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January 02, 2006


Derek at CD Baby

Not dying, just getting easier to discover/get more music, meaning less blockbusters.

Just like there will probably never be another TV show with the kind of ratings that "All in the Family" had in the 70's, because there are more channels now. Instead of one show with a 34-rating, there are 50 shows with a 1-rating.

There might never be another 20-times-platinum album, but there are 2000 albums selling 10,000 copies.

(Yeah, I know, this is redundant to post this on thelongtail.com blog...) :-)

Example essays on the subject : https://www.rhino.com/rzine/StoryKeeper.lasso?StoryID=589 or https://www.rhino.com/rzine/StoryKeeper.lasso?StoryID=483

- Derek

Richard Rowan

Sorry, but the data don't speak to me. Which music industry are you lamenting? Mainstream?

The post title refers to a whole decade while the last data set is for half a decade. Data for 2004 and 2005 are missing from the spreadsheet (not listed as zero.)

Could there be albums released more recently that haven't had time to become "bestselling"?

And most importantly, I thought a broader selection that people like is better than a narrower set of "hits"? Thanks for any clarification.

chris anderson

Richard, Derek,

Fair points on the cheeky title. I've now renamed the post The Decade the Blockbuster Died, which is of course my point. Music is alive and well, but it's more about a million niches than megahits these days (that's the book thesis in a nutshell)

As for the data, yes there were no albums in the top 100 in '04 and '05. I've updated the spreadsheet to make that explicit. Typically albums do most of their total volume of sales in their first year. Looking back at the past years' releases it's a safe bet that there are no slow-burners there who are going to creep in to the Top 100 over time.


Let's get through the decade before we make sweeping conclusions. The mainstream music industry is very cyclical, and has been for decades. If you had been looking at the industry in the early to mid-1980s, you might have reached a similar conclusion. Then between alternative rock, Hip Hop, and Garth Brooks Hot New Country, all of a sudden it blew up again.

Maybe that was the last go round for that. But I doubt it. The baby boom echo kids are really just now solidly in college and entering their cultural zeitgeist phase. So it would not surprise me to see things turn around in the next couple of years. There are a lot of different forces that push things up to the big Mass level. There's a long gestation period.

Obviously, there's been a shift happening for at least the last 20 years.. But I think there is still room for blockbusters, and I'm not at all convinced that we won't see another era where there are quite a few. The problem is more that there hasn't been a lot of good music that is worthy of blockbuster status.

A lot of people who are more into indie/fringe stuff assume that blockbuster music is inhernetly bad music. But this isn't necessarily true. Things do often become homogenized as they move across the adoption curve. But with the right artist this ends up improving the music. They learn how to work within those parameters, and make something compelling and universal.

That hasn't been happening much lately, because too many blockbuster wannabes are top down creations, rather than projects that started as bottom up phenomena and were nurtured through a development process.

With luck, the long tail universe will once again provide more opportunities for artists to find a home that will allow them to grow and gradually reach a fan base in an organic fashion before blockbuster expectations are thrust upon them.

Chuck T

In just looking at the graph it almost looks like the anomaly is not today, but the 1990s. My guess is that the major jump in sales for those albums came as people changed over to CDs, going out and buying digital replacements. If you draw a line from 1976 through 1990, and then continue it, it should hit 2005.

Perhaps we're not seeing the death thanks to digital music and file sharing, but the end of an artificial bump.

chris anderson


No, that's not it. This is not a chart of all CD sales over that period. It's a chart of just the top 100 bestselling albums, by the year of their release. Given that the two big bars are albums released in the 90s, after the CD switch, there's little replacement purchasing going on there. If anything, it would have been the music from the 70s and 80s that got a second bump when they were bought again as CDs.

Anonymous Coward

But there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.

Normalize the data for number of albums sold per year since first release. So, the White Album (1970) would be equal to 19 million total / 35 years = about 540,000 per year.

Then the newer releases won't look so bad.

Greg R

Chris, is it possible that while Chuck's explanation may not hold water, his observation may be right? When I looked at the graph, I had the same immediate reaction as Chuck. Not "geez, what happened in '01-'05 to generate that slump" but "crikey, what was going on in the 90's to generate that bump?"

It's not suprising that blockbuster albums experienced a major bump in the late 70's -- that maps pretty well to the primary from of music purchase shifting from from 45 rpm singles to albums, to the rise of FM radio, and to the concurrent rise of "hit-making" and programmed radio formats as a marketing practices in the music & radio industries.

It's also not surprising to see that late 70's peak followed by a three-decade slow decline as blockbuster albums must compete with new forms of media and entertainment (cable TV, VHS, pay-per-view, videogames, DVD, file-sharing, etc.) that vie for attention and dollars.

So I think the real story of that graph is not "the rise of the 21st century niche," but rather what the hell happened in the 90's to cause that blip in an otherwise expected downward curve?

Richard Veryard

Surely slow-burning is a form of long-tail. But record companies delete things from the catalogue (according to various criteria, not just sales volume).

So statistics like these don't reflect the pure behaviour of the market but the distortions caused by the behaviour of the record companies. This is an example of large companies imposing arbitrary restrictions to suppress the longtail.

Data like these never speak for themselves, but lead to a variety of interesting interpretations.

Mark Kuznicki

I don't think this data gets to the question you're posing about if/when the blockbuster "died". What would be more interesting is the proportion of total recorded music sales each year that was comprised of the Top 40 or 100 titles sold in that year. If more back catalogue and niche/indie content is being sold relative to Britney, then that would be an interesting trend to observe. A shift in the 2000s would indicate the long-tail effects of open networks as opposed to closed distribution systems, but would likely be masked by the album-replacement effect in the 90s.


This chart really isn't showing anything about trends in the number of blockbusters. To show that, you'd somehow have to be taking into the account the fact that songs produced in 1967 have many more years in which to sell albums. Knowing the best selling albums often take a while to achieve that status, I'm not sure if you can draw *any* meaningful conclusions from the past decade or so.

To really make the case that there is a trend here, you'd have to factor in both the difference in time. Perhaps somebody has data showing how many albums were sold by each of these top 100 after the first 3 years? This will introduce some junk into the data, but its a better representation of the trend I think.

This is also ignoring things like the proportion of Singles vs. Albums (which has changed fairly dramatically over time, IIRC), and the overall number of albums sold each year (hasn't this changed as well?).

I think that this sort of analysis would be interesting, but as it stands right now, your chart is pretty bogus.

chris anderson


I can see you describing my headline as "bogus" but the chart is just raw data, with all the sources and underlying numbers given. You may draw another conclusions from those numbers, or perhaps no conclusion at all. But to suggest that the numbers are either wrong or meaningless is unwarranted.



Dude. You are an idiot. Re-arrange the data by 'decade' (as your title suggests) and 1996 to 2005 looks like the golden age of the blockbuster. Also, Jacob is right. Retract this post.


Gertie, please verify your own data and stay polite before posting. Even organized by decade, the 1996-2005 period shows a slight decrease vs 1986-1995.

Still, I'd rather agree with Jacob. The data is too general to prove anything particular.


Hmmm, not sure how "raw" this data is. IMHO the case needs to be made more strongly. Some more detailed comments on this on my own blog.

But then isn't the whole point of blogging this to open it up to critique, to improve it accordingly, and so make the final book better? Thumbs up for (at least the first step!) in that approach.

Will Page

You know Chris - I’m sure The Economist presented the same chart during 2005!

The first thing that jumps to mind is price. Given that CD’s were arguably ‘over priced’ in their introductory 90’s heyday, (which I think we can safely argue as they are now shaving the retail price down drastically in the face of legal and illegal forms of competition), does this not make the 90’s ‘spike’ even more interesting? Think, at a point when music was at its most expensive to consume, the industry shifted more new releases than ever before – or – was it at a point when disposable income was at its highest, but there was little other option to consume it any other way?

Then, I thought about the 70’s which for me is a classic era for ‘timeless’ music. How influential was the pricing strategy for these CDs? For as long as I can remember, (that is 90’s onwards …. I wasn’t around when it was released), you could pick up Led Zeppelin IV on CD for a flat £5 in the UK – more than half the price of the new releases. Does something similar operate in the US, and if so, surely this extends the ‘hit’ lifespan of a ‘hit’ record? So what we might have is a situation where a pricing initiative used for classic Seventies albums managed to capitalise on the 90’s consumer boom. (...perhaps pity the music which followed that will never benefit from this pricing strategy as the opportunity has since been lost thanks to P2P).

As a side issue - I’ve always been interested in constructing a simple deflator for music and film and running the analysis on turnover / profit over time. For instance, I’m sure that when people boast about the latest blockbuster as being the ‘highest grossing film of all time’, they’re always talking in nominal terms – which is pointless! You could really kick the analysis into action with real price turnover/profit analysis over time – perhaps capturing that deflation effect of older CDs – if anyone fancies tag-teaming with me on this, email me and we’ll give it a shot.

One final thought, someone mentioned the influence of singles in making blockbuster albums. Looking down the list, its worth recalling that one outstanding fact that Led Zeppelin never released a single, nor did they participate in any form of mainstream marketing like music videos. Looking at how they dominate this chart, towering above the fully commercial Stones and Beatles, I really do think that speaks volumes for their music.

Final, final thought – Did the ‘compilation’ album have a distortion effect?

Will Page
(Visiting NYC, Jan 16-29 if anyone here wants to “Talk Tail” over coffee).

Julian Bond

"But record companies delete things from the catalogue (according to various criteria, not just sales volume)."

There's a deep question in here. Why? What is the marginal cost now of keeping it on the books? How does manufacture on demand and digital download change this? Rather than deleting it, perhaps Amazon could take over the right to produce it? If it's deleted does the artist regain rights to the copyright?

I think deletions and what to do with them are a critical part of Long Tail thinking and copyright law. It makes me sad and angry that artist's works are locked up in the libraries of corporate copyright owners who choose not to make them available. But now digital distribution (and manufacture on demand) provides a mechanism whereby these can be profitably produced to the benefit of both consumers and copyright holders.


Has anyone run a statistical analysis on this stuff (t-test, regression analysis)? I'd like to see if there is a significant statistical difference between results before discussing what's happening.


Well... aren't there fewer bestselling albums of all time in the 2001-2005 bin because they've had less time (i.e., less than 5 years) to become bestsellers? Unless you're correcting for this inherent bias I'm not sure the chart shows what you'd like it to. You might, however, try recalculating your results by dividing the number of copies sold by the number of years since the album has been released and seeing what the trend looks like.

For example (made up numbers follow), if an album that came out 30 years ago has sold 30 million copies, that would mean it's sold an average of 1 million copies a year. If an album that came out 2 years ago has sold 8 million copies, that would mean it's sold 4 million copies per year... which might indicate that things are a bit healthier than you're assuming right now.

I'm not at a computer with a working copy of Excel, or else I'd do the math myself, but perhaps I'll come back with another comment tomorrow.

Richard Dallaway

I don't have access to the original Economist article anymore, but that newspaper was questioning the longevity of more recent music releases. It turns out I scanned the chart and took a couple of notes:


Richard Dallaway

Hmm, that URL appears clipped.
It should end: #110050706231094970


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In addition to all that, blockbuster has successfully implemented “Blockbuster Exclusive” where Blockbuster has become the only authorized rental source for new movies from The Weinstein Company.

To the average customer this could be a potential benefit. For example the customer would think “Oh well, if blockbuster is going to secure me guaranteed rental to certain movies that I can’t get anywhere else, I might as well keep my membership here, instead of switching to Netflix.”

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The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

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