The Gatekeepers of Streaming’s Long Tail

Harvard Business Review:

Digitization has brought new strategic challenges, and falling revenue, to the industry. Yet it has also brought new opportunities to a wider variety of artists. By reducing search costs, the digitization of music makes it easier to discover new artists and albums. It is {also} less costly to release new music, leading to unpredictable successes from artists who might not have been discovered or produced an album in an earlier era.

With subscription pricing and the ability to easily skip among artists (as opposed to per-album or per-song charges, which were the norm), streaming pushes users to listen to explore new artists. This has the potential to reduce the concentration of the very top artists and albums, while also helping music lovers find what economists refer to as the “long tail” of the industry.

The Guardian:

“Spotify has democratised the universe,” is the dramatic, understandably Spotify-centric view of Spotify’s George Ergatoudis, who joined the service this year after a decade as pop’s most powerful tastemaker at BBC Radio 1. “One of our editors can find something, believe in it, put it in a playlist, see an interesting result from the audience then accelerate the song.” Systems inside Spotify automatically create playlists of what Ergatoudis describes as “emerging stories” (songs) which editors then trawl through when they’re compiling the playlists vital in achieving true hugeness. “There’s a lot of human curation time spent on saying, ‘Right, there’s some noise there, but what do we think about it editorially?’” Ergatoudis says.

It’s reassuring that discovery isn’t left entirely to algorithms, but this editorial aspect creates another question. Namely: has streaming liberated new artists from the constraints of regimented radio playlists and the whims of ego-crazed music critics, only to replace that system with a different set of gatekeepers? “The term ‘gatekeeper’ assumes we’re blocking something worthy coming through,” Ergatoudis insists. “I’d argue we’re not doing that. We’re letting good stuff through, and amplifying it.”

Ergatoudis argues that the gate being kept is now an extremely large one, or perhaps a load of different gates, through which different artists can pass. Demographics differ from service to service – Apple Music and Tidal skew urban – but as streaming services aren’t restricted by hours in a day, like mainstream radio stations, we’re looking at the possibility of multiple concurrent musical zeitgeists. For the first time, something like the UK’s long-trumpeted guitar-music resurgence wouldn’t have to come at the expense or, say, grime’s increasing popularity.

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