The Long Tail Wags the Culture Market Dog


Chris Anderson has a very smart and very entertaining feature in the October issue of Wired that takes a new look at one of Reason's favorite topics: the wonders of cultural proliferation and abundance thanks to market and technological innovation. (See, for just one example, Nick Gillespie's classic April 1999 feature "All Culture, All the Time".) Anderson points out that, thanks to liberation from the constraints of physical storage space on the retail level, both consumers and producers are benefiting from a golden age of cultural preservation. The concept of out of print is fast becoming meaningless; any cultural product that ever meant anything to anyone, whether or not those who care are concentrated enough in one geographic area to make it worthwhile for a store to stock, is available thanks to Web-based vendors. (I recently wrote a celebration of this phenomenon of the rescue and reissue of formerly lost ephemeral popular culture, hooked to Fantagraphics Books' ongoing Peanuts archive series, over at the American Spectator Web site.)

Anderson's article calls this the phenomenon of the "long tail":

To get a sense of our true taste, unfiltered by the economics of scarcity, look at Rhapsody, a subscription-based streaming music service…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 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.

Anderson points out that there is a lot of money to be made appealing to these obscure, non-hit tastes; for example, Amazon apparently sells more books ranked below 130,000 on its scale (that being about the number of books Barnes & Noble carries) than it does books ranked above it. Thus, "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…the potential book market may be twice as big as it appears to be, if only we can get over the economics of scarcity."

Given this reality, Anderson's article offers some advice for producers and marketers of cultural products in the cornucopian 21st century: 1) Make Everything Available. Dump every movie in your possession on DVD, without much in frills or marketing; make every record your company every owned–and license from those who won't–available, at least for digital download if not as physical CD. 2) Cut the Price in Half. Now Lower It. All that old stuff is sunk costs. Sell it to those who want it. 3) Help Me Find It. Anderson writes:

The success of Netflix, Amazon, and the commercial music services shows that you need both ends of the curve. Their huge libraries of less-mainstream fare set them apart, but hits still matter in attracting consumers in the first place. Great Long Tail businesses can then guide consumers further afield by following the contours of their likes and dislikes, easing their exploration of the unknown….Rhapsody does this with a combination of human editors and genre guides. But Netflix, where 60 percent of rentals come from recommendations, and Amazon do this with collaborative filtering, which uses the browsing and purchasing patterns of users to guide those who follow them ("Customers who bought this also bought …"). In each, the aim is the same: Use recommendations to drive demand down the Long Tail.

The whole article is well worth reading, with interesting examples of how the Long Tail means that a cultural item's day need never be done.