A long tail of a critical discrepancy

Posted in Indulgence, Music Industry, music stats on April 23rd, 2010 by Alex

last.fm's top metal artists

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.

  1. Black Sabbath – Paranoid
  2. Metallica – Master of Puppets
  3. Black Sabbath – Master of Reality
  4. Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
  5. Metallica – Ride the Lightning
  6. Megadeth – Rust in Peace
  7. Kyuss – Welcome to Sky Valley
  8. Tool – Ænima
  9. Slayer – Reign in Blood
  10. Death – Symbolic
  11. Opeth – Still Life
  12. Opeth – Blackwater Park
  13. Tool – Lateralus
  14. Iron Maiden – Powerslave
  15. 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.

Band Listens Listeners
1 Metallica 129,158,165 1,614,913
2 System of a Down 110,234,856 1,859,323
3 Nine Inch Nails 98,243,492 1,269,462
4 Nirvana 91,601,656 2,246,164
5 In Flames 77,571,473 648,985
6 Rammstein 74,874,781 1,080,014
7 Iron Maiden 71,102,754 1,118,305
8 Nightwish 66,186,512 830,576
9 Tool 63,722,501 1,021,247
10 Pearl Jam 59,373,659 1,405,955
11 Korn 59,012,020 1,316,256
12 Slipknot 56,894,546 1,112,724
13 AC/DC 56,358,687 1,414,917
14 Marilyn Manson 54,675,138 1,223,915
15 Queens of the Stone Age 52,970,037 1,273,775
16 Guns N Roses 51,825,756 1,673,338
17 Disturbed 48,310,602 1,116,727
18 Rage Against the Machine 45,688,191 1,556,924
19 Megadeth 40,307,528 729,446
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
In Flames 77,571,473 648,985 120
Metallica 129,158,165 1,614,913 80
Nightwish 66,186,512 830,576 80
Nine Inch Nails 98,243,492 1,269,462 77
Opeth 35,744,109 462,064 77
Rammstein 74,874,781 1,080,014 69
Children of Bodom 38,347,666 562,446 68
Blind Guardian 26,270,993 407,215 65
Iron Maiden 71,102,754 1,118,305 64
Tool 63,722,501 1,021,247 62

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:

In Flames

In Flames top tracks

AC/DC

AC/DC top tracks

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:

Black Sabbath play list

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.

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Your Band and the ‘Brand’ new world

Posted in Resources for Bands on September 29th, 2009 by Alex
Your #1 sales reps

Your #1 sales reps

You’re heading out to a gig. On go the AC/DC socks and pants set (in case you pull, you’ll shake them all night long), Iron Maiden trainers with Eddie’s face on them, that cool Baroness t-shirt, denim jacket with Municipal Waste and Motorhead patches, and your beloved Megadeth cap – do you ever get the feeling like you’re one of those multi band fliers that get handed out at gigs?

All these bands are exceptional at branding (or perhaps their record label is) and although that Slayer air freshener may have represented a step too far for you, it’s big business – in fact, it’s fast becoming bigger business than the sale of the music itself. The music industry, traditionally centred around selling only music, are clambering to get into the merchandising game offering bands 360 record deals that include selling merch (and live shows, plus distribution, publishing etc.) in an attempt to bolster their languishing profits. Traditionally the bastion of mega b[r]ands like Kiss and Iron Maiden, it’s now becoming normal for even the most marginal of bands to view themselves as a brand – the era of bands as brands is upon us.

It’s worth clarifying what I mean by ‘branding’. The retail world decades ago cottoned on to the fact that a consistent approach to advertising their products led to more sales. It’s a simple psychological reality that, when someone who is given a choice of similar items, they will choose one that they are more familiar with or is more recognisable. It didn’t take advertisers long to work out that, with the right product image, you could build up feelings affinity, identification, even devotion to otherwise completely mundane or functional products. This then expands out to product ranges, then to merchandising related to product ranges. In this day and age, it’s got abstracted to the point where, in some cases, the brand is as important (if not more so) than the product (take Apple as an example of this).

The music industry was slow to get to grips with this, but fast to capitalise – and it’s getting better all the time. The heavy metal world is spectacular at this. Most metal bands have an identifiable logo, a sub-genre, an identifiable band image, and fans that will wear their t-shirts, hoodies, caps etc. This stuff all pulls together to form a band’s brand. It’s what makes you instantly recognisable to folks who know your music, but your brand image is a viral mechanism in itself – a badge of honour, sign of allegiance, a deriver of coolness (or uncoolness) – and when wielded correctly can be the single most important factor in the success of a band.

Bands like Black Sabbath or more recently Mastodon and icons like Kurt Cobain this exude coolness and create culture and identity effortlessly that people immediately attach to. Other bands have record companies pay millions of quid on creating this identity (eg. Linkin Park). But either way, it’s a powerful mechanism for spreading affinity with a band.

Now, on to the economics. Traditional musical marketing, broadly speaking, considers 4 elements (and seemingly in this order of importance):

  1. The format containing the music (record, tape, CD, MP3) – the Cornflakes box if you will
  2. The music itself – the Cornflakes
  3. The band and their image – the Kellogg’s brand
  4. Sales of other related stuff like merchandise – like, umm, those branded Kellogg’s bowls you used to get I guess

The purpose here is clear – sell more music, just as it is for Kellogg’s to sell more packs of Cronflakes. Given the dwindling sales of music (you know the reasons, I’ll not patronise you by repeating them) it’s starting to become necessary for this paradigm to shift. To maximise revenue generated by a band, all potential product lines must be considered, and their relative commercial merits should be judged within the context of that particular band – to give a facile example, metal fans are more likely to buy t-shirts and CD’s whereas Dance music fans are more likely to buy records and record bags. So if your core motivator with regards to generating cash is no longer the music, but a diverse and malleable collection of product lines, where is your focus? The band of course! The band, their music, their image and that of the label are vehicles to shift more stuff, be it CD’s, bandanas or bog roll. In fact, it’s conceivable for a band to exist and be very successful without ever officially releasing any music at all (more thoughts on this at a later date)

And let’s be perfectly clear here – a fan that buys a t-shirt is potentially more important to you than one that buys the music. Why? Well, they like you enough to wear your band’s name on their body, and walk around like a big advert. They hang around with their buddies who want to know who the hell that wondrous looking band on that t-shirt is. People are now talking about your band – the importance of this should not be underestimated. And because kids tend to like to fit in with the crowd, they’ll probably all go off and buy one for themselves, thus propagating the same mechanism. Did all these kids ‘steal’ your album from the interwebs? Probably, yeah, but what have you really lost? You’ve shifted some t-shirts that you probably wouldn’t have, which are generally more profitable anyway, and whether they bought the music or not, they’re still fans.

File sharing aside, squeezing profit, or even return on investment on physical and even digital music sales is nigh on impossible for most bands. The overheads are big, distribution and promotion hard and costly. Merchandise tends to be more profitable as the margins on each item are higher and the overheads lower. Also, when you concentrate on selling the music, you can really only sell a couple of items to any 1 individual (CD’s, collector’s packs, record), but clever branding and merchandising opens the door to sell a whole range of other items to peddle to all the adoring fanatics.

Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that unsigned bands stop releasing albums/EPs. The artistic merits of the album format aside, they provide a vital marketing mechanism, and a way to manage your marketing over time in discrete chunks (analogous to campaigns in marketing speak). Spending out on decent recording and some nice artwork is essential, but when looking to recoup that cost, you should place your emphasis on selling merchandise rather than CDs, and even consider giving the music away in digital form, either in part or in its entirety, to help shift more merchandise and spread awareness of your band. This depends on the band, but you should generally only consider a physical release if there is CLEAR demand for it, and always consider getting up on iTunes as the priority.

The best approach to branding and merchandising will be different for every band, and the key to success is agility – the ability to roll with what the fans are demanding – something which the bigger record companies are terrible at.

If you’re in a band, you’re agile and creative, so this stuff should come naturally to you, so get on with it!

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AC/DC, Wembley Stadium, 26th June 2009

Posted in Gigs, Reviews on June 27th, 2009 by Alex
Old Devil

Old Devil

It’s difficult for me to write about AC/DC without being autobiographical. At the age of 9, my only exposure to popular music was Wham! and dancing to Howard Jones with my sister. We’d recently moved house to a new area, and I got in with the local crowd of greasy youths, who were into some strange music that I’d never heard of before. My cultural consciousness was ripening and I was ready to belong, to something, to anything. So when one of those listless youths played me AC/DC’s For Those About To Rock…We Salute You (and, incidentally, Iron Maiden‘s 2 Minutes to Midnight) my brain lit up like a torch – I was infected.

Years later I still rate that track as the greatest piece of rock ever recorded. I mean seriously, it’s got a 21 gun salute! In recent years it became an ambition of mine to see it played live. What more spectacular event could there be? A culmination of a lifetime of love of the rock and roll art form.

Before this year I’d never seen AC/DC live – never managed to experience the movable rock and roll mecca that is For Those About To Rock… live. They’d not been to these shores for many years and many expected that they would never return. So as you can imagine, when they announced the tour I snapped up tickets as fast as Ticketmaster could get me through the booking process (which is actually quite fast – there’s a nerve pummeling time limit, it’s like being on the Crystal Maze).

I actually bought 2 lots of tickets, one for the 02 gig and one for Wembley – I wasn’t going to miss this, no siree! But, it was seeing this spectacle in a stadium that was really my dream, and could imagine that I was seeing it at Monsters of Rock. So it was all building up to last night.

The O2 gig was fabulous. The set was solid, but the set list was published in the paper the previous day, which removed some of the flavour of proceedings (see also my rant on predictability in live shows), but all in all it was fist in the air rock and roll fest.

Now, on to the review of last night’s gig. First thing’s first – the set list was the same as the O2 gig, exactly the same. To all intents and purposes I saw the same gig, just with more people watching it. The predictability, however, was largely balanced out by the atmosphere, which to use a hackneyed but appropriate term, was electric.

This is all the more impressive given that the very evening before, Michael Jackson had keeled over and died. There’s some interesting juxtapositioning here; according to Jackson’s lawyer, Jackson died of a heart attack brought on by an overdose of painkillers. Jackson was abusing these pharmaceuticals to calm feelings of anxiety over the 50, I repeat 50 consecutive gigs he was to play at London’s O2 arena. I challenge even a spring chicken like Miley Cyrus to pull off such a feat, let alone a 50 year old with mental health issues.

AC/DC, somewhat Jackson’s senior, didn’t go for the trendy option of a residency at the O2, they did a standard tour with a few stadium dates, but seeing them up on stage you can imagine them being able to do what Jackson clearly couldn’t. They may look old (Young’s thinning hair was painfully apparent) but they don’t act it. What’s more ironic is that whereas Jackson is clearly deranged, Angus Young, who on stage would appear deranged, almost certainly leads a understated suburban existence in one of Sydney’s leafier suburbs and is as well balanced as they come.

IMG_0541

Sweaty daddies and big explosions

The previous night’s events hadn’t dampened the crowds thirst for rock and roll. A set that confidently lifted several tracks from their phenomenally well timed new album Black Ice didn’t skimp on the classics either. The fact that everyone knew that AC/DC would play  their most well known and loved song Back in Black 3rd in in the set didn’t spoil anyone’s night. Young’s extended guitar thrash-outs didn’t bore anyone, they knew what to expect, cheered at the right time and marveled at his ability to make an increasingly discordant and evil noise with his guitar. There were explosions, which are always cool, and a giant lady pleasuring herself against a train. Nice.

The classics were rolled out exactly as they should be. The energetic stage act is played out exactly as it should be. Angus excreted exactly 7 gallons of sweat, exactly as he always does, and his brother and the other bloke stay at the back where they belong.

Everything in it’s right place. Just as it should be. That’s what rock and rolls about, right?

Actually no. No it’s not. The most rock and roll thing I saw all night was the drummer playing with a fag drooping from the corner of his mouth.

I’m not saying that it wasn’t an immensely enjoyable gig; it was – like being at a party with 50,000 of your mates who all like the same songs. Hearing that many people hollering the chorus to You Shook Me All Night Long is a wonderful thing. AC/DC should be celebrated, and this may be the last time any of us get to do that. But that’s just what is was – a celebration. Not a night that you will remember and cherish, something spontaneous, one in a million,  “were you there when…?”. Perfectly executed, passionately delivered, meticulously rehearsed and continuously repeated.

So, back to the culmination of my rock and roll loving life. I was about to rock. I was quite drunk. I was suitably boisterous. When the encores arrived, I was excited. Then it came.

How could it ever live up to my expectations? The crowd weren’t waiting with bated breath for this singular spectacle. They knew it was coming. They’d seen it before and were thinking about how to get to the loo and still stay ahead of the crowd to get on the train. The guns weren’t very big and there weren’t 21 of them (6 to be precise). It all finished too quickly, and was punctuated by sweaty daddies squeezing past me to leave the stadium.

Disappointed? Only in myself. At my age I should know better. Thank you AC/DC for 25 years worth of pleasure and for the countless more moments of pleasure you provide via my iPod. For that, I salute you.

★★★★☆ (4)

Setlist:

1. Rock N’ Roll Train
2. Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be
3. Back in Black
4. Big Jack
5. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
6. Shot Down in Flames
7. Thunderstruck
8. Black Ice
9. The Jack
10. Hells Bells
11. Shoot to Thrill
12. War Machine
13. Dog Eat Dog
14. Anything Goes
15. You Shook Me All Night Long
16. T.N.T.
17. Whole Lotta Rosie
18. Let There Be Rock
Encore:
19. Highway to Hell
20. For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)

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