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Pivot to the past: It’s more profitable

If you seem to be suffering from deja-vu more these days than in the past, there is probably nothing wrong with you. You are just observing another transformation in the contemporary economy: mining the value of the past. This is most clearly visible in the music industry, where the sale of back catalogues have become more profitable than producing new music. Bob Dylan recently sold his entire back catalogue to Universal for a reported $300 million, and Neil Young ($150 million) and Stevie Nicks ($100 million) have also cashed in.

As a recent article in the Financial Times explains, this is part of the transition in the music industry from charging upfront fees for music to monetising consumption by generating downstream revenues from streaming. A clear example of the results of this shift is given by Wham’s 1984 hit “Last Christmas”, which was kept off the No. 1 spot on its original release by Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?". However, Last Christmas entered the UK top 40 on 15 occasions over the years, reaching the top 10 no less than 6 times, and finally reached No 1 in the UK on New Year's Day 2021, more than 36 years after its initial release. It is very appropriate that a song with a nostalgic title should be the prime example of the nostalgia hunger in the music industry.

The basic reason for this nostalgia is profit. Having invested in the original production, the subsequent production of copies becomes successively cheaper, and the ‘long tail’ of songs on the back catalogue of music companies becomes a seemingly unending source of revenue. Wired editor Chris Anderson suggested record companies would see 20% of transactions coming from currently popular artists and 80% from songs on the back catalogue. However, Bobby Owsinski quotes data that show around 80% of songs on the back catalogue generate no sales at all. The potential flaw in this analysis is that while most music may not generate sales, the 20% of titles on the back catalogue that do will probably be extremely profitable. So what is important is to have artists with a good track record in your back catalogue – then you know you will get the 20% that sell, rather than 80% that don’t. This is why companies are willing to pay exorbitant sums for old music by Bob Dylan and other famous names.

The long tail also works for other sectors as well. For example Chris Anderson’s Long Tail blog features cases from the travel industry and Netflix. One might also ask if the nostalgic long tail might work particularly well for heritage? The pandemic has shown the potential of virtual visits to museums and art galleries, and a vast array of artworks is now available as digital content for us to enjoy from the comfort of home. Having attracted physical visits from tourists eager to get our and have real experiences, there might be potential for cultural attractions to develop a long tail model, providing they can find efficient ways to monetise the virtual experience. Then we might have the prospect of blockbuster exhibitions not just topping the Art Newspaper charts during the year they first run, but also the virtual exhibition charts that will no doubt be constructed in future. This will also give an important new twist to legacy planning for blockbuster exhibitions. Looking for engaging digital formats that will milk the long tail for years to come may become an integral part of the exhibition planning process.

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