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April 3, 2007

Can Apple manipulate the digital music market?

I just sent this e-mail to Chris Anderson, Bob Lefsetz and the [Musicthoughts] e-mail list:

Hi Chris and Bob.

Thought you might be interested in this phenomenon, as observed via the [MusicThoughts] e-mail list. Its members are mostly independent artists whose music is available through CDBaby.com.

Yesterday, Don Shetterly (http://www.donshetterly.com) asked:

Sun Apr 1, 2007 4:19 pm (PST)
Is anyone else having problems searching on iTunes? If I search for a
well known artist like Tom Petty, it comes up with no problem. But if
I search under my name or a couple of others from the CDbaby world, I
get a network connection time out error?
This is only happening to me on the search function in itunes. Direct
Link gets me to my music without a problem.
Just curious if this is happening to others or it is just me?

My own experience, upon trying this, was that a search for my band (by name) timed out twice before producing a result. That's never happened before - and I used to check my status every month or so. However, a search for "ABBA" produced immediate results. CDBaby's Derek Sivers explained this as a phenomenon of database administration (cacheing) thus:

It takes a long time to ask the database "show me everything in your millions of rows of info that has the words 'Crunchy Frogs' in it"
So once someone has searched for that, the database systems *cache* (remember) the search results.
Next time someone searches for 'Crunchy Frogs', instead of asking the database all over again, it just displayed the cached results.
We do this on cdbaby.com, too.
So, when you go search for your name, you're probably the first person who has done that in a long time. If Apple's databases are overloaded that moment, it may take a long time to return the search results.
But if you search for 'Madonna', you get an instant result, because plenty of people have searched for Madonna that day. It's displaying the cache.

Further, this applies not only to band titles but also to song titles, as Rick (www.RickPaul.info) pointed out:

I also tried searching for "The Lord's Prayer", which did match pretty much immediately. However, it didn't list my version in there. This makes me wonder if they are somehow segmenting their database indexes into some sort of preferred/high availability subset and "all the rest". (When my version of "The Lord's Prayer" first went live in iTunes, it came up in the top 4 hits, alongside Aretha Franklin and Charlotte Church -- I think the 4th listing was also indie/DIY, or at least someone I'd never heard of.)

So we have a natural limitation to the Long Tail (via iTunes at least, but probably via others, too, eventually) in the size of the cache. This, it seems to me, can only benefit the hitsters to the detriment of the niches in that if a result does not come up, people are likely to presume that no result exists rather than try again. Or, as Rick found out, customers will simply not find the full range of versions available in the service.

But further, it opens up the possibility that Apple (and others) could sell market access by giving preferential cacheing treatment to paying customers ... further benefiting the majors to the detriment of the independents ...

Your thoughts?? Is this the first crack in the rise of the independents that the majors can exploit?? What are the implcations for the Long Tail??

Musician, Australia

Posted by Hughie at April 3, 2007 12:17 PM

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