of course, that to expand their collection, it actually takes some work.

(To be fair, we stumped them this weekend. In the Fairy's piano book, there is a melody from Haydn's "Surprise Symphony"; we wanted to have my parents play the real thing for her. Alas, they didn't have the CD. The odd thing, though, was that their collection is big enough that they couldn't remember whether they had it or not....)


Ok, so Dad has been looking for a work by Richard Strauss entitled The Donkey's Shadow (or, auf Deutsch, Des Esels Schatten). Now if you check out that Amazon link, you will see that Amazon doesn't have it in stock; there are three other sellers out there who have copies, and the least expensive of the three wants over fifty bucks for the thing. Out of curiosity, I also checked the UK Amazon site; they have five potential sellers but the least expensive wants £58.25, which at today's exchange rate is about ten grand.

Good grief. What's so big about this title?

Strauss's work is a comic Singspiel, with a story based on an adaptation
(greatly lengthened and embellished, of course) of one of Aesop's Fables. Here's the original fable, transcribed from the book that we're using:
A traveler who had to cross a desert plain hired a donkey to carry him on the journey, and offered the donkey's owner a good sum to act as a guide. They set out early in the morning, the traveler riding on the donkey and his guide walking alongside. Soon they had left all greenery behind, and as the sun rose higher in the sky, the heat scorched their skins and parched their throats.

At last the traveler called a halt. Since there was no other shade, he threw himself down to rest in the donkey's shadow.

"What right do you have to that shade?" protested the guide. "Move over--that's my place to rest."

"Cheat!" answered the traveler angrily. "Didn't I pay you for the use of the donkey all day long?"

"You paid me for the donkey, it's true," retorted the guide, "but you never paid for his shadow!"

As they argued, neither remembered to keep hold of the donkey's reins. Frightened by the shouting, the donkey took to his heels and ran off across the desert, leaving the two men with no shade to rest in and no beast to ride.

Moral: We lose what really matters when we quarrel over something worthless.
(Brief digression: we've found that a decent collection of Aesop's Fables is an indispensable educational aid for homeschooling those in the younger grades. The stories are short enough that they can easily be read in one short sitting, and short enough to be useful for narration practice. Our edition of Aesop's Fables is this one.)

Well, apparently when Richard Strauss was nearing the end of his life, he decided to do one last work, and settled on a setting of The Donkey's Shadow. He died (in 1949) before the work was completed. I'm not sure of the history of the work--how it was completed, or by whom.

But anyway, the recording I linked to above was made in 1997 and was marketed on the German Koch-Schwann label. It was, by all accounts, an excellent recording; it had some pretty big-name voice talent, including the great actor Peter Ustinov for the narrator. But it was, of course, a fairly obscure recording of a fairly obscure piece of classical music, and so it didn't sell many copies, and went out of stock very quickly--with the few existing copies jealously guarded in the private collections of musical connoisseurs.

Thus, according to Amazon, there are three copies available in the whole of the US, and five available in the whole of the UK. And they're all ridiculously expensive.


So I thought I'd do some digging.

You see, there's this buzzword that has been floating around for the last few years: the Long Tail. Here's how it works.

Suppose that you were to take every album ever created, and arrange it in decreasing order of demand. That is, the latest mass-market release by the currently-most-popular artist goes on the left, and Slim Wittinstein's Favorite Bathtime Yodels goes way out on the right. Then we plot, for each album, how much demand there is for it. The curve likely would look something like the blue line in the graph below:
Now, mass market retailers--and the big music distributors--like to operate at the left side of the curve. It's a whole lot easier to make money, if you have an artist that can sell several hundred thousand copies. When someone is making those kinds of sales, you don't want to have non-moving titles taking up space on your store shelves. You must always be purging the shelves, to make room for the Next Big Thing--with emphasis on the word Big.

The red line in the above graph represents the point at which a typical retailer won't carry a title. Every brick-and-mortar retailer, of necessity, has such a limit; after all, there are so many weird, unusual, forgotten titles out there, that even if your store only carries one of each, there wouldn't be any room left for the stuff that sells in quantity and pays the bills. Now, different stores and chains may have that red line at different points--for example, Barnes and Noble has this line farther to the right than Waldenbooks or B. Dalton, simply because they usually have more physical shelf space. But even B&N has to make decisions about what they will and what they won't carry. Obscure titles, that sell only one or two a month, won't pay the bills....

...except that, oddly enough, they just might. After all, if you have one copy of a really, really weird, forgotten, obscure item, all you need is to find one buyer. The trick is, that one buyer may be in a completely different state or country. If you can find a way of matching up an album in Dubuque with a buyer in Albuquerque, there's some serious business to be done. The fact is, while there are zillions of titles out there with rock-bottom demand, there are also zillions of buyers out there who desire those obscure titles; if you can match them all up, you can do zillions of dollars worth of business.

It is this low-volume market that is referred to as the Long Tail, and it turns out that this market--in music, in books, in movies--is huge. And with the coming of the internet--especially companies like, EBay, and iTunes, there are actually working business models now that can tap this market.

Incidentally, I first was introduced to the term "Long Tail" over at the Instapundit's site, where he was talking about this book.


So my search began. Does Amazon have a copy of the 1997 Koch-Schwann recording of The Donkey's Shadow? Yes--and they're all too expensive.

Ok. Does EBay have a copy? No.

Well, then. How about iTunes?

I was actually impressed by how much Strauss stuff iTunes had--a good 25 pages full of albums. But alas, they didn't have The Donkey's Shadow. They had nearly every other thing ever written by Strauss--Also Sprach Zarathustra, Der Rosenkavalier, the Egyptians, numerous other operas and tone poems, numerous collections of Lieder, but they didn't have that one.

I was surprised by this, truth be told. The iTunes business model seems perfectly designed to go after obscure titles like this one; all they have to do is get enough server space, which is
really cheap these days, and they just put up all the mp3 files from any album produced. And because they're selling music in the form of information, they never have to worry about a title going out of print or becoming otherwise unavailable. And I checked around, and found some other obscure titles available on iTunes. So... I wondered what else was going on.

I decided to check up on the Koch-Schwann label. Who are they?

Well, unfortunately the correct question is, "Who were they." Turns out they were bought out by Universal Music Group back around 2002. And after that, they decided they didn't need the label anymore, and they shut it down.

So on a lark, I decided to go to the Universal website and see if I could find any clue that there had once been a Koch-Schwann label, and whether any of their albums were in the Universal catalog.

And the first things that assaulted my eyes as I entered the Universal website were lots of very hip, depressed-looking young musicians with grungy clothes and very modern-looking guitars, under advertisements for the latest releases.

It was most un-Strauss like. And, no surprise, browsing their catalog revealed no titles for Richard Strauss.

So I poked around. First I went over to the Universal Germany site, figuring that since Richard Strauss was a German--and since Koch-Schwann was a German label--it might be there. Nope; most of what they had were very depressed-looking German "alternative" musicians. (And the site was in German, too--which made it a little hard for me to browse. Three years of high-school German, and so little to show for it.... sigh.)

A little more research: it appeared that Universal put all its classical titles into its "Decca" label. So I browsed over to the Decca site and looked. Nope; they had a little Strauss, but nothing from the Koch-Schwann era, that I could tell.

So what we have here is a Giant Music Producer/Distributor that appears to have bought up and dismantled a smaller rival, and then dropped its entire catalog down the memory hole. And they appear to have done this, even though there is now a company out there--iTunes--that has a workable distribution channel for these old, obscure titles, with the potential to turn a modest profit from these old catalogs. There would seem to be no downside to working out some kind of distribution deal with iTunes, yet they haven't done so. What gives?

Two possibilities come to mind. The first, which I've heard bandied about quite a bit, is that these giant distributors are basically dinosaurs--so wedded to the mass-market approach that they've ridden so well for nearly the last century--that they can't update their thinking.

I'm not sure I go with this reason; if there's a profit to be made, I suspect that one of their corporate officers will sniff it out eventually.

The second possibility, which I think is more likely (based on my extremely limited knowledge), is that the larger music producers/distributors see any form of file sharing as a threat to their core business model. These guys got big through aggressive enforcement of their intellectual property rights, and through strict control of the distribution channels. If you wanted to listen to your favorite artist, you had to go through them to do it. Now that music can be easily transmitted point-to-point over the internet, there is a distribution system out there that has the power to bypass them entirely--and it makes the enforcement of intellectual property rights much, much more difficult. Furthermore, the ability of the internet to serve the Long Tail threatens the mass market, too; after all, in the past, many people bought the mass market stuff because that's all that was available. But now, they can access anything they want, no matter how obscure; and so the mass market stuff has new competition for our entertainment dollars, in the form of thousands of obscure albums out there, some of which are pretty decent.

So while they could in theory make a profit by licensing all their old catalogs through iTunes, they would much rather see iTunes and the file sharing sites simply go away.

Simply Go Away.

So I hate to say it, but I'm thinking more and more that I'd be surprised to see the 1997 Donkey's Shadow show up on iTunes anytime soon, although I'd be gratified if it did. I think that Universal is probably content to let their old, legacy catalogs slide away, because the alternative would be to boost a new form of distribution that their industry considers a mortal threat. Which is, of course, a crying shame.


So, to my legions of loyal readers: um... If any of you happen to have a copy of this lying around that you haven't listened to in a while, let me know, m'kay? Thanks. ;-)


Arby said...

Did you see

Uvulapie said...

Yeah... that one... a mere $13.29!

Timothy Power said...

Wow, you guys are fast. Thanks for the tip on this! I'll have to remember this site....

Uvulapie said...

Except that it's no longer available. My local library, normally full -o- obscure classical music, wasn't much help. Good luck!

Timothy Power said...

Well, we'll have to see. I called my Dad about this link last night; he may have gotten the last copy. Or not....