In this digital age of seemingly infinite choice of music that’s easy to access and at low cost (or free) it would easy to assume that the music listening masses would broaden their horizons a little. The Long Tail economy surely applies to music as much if not more than any other popular media. Not so according to various sales and download figures which suggest that in the current market, music sales are showing a higher propensity to the more popular tracks/artists than they did 5 years ago. There are various possible reasons for this (the paradox of choice, pack mentality, an explosion in poor taste) and it would be easy to dismiss this as this as mere statistics, but with recording artists struggling to cover costs and labels slashing rosters the harsh reality is only too obvious for some. What’s even more depressing is that there’s evidence in the movie and book worlds higher selling items often get better reviews, even when they suck. This is a known phenomenon:
In “Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour”, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read “The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.
Could this be the same for music and more specifically metal? My apparent snobbishness leads me to automatically assume that it doesn’t. Metal is a hugely diverse genre, and metal fans, despite being somewhat cliquey, are a diverse and contrary bunch who positively revel in the lonely outposts of the long tail. But is this really the case? I decided to do a little research on the matter. This lead me on a bit of an odyssey. I’m a closet stats junkie, and I’m easily distracted by trivia, so this is more of a journey than a destination, but I thought I’d share what I found anyway.
So firstly, do metallers show a propensity to rate popular music more highly? I headed off the social review site rateyourmusic.com and pulled the charts for the highest rated metal album of all time.
- Black Sabbath – Paranoid
- Metallica – Master of Puppets
- Black Sabbath – Master of Reality
- Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
- Metallica – Ride the Lightning
- Megadeth – Rust in Peace
- Kyuss – Welcome to Sky Valley
- Tool – Ænima
- Slayer – Reign in Blood
- Death – Symbolic
- Opeth – Still Life
- Opeth – Blackwater Park
- Tool – Lateralus
- Iron Maiden – Powerslave
- Judas Priest – Painkiller
(full chart here)
Now, I’m not going to get into the relative merits or shortcomings of this list, I don’t really agree with it, however it seems reasonable and everything there certainly warrants a mention in the context of the best ever metal albums – there are no real stinkers here. The caveat here is that folks who write reviews on this site will tend to be self styled ‘critics’ rather than the casual listeners.
So, how does that compare to what people actually listen to. I pulled a (somewhat patchy) chart of overall listens of metal bands from last.fm.
|2||System of a Down||110,234,856||1,859,323|
|3||Nine Inch Nails||98,243,492||1,269,462|
|15||Queens of the Stone Age||52,970,037||1,273,775|
|16||Guns N Roses||51,825,756||1,673,338|
|18||Rage Against the Machine||45,688,191||1,556,924|
|20||Children of Bodom||38,347,666||562,446|
Well, that’s a bit of a difference! Only 4 of the critics’ choice bands appear in the top 20 most listened. This is far from scientific, but it would seem that (Metallica excepted) metallers have a somewhat different perspective on what they think is of ‘quality’ and what they actually listen to. Clear critical favourites and genre instigators Black Sabbath are right down the rankings with 32,298,137 listens, lower even than perennial noughties favourites Opeth with 35,744,109 listens. And what’s with Korn in the top 15, I really didn’t think anyone seriously listened to them any more. And Nightwish? Really? The European influence I guess.
There’s quite a few caveats around this list, for example last.fm attract a certain demographic that’s perhaps not universally representative, plus song length will play a part (you can listen to 4 AC/DC songs in the time it takes to listen to 1 of Opeth’s), and this is last.fm’s lifetime list, so more established bands are more likely to appear, but it’s still indicative.
Anyway, I couldn’t make last.fm give me any data on overall lifetime listening stats for the metal genre, so calculating the long tail was impossible, and by now I was being distracted by the list I had compiled, and its various curiosities. For example, why the hell are In Flames so high? I realise they’re a pretty influential band, but they’re above Iron Maiden for gawd’s sake! The answer to this conundrum is in the listener figures. If you divide the total listens per band by the listeners you get a rough indication of listens per user. Order list by this value and you get a somewhat different picture.
|Band||Listens||Listeners||Plays per Listener|
|Nine Inch Nails||98,243,492||1,269,462||77|
|Children of Bodom||38,347,666||562,446||68|
As you can see, certain bands have more modest numbers of ‘fans’ with a propensity to listen to their music a hell of a lot. In Flames fans seem particularly enthusiastic about the band’s music. You’ll notice also that the list is considerably less ‘commercial’ with the likes of AC/DC, Slipknot and System of a Down disappearing from the top 10. This is explained when you look at the track play volume profiles of In Flames vs AC/DC:
The slope on the AC/DC is much more pronounced. Essentially, many more people are listening to a much smaller selection of AC/DC tracks, probably hitting Back in Black in their collection every so often, amongst Lady GaGa or U2. In Flames fans listen to a much greater selection of tracks, and probably favour albums over single tracks, thus driving the overall play count per listener up.
What’s also curious is that Black Sabbath, who dominate the critics album list, have a somewhat low plays per listener count of 27. Coming into this with no knowledge of the Sabbath you may assume, on viewing the critics’ list, that they are an albums band, which is true to an extent, however, Sabbath’s profile is insanely skewed towards Paranoid and Iron Man which suggests that they attract a lot of casual listeners:
Anyway, I could noodle about with figures and stats all day, but where is this getting us? Well, we could surmise that the critics and fans aren’t really in agreement when it comes to voting with their feet. This is also evident in the public arena – Terrorizer Magazine’s albums of 2009 put Converge and Cobalt at the top and Behemoth somewhere in the 30′s, whereas the fan survey put Behemoth at the top of almost every category. On the other hand, Metalsucks famously triggered a minor insurgency when their poll of the top 21 albums of the 21st century – voted for by critics, bands and industry types – was mauled by their more discerning readership.
I’m really keen to understand whether metal is a long tail genre in comparison to, for example, Pop which I assume is by definition a populist genre, but decent stats are hard to come by. It’s a murky picture and one that dominated by dodgy data, countless caveats, spurious statistics, cliques and fraternities, but my quest will continue, to understand what makes the metal world tick.