Radio music scheduling : how do we deal with the long tail ?

We have been used to playing with simple music categories, because the “life of a song” was something simple to understand.

A song was released.

One day, we would put it in rotation.
After a certain number of spins, we would test it.
According to the test results, it would jump from one category to another, changing rotation speed and exposure.

That’s fine when a song has a logical life, based on the power of its promotion campaign (video, TV exposure, etc).
And that promotional power is of course directly related to the money invested by the record company.

That’s when new problems begin. The world has changed, did you notice ? Record companies are not able anymore to invest millions in average products. They concentrate on very few singers, and their other artists have to “manage themselves”…

This is where the Long Tail principle comes in.

What is it ?

It’s the simple idea that some products will sell slowly, will never hit the top, but, at the end, after a long time, will have sold much more than the average top seller. This “long tail” principle was first described in 2004 by Chris Anderson in an article in Wired, with this introduction :

Forget squeezing millions from a few megahits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.

I think we radio programmers must invent a way to program those songs.

I saw the example last year with “Duffy / Mercy” on an East-European market. The song didn’t hit the top, got average research, but never burnt.

What do you do with such a song ? Temptation is big to not play it at all, or only with a very low exposure. But at the end, even slowly, that song will create its own history, positionning itself as potential future gold.

That’s something else to consider : aren’t long tail songs the best candidates to become tomorrow’s goldies, even better than fast-rising-fast-falling-songs ?

While the internet has dramatically changed the way we consume media (especially music), it has also changed the LIFE EXPECTANCY of music products. Keeping a song in a physical store costs money and space that cannot be allocated to new potentially more powerful (better sellers) products. While, on the net, you can keep a song forever. You can promote it for years on YouTube, Dailymotion, Facebook or MySpace. You can even SELL your songs forever on the iTune store or any other platform soon to appear. The point is not anymore how fast you sell…

Let’s take an extreme example : Michael Jackson’s THRILLER album. During its first promotion era (when each single was released), it sold a bit more than 40 millions copies. That was already fantastic… BUT 25 years later… with some copies always remaining in shops around the world, re-mastered, re-published, re-promoted, it has sold 100 millions copies ! That means 60 MILLION COPIES on the LONG TAIL…

US charts specialists have perfectly understood that, and created a special chart for “catalog” albums (understand : old stuff). Because it would have seemed strange to see a 25 year old album beating new releases in sales charts. For example, Thriller sold 688,000 copies last year in USA, making it the best selling “catalog album” of 2008 !

Chris Anderson – inventor of the Long Tail concept – is still developing the idea through a VERY interesting blog.

And now… how do we deal with those songs ?

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One Comment

  1. Jane

    May 14, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    Is “Rock” radio dead? I certainly hope not, but even Def Leppard will eventually be going all internet with their sales. I like having the physical CD in my hands, and being able to read the liner notes. Each album is a work of art, and should be treated as such. The “Long Tail” happens because of formatting, and jocks who have no sense of adventure. Alan Freed we miss you.


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