In the Age of the Long Tail, What Does a Hit Mean?

Plenty of debate has been swirling around Chris Anderson’s notion of the “Long Tail,” including Marc Fisher’s Washington Post column. Fisher posits that audiences still crave “hits” and that musicians (like other creative people) will always strive to reach the largest possible audience.

I agree that most singers and songwriters would prefer that their work be enjoyed by as many listeners as possible. (Even when we *say* we know we’ve got a limited audience, we always like to believe that we’ll be playing that gig in front of 100,000 screaming fans, right?)

However, I don’t believe that audiences instinctively crave “mass culture.” What I have seen, from my perspective as a radio programmer and producer, is an audience of folks that enjoy music but don’t love music. And those folks use music as a backdrop for their lives, only exercising the presets or the “off” button when they don’t like something.

Those folks are not craving something new, and they don’t necessarily care what they listen to, as long as it feels “right” and “familiar” to them. They’re tolerating whatever is the least offensive. And they probably make up 60-80% of Americans. They’re the folks that listen to the “station that your whole office can agree on.”

Radio research validates this. All of the focus group and call-out research that stations fund is designed to weed out music that might cause someone to change the station. Program directors are not looking to discover anything new. Any PD worth his or her salary already knows what’s in the pipeline from the major labels and what’s bubbling up in their home markets. Every PD I have ever known loves — from the bottom of his or her heart — ten times more new music than they will ever get to play on their stations. What they need to know — for their stations to survive — is what to take out of that list, even if that means killing some of their darlings.

Believe me, if research really showed us that the majority of listeners really craved new music from local artists, you would hear it on the radio. Non stop.

The reality is that only one in about five people really cares enough about music to ever buy a compact disc or a ticket to a show. And when we talk about building your perfect audience, you’re trying to find the thin slice of that group that’s really going to resonate with what you’ve got to offer. When you cater to them and make it easy for them to support you, you can grow a successful career and even build some wealth. If you happen to create something that also appeals to the other 80% of radio listeners, then you’ve got even more to be happy about.

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