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.


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  1. In the case of music, the advantage is in the listening. But this seems like exactly the reasoning behind the further extension of copyright lengths – if nothing has to go out of print, nothing will go out of copyright.

  2. Now if I can just get iTunes to carry my music.

  3. I think that it is great that the ‘long tail’ finally is getting a chance to be served – but I would think that taking those Amazon stats and extrapolating them to the whole market is somewhat misguided.

    Amazon’s sales figures for those books ranked below 130,000 might represent a fairly sizable percentage of the entire demand for those books, whereas they might only satisfy a fraction of the overall demand for the best sellers. Therefore, saying that the whole market force of the long tail meets or exceeds the market force for best sellers may not be the case.

  4. I think Anderson is right. If there’s one thing this “New Econmony” gives us, it’s the ability to cater to more esoteric tastes. I like the fact that I don’t have to wander all over town to find an obscure book or CD. Chances are Amazon and its ilk carry it. Taken to its logical end, the “long tail” ought to significantly lower the barriers to entry of mature markets. This can only be a good thing, IMHO. Brian’s three point summary of the articles thrust is spot on, I think.

  5. I’m totally in the tank for Rhapsody, the greatest thing a music nut could possibly want. And it is fascinating how a functional search engine leads you in different directions. Last nite, I ‘m not sure how, I ended up listening to the Al Kooper/Mike Bloomfield/Stephen Stills one-off from 1968 the one with the 11-minute cover of Donovan’s Season of the Witch, which somehow bled into the re-released early, early Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac re-issues, then I found Willie’s Nelson’s brand new album, the one with the Lucinda Williams duet, and at some point I burned a copy of Korn’s cover of Cameo’s Word Up for my boys. See, just in the tank.

    What I said last year still mostly holds up, too

  6. is it a streaming only thing?

  7. Good point Perry. The “Long Tail” certainly doesn’t exist for every product (cars?).

    Amazon is the only supplier in the market that currently provides that “tail”. Maybe Amazon has cornered the market for rare, obscure, almost-out-of-print books, and the demand is for the entire book market? (I hope not)

    Still, more is a good thing, and I love the rare music (Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez all pre-1960) and the availibilty of it all.

  8. Regarding that books-under-#130,000-on-Amazon tidbit: if someone wants to buy the hot new bestseller, it’s sure to be in every new bookstore. But if you want book #95,867 you order it online, because there’s only a slim chance any local bookstore has it.

  9. Russ D,
    I’ve been giddy the past couple of years anticipating the collapse of the RIAA to the irresistible force of technological innovation. Thanks for the wet blanket. God, I need a drink.

  10. Regarding that books-under-#130,000-on-Amazon tidbit: if someone wants to buy the hot new bestseller, it’s sure to be in every new bookstore. But if you want book #95,867 you order it online

    It sounds like you’re saying that people most people prefer to shop at brick-and-mortar bookstores, and turn to Amazon as a last resort when they can’t find what they want.

    That may be true, but it certainly isn’t true for me, or for my friends and family. So long as a book or CD isn’t out of print, I know Amazon will have it, and usually at a good price. Therefore I see no reason to even bother going into a B&M bookstore unless I have a gift certificate for it, or desperately need a book *now* instead of next week — even if it’s a bestseller, the B&M store might be sold out, and in any case I’ll have to wait in a line.

    That doesn’t prove anything, of course; my shopping habits may be unusual among Amazon shoppers.

  11. Yes, there is a demand for obscure music, and Rhapsody appears to service that demand. But the author of the article says:

    “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…”

    Actually, since a CD might have from 7 to 15 tracks, then 40,000 CD selections would enable you to access at least 300,000 tracks.

    There are, admittedly, about a quarter million CDs in the market, so even a big music store will only have a fraction of the choice, but it is a bigger fraction than one would think from this article.

  12. Dan: Yes, I think most people do prefer to handle and read some of a book before they buy. I do, and I’ve bought more than a few from Amazon. And certainly a large proportion of bestsellers are sold on impulse, from places with narrow selections like mall bookstores, airports, CostCo, WalMart, etc., no doubt many to people who never buy anything online. So that would shift the bestseller stats somewhat away from Amazon, and the backlist stats towards them.

  13. When I firt read this article, I got giddy too. It seems obvious that the RIAA, on one end of the leash, and the short sided record companies, on the other end of the leash, are engaging in a self destructive policy of suing its customers to deter a few thousand teenagers from stealing the latest emimem crap.
    The amount of intellectual property is staggering and remains completely untapped. I’m 38. I grew up with these saturday morning TV shows from Syd and Marty Krofft, i.e. “land of the lost.” I’d be will to shell out $10.00 for all the episodes. What would it cost the property owner to digitize all these? A server, a few gigabytes of hard-drive space, the cost of analog-to-digital conversion. I’m not expecting 5.1 dolby-digital surround here.
    From then on, once these costs are recouped (which I am guessing is less than a few hundred of my fellow gen-X’ ers) EVERY SINGLE download from the rest of the remaining millions of X’ers would be almost pure profit.
    But instead of tapping into my wallet, these idiots at the RIAA are suing for every scrap of pop crap on the market.
    I’m not going to spend $18.00 on a CD for one song but I am not going to steal it either. So I will take my $$$$ to the entrepreneur who WILL provide me with the entertainment I want and the price I’m willing to pay.
    I remain optomistic. Out there, somewhere, is a entrprenuer who is going to give me what I want. All the while, the RIAA, and the idiots who hold thier leash, sue themselves into obscelesence.

  14. Papaya,

    Why would impulse buying shift stats away from Amazon? Amazon has distinct advantages in appealing to impulse buyers: (a) it is easier to buy from Amazon than it is to buy from a normal store and (b) Amazon tracks customers’ history and uses that data to present appropriate items to each individual customer.

    Normal bookstores do have an advantage in that you can actually pick up and read the books. The latter half of that advantage is rapidly fading, though, since Amazon presents scanned-in sections of popular books.

  15. Sure, impulse buying happens with Amazon customers. But how many people are Amazon customers in a given week, compared to the number who visit Walmart, Costco, Walgreens, or their local mall and pass by a B. Dalton?

    I guess all I’m trying to say is that Amazon has a clear advantage re backlist titles (the “tail”) because they actually carry those titles, and a disadvantage regarding bestsellers because they have lots of offline competition.

  16. But how many people are Amazon customers in a given week, compared to the number who visit [other stores]

    Well obviously Walmart and the other big-box retail outlets dwarf Amazon; they sell a much wider range of stuff. But Amazon is a much bigger bookseller than B. Dalton, and about half the size of Barnes&Noble’s combined brick-and-mortar and web operations.

    It could be that the market will split, with general retail giants like Wal-Mart owning a most of the “people buying mainstream books while shopping for other stuff” market and online booksellers owning most of the rest of the book market. But brick-and-mortar bookstores are going to mostly die out — they are unattractive options both to those people who want mainstream books (the big-box stores are better) and to people who want anything else (online is better).

  17. As a candidate for US Senate from Indiana in next week’s election, I’ve emphasized the importance of copyright law reform. This post links to my white paper.

    The tentacles of corporate abuse of copyright seeks to artificially re-impose the scarcity that this article sees going away on a technological level.


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