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Long tail dreaming

Cover of The Long Tail
I’ve been sneaking ways in the last week to digest the excellent bookThe Long Tail by Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson. We’re giving away a copy to the person who makes the best comment about it on our site (see below to comment).

I think the book is life changing. Well it is for me, anyway. Anderson is no great pioneer, he admits as much in the intro. But he has done a great job of explaining, in a simple way, what the Internet actually means for business. By using the music industry and the decline of the hit song as his key anecdote, he gives readers an excellent device to explain what the Long Tail is.

The argument is this: How come a hit song that we can all sing and hum just doesn’t seem like, well, a hit anymore? Can you remember a recent TV show that everyone saw and is talking about? Probably not. It used to be that a number one hit like “Bohemian Rhapsody” was on everyone’s lips and we could all discuss episodes of shows like Shortland Street. But now hits are in decline in every media category. What’s going on?

For example, no band has repeated the success of boy band *NSYNC with their second album, which in 2000 was the fastest selling album of all time. Also, since 2000 , only two albums (Norah Jones Come Away With Me and OutKast Speakerboxxx) have made it into the top 100 sellings albums of all time. Hits just aren’t as big anymore.

In fact, every traditional media metric is in decline:

  • Hollywood box office takings have fallen 7% since 2001

  • Newspaper readership internationally is in decline down to levels not seen since the 60s (they peaked in 1987)

  • Magazine sales are static (and in NZ are falling for first time in ages)

  • Free-to-air TV ratings static and falling

  • In the US, one rock radio station goes out of business every week

What’s happening? We haven’t stopped listening, reading and watching. You know the answer: it’s the Internet, iPod, YouTube and all that.

Technology has made it possible for us all to be well served in our peculiar niches of music, film, TV, books and, well, everything. Instead of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 or BBC’s Top of the Pops, we now have some thousands of top 40s in every genre you can imagine.

From a business point of view it means that at last we can money in niches. Amazon makes more money from out of print books than so called best sellers. The music download site Rhapsody is able to sell every song it uploads to its site – no matter how obscure or dreadful.

The Long Tail that Anderson refers to is best thought of as a graph that starts really high with hits and ends low with flops. In any record shop you have limited shelf space, so you want to stack it with hit albums. On the Internet, you can store any obscure song for virtually nothing. What’s more, you can reach the person who wants to buy that obscure song for virtually nothing. So whereas it was traditionally impossible to make money by storing obscuring music for the one person in Timaru, you can now make money out of it because the cost of storing and distribution is really low.

You can now make money out of the tail end of the business curve.

Why is it long? Well, because no matter how obscure the song is, someone somewhere wants it. Which means that the tail will continue forever--or at least for long while.I’ve not finished the book. And certainly not finsihed thinking about what it means for New Zealand: for agriculture or tourism or traditional business where we are strong. It’s certainly great news for Kiwi creatives and entrepreneurs.

What do you think?