Chris Anderson of Wired continues his fascinating analysis of the new media/information world of the "long tail"–as the subtitle of his forthcoming book on the topic sums it up, "the future of business is selling less of more." In the July Wired he offers another great feature story (inexplicably not hyped on the cover) on the topic, called "The Rise and Fall of the Hit," about how various aspects of late 20th century cultural production and consumption created a brief heyday for the huge-item-that-sold-real-well-and-everyone-cared-about–and about why that age is over. Interesting facts and observations contained therein:
Twenty-one of the all-time top 100 albums were released in the five-year period between 1996 and 2000. The next five years produced only two–Norah Jones' Come Away With Me and OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below— ranking 79 and 91, respectively.
Network TV ratings continue to fall as viewers scatter to cable channels; since 1985, the networks' share of the TV audience has dropped from three-quarters to less than half. Ratings of the top TV shows have fallen dramatically since the 1960s. Today's top-rated show, American Idol, is watched by just 18 percent of households. During the '70s, American Idol wouldn't even have made it to the top 10 with that kind of market share.
….now the audience is turning to a distribution medium that doesn't favor the hits alone. We are abandoning the tyranny of the top and becoming a niche nation again, defined not by our geography but by our interests. Instead of the weak connections of the office water cooler, we're increasingly forming our own tribes, groups bound together more by affinity and shared interests than by broadcast schedules. These days our water coolers are increasingly virtual–there are many different ones, and the people who gather around them are self-selected.
The mass market is yielding to a million minimarkets. Hits will always be with us, but they have lost their monopoly. Blockbusters must now compete with an infinite number of niche offerings, which can be distributed just as easily.
The bad news in all this is that N'Sync's record for selling the most copies of any CD in one week may well never be matched. (It was 2.4 million in the first week for No Strings Attached.)
Nick Gillespie's 1999 Reason classic cover feature on our ongoing golden age of cultural production here.