FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Long Tail is Killing Hit Albums, Blockbuster Movies

Chris Anderson of Long Tail fame has put together some statistics indicating that mass-appeal music albums and movies are on the decline. This is not news to anyone who follows new media, but Anderson's figures are particularly compelling.

Although noting that US box office revenue has been rising steadily since the early 1990s (though it dipped a bit in 2005), that can be attributed simply to rising ticket prices. Perhaps more importantly, theatre attendance as a percent of the total population has been declining sharply since 2002 (around the time that DVDs hit the mainstream). Anderson also notes that revenue generated by the the most popular movies has dropped since the '90s, while production and marketing costs have soared. It's not uncommon these days to see a movie earn $100 million or more in box office revenue... and barely turning a profit (not to mention big-budget productions that are genuine bombs).

As for music, Anderson references sales figures showing the number of hit albums (500,000+ copies sold) rising sharply during the '80s (the advent of compact discs and MTV's hit-making capacity), and then falling just as steeply since around 2000 (the advent of online music downloading). Even when adjusted for the overall growth of the music industry, sales figures show a steep rise in the early '60s (Beatlemania and the British Invasion? The stereo LP?) and a general plateau that held until the late '90s.

Music and movie fans shouldn't fret, however. Says Anderson, "It's not that people aren't watching films and listening to music, it's that they're watching different films and different music--we're just not following the herd to the same hits the way we used to." The movie and music industries are quick to attribute sales declines to piracy, but the causes are deeper and more long-term. Not only does technology give us more choice than ever before, it keeps us better informed about what's out there, helping to generate buzz for small projects as well as big ones, and creating new channels for sales.

Hit music and movies are not going away anytime soon; American Idol, for instance, is an new and enormously powerful tool for mainstream hitmakers. But the age of the album that "everyone" must own (Michael Jackson's Thriller comes to mind) and the movie that "everyone" must see (Titanic might have been the last of these) may be over.