Saul Levine and the Long Tail

saul-levine.jpgIf you haven’t lived in LA for decades, the name Saul Levine might not mean anything to you, but if someone was going to compile a list of “100 People Who Make LA Great,” Saul Levine would be near the top.

For years, anyone who has owned a “stick” (e.g. a license to operate a radio station) in a major market like Southern California sold it to the highest bidder, who would program it for the biggest audience, to reap the most profits. That’s why Los Angeles radio is so alienating; why most of the AM dial is dominated by redundant right-wing talk, goofy sports or Spanish-speaking programming, and why most of the FM dial plays hip-hop, classic rock or Spanish-speaking programming. Even public radio has succumbed to compulsion to maximize dollar value per program. It’s why KPCC’s once-great music programming was replaced by way too many NPR chat shows, and why KUSC’s daytime classical programming has become so dumbed-down, playing only the movements of symphonies and concertos that are easy to work, eat or drive by.

Except Saul Levine, owner of K-Mozart, a commercial FM classical station, and KKGO-AM, which plays pop standards. According to a lovely profile in today’s LA Times Business section, Levine could sell the FM station alone to a conglomerate for $100 million, which is about $99,999,975 more than he paid for it. He’s grandfathered into having an 18,000-watt signal, when the current FCC standard is just 680 watts. But Levine just won’t sell. He wants to keep his stations independent — and playing the music he wants to play.

Brahms symphonies…Nat King Cole singing “Sweet Lorraine”…that’s what Levine provides Southern Californians, really, out of his pocket. He undoubtedly makes money doing it, but nowhere near as much as he could serving a bigger audience. Levine is a throwback to a time when people chose a vocation out of love, not necessarily to maximize profit. But he also might be a man ahead of his time:

(He) does not want his children, both of whom are involved in the operation of the family company, Mt. Wilson Broadcasting Inc., to sell when he is gone and live off the proceeds.

“You are supposed to work,” Levine said. “I would not want them to sit around on an island in the Mediterranean.”

Levine’s son, who is KMZT’s marketing director, declined to comment on the station’s future.

“He is still the owner,” Michael Levine said quietly.

In the meantime, Saul Levine forges ahead. He loves to talk about podcasting — the station offers listeners downloadable interviews and lectures about music on its website.

“Otherwise, you are in the horse-and-buggy era,” Levine said.

Now, I haven’t yet read The Long Tail, but I wonder if Saul Levine has. Chris Anderson’s book, which evolved from this 2004 article in Wired (which he edits) believes that the “hit” mentality that has driven the media for a century is giving way to those media providers who will cater to non-mainstream tastes — a process enabled by the zillion-channel universe of the Internet. From the Wired piece:

To get a sense of our true taste, unfiltered by the economics of scarcity, look at Rhapsody, a subscription-based streaming music service (owned by RealNetworks) that currently offers more than 735,000 tracks.

Chart Rhapsody’s monthly statistics and you get a “power law” demand curve that looks much like any record store’s, with huge appeal for the top tracks, tailing off quickly for less popular ones. But a really interesting thing happens once you dig below the top 40,000 tracks, which is about the amount of the fluid inventory (the albums carried that will eventually be sold) of the average real-world record store. Here, the Wal-Marts of the world go to zero – either they don’t carry any more CDs, or the few potential local takers for such fringy fare never find it or never even enter the store.

The Rhapsody demand, however, keeps going. Not only is every one of Rhapsody’s top 100,000 tracks streamed at least once each month, the same is true for its top 200,000, top 300,000, and top 400,000. As fast as Rhapsody adds tracks to its library, those songs find an audience, even if it’s just a few people a month, somewhere in the country.

This is the Long Tail.

You can find everything out there on the Long Tail. There’s the back catalog, older albums still fondly remembered by longtime fans or rediscovered by new ones. There are live tracks, B-sides, remixes, even (gasp) covers. There are niches by the thousands, genre within genre within genre: Imagine an entire Tower Records devoted to ’80s hair bands or ambient dub. There are foreign bands, once priced out of reach in the Import aisle, and obscure bands on even more obscure labels, many of which don’t have the distribution clout to get into Tower at all.

(skip)

What’s really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you’ve got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are (see “Anatomy of the Long Tail“). In other words, the potential book market may be twice as big as it appears to be, if only we can get over the economics of scarcity.

Venture capitalist and former music industry consultant Kevin Laws puts it this way: “The biggest money is in the smallest sales.”

Radio is a classic “scarcity” medium of the 20th century. Only so much spectrum in any given geographic area. Except now, the spectrum isn’t as much of a limiting factor. Each satellite radio service offers more than 100 channels. Internet audio, including podcasts, grabs more and more ears. And services like Rhapsody and Yahoo! Music allow you to program your own audio streams, either on your computer or in your mp3 device, without having to buy the tracks (unlike the somewhat overpraised iTunes, which demands that you buy a track before you can listen to it.)

Now, Saul Levine is a radio programmer from the get-go. His first act after hoisting his antenna atop a flagpole in 1958 was to spin Franz Lehar’s operetta “The Land of Smiles.” And this is what he and his staff still do. They decide what plays, and you can listen. The element of choice that Rhapsody or Amazon give us, Levine’s stations don’t give you — although his interest in creating podcasts is a big clue that he gets it, that choice is the future.

I guess what you could say about Levine and the Long Tail is that he kept the flames burning until the media could catch up with his craving to serve minority tastes. The kinds of music he programs have been in danger of disappearing from the culture, but in LA, classical music rides one of the region’s strongest signals. Some kid might stumble on K-Mozart tonight and hear Beethoven for the first time. And tomorrow morning, try to find more Beethoven in his computer.

10 thoughts on “Saul Levine and the Long Tail

  1. Pingback: Dropping Standards « From the Desert to the Sea…

  2. Seventeen years ago, I damned (and still damn) the bastards at Evergreen Media, Inc., who killed what I consider to be TRUE music, that has stood the test of time, on KFAC-FM, turning it at first into a rock station and then an African-American music station.
    I can’t say the same for Saul Levine–at least he tried to rescue Classical Music on a commercial station by turning his KKGO-FM into K-Mozart. Apparently he is trying to do the same for fans of the Country Folklorico today. (“Country” is indeed a folklorico art form but I have a difficult time calling it “music” without denigrating an honorable noun.)
    But now, if I want to listen to something other than KUSC to get Classical Music, I can listen to 1260 AM (daylight hours only) or have to buy all new radios, as Mr. Levine has shifted Classical K-Mozart to HD2-105.1.
    Couldn’t he have done that for his Country Folklorico Channel?
    I could understand if all the analog stations went off the air and we all had to buy new radios (as we’ll have to do with TV’s in a couple of years), but do have to do this for the sake of folks who like twangy guitars, vocalists who sing through their noses, and “music” played by chord charts instead of folks who know how to read music–seems a hard bite to chew.

  3. I’m going to write about this switcheroo later. My heart is with you, Tom. But the Times story just made me sigh and realize Saul Levine is just a businessman, in a tough racket, trying to survive.

    If he’d switched to what I consider “real” country — Bill Monroe to Bob Wells to Hank Williams to Patsy Cline to Ray Price — I’d be thrilled. But what’s called country now is unbelievably lame.

  4. I’m sure whoever wrote the above article would have a very different tone if they did this profile today.

    Saul now looks less like a hero, and more like a fool. Flushing 18 years of heritage, and an educated, sophisticated, loyal audience, because some people sounded “nice on the phone?”

    Maybe the LA Philharmonic should ask for the honorary award they gave Saul last summer to be given back.

  5. I wrote the above article and, well, what can you say? It appears that classical music is moving further out on the long tail — out where people are willing to buy special radios or pay for satellite radio. You can also get classical and other genres on most digital TV sets. And on the web. If Saul can’t make money on it, someone will.

  6. Perhaps KMZT marketing director Michael Levine, who wouldn’t comment on this article other than to say that his father was “still the [station’s] owner,” ultimately did have more to say. K-Mozart has stopped serving classical-music lovers in any meaningful way. The AM station’s sound isn’t particularly good, and the programming seems to have deteriorated in quality as well. As for HD radio, why should we buy one of those expensive things? K-Mozart might quit HD radio, too! Now it looks like our only choice is KUSC, as much as I hate its fundraising drives. (By the way, where did Rich Capparella go?)

  7. Attention: Saul Levine

    I am a 72 year old Classical music lover who has listened to KFAC/KKGO/K-MOZART for over 30 years.
    Although I live in a rural desert area east of LA–
    Lancaster CA.–I have been able to listed to K-MOZART 105.1 all these years with good clarity on my 20+ year old Sony AM/FM tuner. For many years I listened to FM stations via the cable feeds from : Jones cable, and Adelphia. Several months ago Time/Warner bought out Adelphia and abruptly “pulled the plug ” on the FM bands they had been providing. I went into my garage and pulled out my 20 year old 17 element yagi and found that I could still get K-MOZART very well -in Mono. I was just getting use to this . When ” YOU” pulled the plug
    on me again. I just purchased a Sangean HDT-1 HD tuner but found out that it is not sensitive enough to pickup up the new K-MOZART 105.1 FM 2
    channel in my area. Althought -I must say that the ” Dixie Chicks” come in loud an clear on your new ” Rock/Country” station. Needless to say I won’t be remembering you in my ” Nightly Prayers!”
    How could you do this to me ??

    Rob Clifford

  8. Classical Music Lovers:
    In case you didn’t get it from my previous message.
    Don’t think you can automatically get The new K-MOZART on an expensive HD radio– or tuner . The fact is that the new digital HD format is actually less sensitive than your old FM radio. And if you are in a ” border line ” reception area
    the K-MOZART HD 2 channel will simply ” drop out”
    when you try to tune it —and your HD seeker will just breeze right on by the 105.1 frequency ! In my area I can only get four (4) HD channel but over 30 conventional FM stations. So save your bucks for a multiple disc CD Player !! Unless you like the ” Dixie Chicks” 7/24 !!

    Rob

  9. I don’t know how to get a message to Mr. Levine but would you please pass on how excited and thrilled Orange County is that country has come back on 105.1.

    THANK YOU SOOOOOOOOOOO MUCH!!!

  10. Pingback: Saul levine | Fhmarketinggro

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