The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More
In the mid-'90s, I played in an emo band called "Jaded." It was an awful name, and I'm sure some would argue it was awful music, too. Imagine a cross between the Smiths and the sound of a school bus full of children plunging headlong off a cliff.
At our shows, there was a lot of screaming, even crying, among band members and the few dozen audience members. One of the guitar players would usually crawl away somewhere and vomit afterward. Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, would say we had "niche appeal," and I don't dispute that.
Imagine my surprise when I was told, years later, that all the copies of our posthumously released seven-inch had somehow sold out.
What happened? Anderson would likely say the answer lies in the "Long Tail"—defined, roughly, as the "infinite choice" in expanding internet markets. The new economic model that emerges, he suggests, follows not the traditional assumptions about scarcity, but the proliferation of product.
"Abundant, cheap distribution," Anderson writes, "means abundant, cheap, and unlimited variety—and that means the audience tends to distribute as widely as the choice." To wit, Wal-Mart, the country's biggest offline music retailer, doesn't find it profitable to stock anything beyond the equivalent of 55,000 audio tracks. But online clearinghouses with unlimited stock, like Rhapsody or iTunes, still make sales on the one-millionth best-selling track. These companies have discovered that a few sales of a million niche artists pays just like a million sales of a few best-selling artists.
This means that a lot of cultural product wins attention it might not have otherwise. Traditional obstacles, like geography and shelf space, are being overcome by search engines, internet vendors, and an infinitesimally complex feedback loop of buyers and bloggers. New bands, self-published authors, and conspiracy theorists suddenly have a potential audience as vast as the internet's reach (which is vast). Combine this with newly available production technologies (home editing software, bedroom recording studios), and the tail of what's out there—and, hence, what's profitable—just keeps growing.
Of course, this means that even what the majority would consider bad art will also sell. In my band's case, I found out, our niche constituted mostly record geeks who wanted the first-ever release from the now-defunct DIY label that released us. Thank you, Long Tail.
Anderson wanders beyond the realm of micro-marketed music and on-demand publishing to probe recent phenomena like Wikipedia, where truth lies in the probability that "with enough eyes, all bugs are trivial." And he builds a convincing case that the trick for the future—from astronomy to cinema stars—is to "throw everything out there and see what happens, letting the market sort it out." If you build it, someone will come.
A book like this would seem likely to inspire a thousand college freshmen to launch their own publishing imprint, or microbrew, or line of novelty T-shirts. But looming behind Anderson's populism and Googley-eyed enthusiasm is a more complicated truth—particularly regarding the Long Tail's unintended consequences on the supply side. Despite today's "democratiz[ed] tools of production and distribution," where are the profits of all this democratization going? The tools of production may reach everyone, but their suppliers—Apple providing your video software, or MySpace publishing your tour schedule—are few in number. You may not have cared when no one bought your homemade record, for example, but you paid someone for the software you needed to make it (unless, of course, you stole it).
If the demise of indie booksellers and cinemas are any indication, we also know where the distribution money is headed: eBay, Google, Amazon, NetFlix. (The cable and telecom giants are currently waging their own pernicious, but largely unnoticed, campaign to charge online retailers and content providers for higher-speed data delivery. Gone may be the days when your boozy beach photoblog traveled to your mates at the same broadband speed as the New York Times.) It's true, as Anderson writes, that, "we are in the midst of the biggest explosion of variety in history." But we've heard this brave-new-world scenario somewhere before. The Industrial Revolution showed that technological progress democratizes production (think of advances in farm equipment), but it is only a matter of time before profit flows disproportionately to the providers of that technology (think oil, manufacturing, and transportation trusts).
It isn't as if Anderson can reverse the concentration of capital. But in all his theorizing about the end of scarcity, he might have paid more attention to the inherent dangers of the burgeoning mega-providers. Woe to the poor kids who sell records like my old band's out of shoeboxes for $3 when you can download them on Rhapsody now for nickels on the dollar.