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Below is my Webwalk column from last week’s Herald about how one of my favorite bands, Vast, has managed to harness the long tail to stay independent in the music industry. There are thousands of stories like this but Vast’s example is one I’ve followed closely as a fan and someone who has downloaded their music.

By the way, Vast is a fantastic, highly under-rated band. They’re hard to put in a box, but there’s a bit of Nine Inch Nails in there, some Garbage, echoes of U2 and New Order. It’s melodic, luscious sounding hard-edged rock and Jon Crosby is a great vocalist who pens thoughtful lyrics. A good starting point with Vast is their first album Visual Audio Sensory Theater. Music For People was a terrific follow-up to that. Once you’ve tried those two, there’s a Vast world to explore.



WEBWALK

By Peter Griffin

The New Zealand music chart began counting songs downloaded via the internet this week and already the change is noticeable.

As the Recording Industry Association pointed out yesterday, hip hop and R&B songs are climbing higher up the Top 40 chart, largely due to the fact that music downloads to mobile phones are now counted.

And Regina Spektor’s catchy single Fidelity debuted at number 16 thanks to digital downloads. It wasn’t released as a CD single here, only as a digital download and on the album Begin To Hope.

The changing shape of the charts illustrate how the internet is being used to get music to a diverse range of niche audiences, something known as the “long tail” effect. It means that in future, the charts may not be full of only those acts that are receiving the most airplay and industry promotion, but also acts that have successfully captured the attention of the online community.

It made me think of one little music industry story of the long tail I’ve been following closely.

One of my favourite bands is an inventive rock outfit appropriately called Vast (Visual Audio Sensory Theater). It’s the creation of American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jon Crosby, who much like Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, likes to twiddle away in the studio on his own, comfortable working in the digital medium.

Vast flirted with big label success at the turn of the century after its song Touched appeared on the soundtrack to the Leo DiCaprio movie The Beach.

There were a lot of rave reviews.

“VAST will appropriately be huge,” proclaimed Kerrang magazine in 1999.

But Vast was dropped by Elektra when its sophomore album Music for People failed to make an impact on the charts.

So Crosby signed with small, independent label 456 Entertainment to release his third album Nude.

“There were so many problems dealing with them on every level,” says Crosby in an interview on Realvast.com.

“I feel we made a big mistake not believing in ourselves enough and doing it on our own.”

For every album since, Vast has gone it alone and gone digital, releasing its music primarily via the internet.

It was an acknowledgement by Crosby that maybe his music isn’t really for the mass market after all. But in the era of the long tail that doesn’t matter, because numerous lucrative niches can be reached via the internet.

Crosby set up his own label and media company 2Blossom.com.

As a Vast fan its great for me. Getting hold of the band’s albums even in specialist music stores like Real Groovy has always been tricky. After all, why would retailers devote shelf space to an album that isn’t a hot seller?

Now I can just download the albums through the website. The music is free of digital rights management, the files are mp3s encoded at 320Kbps (kilobits per second), which is CD quality. I can pay with my credit card via PayPal.

Best of all the music is very good value, too good really. I just downloaded Vast’s new album April, which cost me an embarrassingly paltry US$5.

But because Crosby owns the music and the record label, he’s not getting a mere slice of album sales, he’s now getting every cent.

Artists signed to major labels receive as little as US$1 per full-priced album they sell Cutting out the music industry middlemen means more money goes directly into the artist’s pocket. Without the marketing muscle of a record company which can hold great sway over which artists get radio play, which in turn influences music sales, an artist is unlikely to sell as much music.

But bypassing the traditional music industry business model has become viable, thanks to the rise of digital music download services and social networking websites that act as a digital hub for an artist’s fan base. The most notable examples are Myspace.com and Facebook.com. Vast has fan communities on both sites.

“The days of the aloof rock star are over,” says Crosby.

“Now more than ever doing new things is important, and if you can’t keep up with what’s going on, you’re left in the dust.”

In addition, since 2005, he has been selling annual subscriptions to the Vast fan club for $36 which includes a greatest hits compilation, audio commentaries on Vast albums and the chance to buy VIP ticket to shows. There have been 745 downloads of those – worth around US$27,000.

It’s not the big money usually associated with the music industry, but with music sales, touring and merchandise, it may be enough for a Crosby and his band mates to earn a living – and keep control of their destiny.

Crosby seems to like the model: “I feel like for the first time I have found my niche and my voice.”

This way of doing business will become the norm for all sorts of industries, but especially the creative, publishing and technology sectors which are most comfortable dealing in the digital medium.

For New Zealand entrepreneurs located far from our key markets, the opportunity that lies in the long tail is, well, vast.