July 19-25, 2006

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'Long tail' economics and the end of the blockbuster's reign

By Sara Bir

Imagine a world where Hootie & the Blowfish's Cracker Rear View, released in 1994, sold only a few hundred thousand copies instead of 16 million. For the average person, this is of utterly no consequence, but for a big record company that's geared primarily to churning out hits, it's positively nightmarish.

Wired editor Chris Anderson just came out with a book telling us to get used to this. It's called The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (Hyperion; $24.95), and you can't open up a newspaper or magazine without seeing an article promoting or attacking it. The "long tail" concept isn't controversial, necessarily, but as it has a lot to do with the publishing and entertainment industries, media types all over are pricking up their self-centered ears and nibbling their nails.

The long tail is the idea that the combined revenue of millions of nonhit niche products rival, and potentially top, the big numbers blockbusters haul in. "The era of one-size-fits-all is ending, and in its place is something new, a market of multitudes," Anderson writes.

To about 99.9 percent of folks with a passion for recorded music, this proclamation can only be met with a grand d'oh. We've been living in niches for years, and it's about time someone acknowledged us as a force to be reckoned with. Anderson's theory isn't new, but his visualization of it is--the long tail refers to the seemingly endless flattened line at the end of the demand curve.

Tower Records can stock only a finite number of CDs in one of its stores, so if you're looking for an out-of-print Stereo Total album, forget it; they need to make space for things like a Dixie Chicks display. There are, after all, way more folks interested in the Dixie Chicks than Stereo Total.

But online music retailers don't need to worry about displays, and if they have a megawarehouse, thousands of CD titles that sell only a copy or two a quarter don't lose them money, they make them money. The long tail is proof that, if obscure music can be easily located and purchased, people will buy it, creating thousands of niche-busters for every blockbuster.

I don't see how any of this can be bad news, unless you are, say, Justin Timberlake or Norah Jones and you need the cash from another gazillion seller to buy a private island nation for mom's birthday. Historically, the albums that critics and musicians lionize are not the ones that sell enough copies to tile the entire surface of the moon. Meanwhile, if you examine the 100 top-selling albums of all time, it does not take long to see that about half of those are completely unexceptional. The Bodyguard soundtrack, anyone? Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell?

There's undoubtedly some great stuff in those top 100 albums, too--Songs in the Key of Life, Appetite for Destruction and, pardon me, Kenny Rogers' Greatest Hits. Quality-wise, big hits are hit-and-miss. Anderson, in his book and on his blog, stresses that the long tail won't lead to a complete disappearance of blockbusters; it simply means blockbusters, in the future, will cease to dominate our collective entertainment spending.

If hits will be of less importance in the future, will we lose a sense of unified cultural identity? It's a scary thought: What did people talk about before television, before radio, before mass media became a cultural umbrella that spanned the entire country with sitcoms, countdowns, and daytime talk shows? People talked about their lives, about local events, about weather. And weather will have to cease to exist for people to stop talking about it, so neighborly conversation will not be leaving us anytime soon.

Besides, buying a U2 album does not connect you to anyone else; talking to them about it does, or attending a U2 concert, or feeling shivers if you walk into a Starbucks and you hear a U2 song. Passivity does not make a mass cultural movement. A blockbuster itself does nothing but make money; for it to have any lasting impact, it needs to inspire people and engage them.

Niches bring us together as well--only instead of bringing together millions, they bring together thousands. What's wrong with that? Being a good citizen does not require owning the Eagles' Greatest Hits (1971-1975), which is the top selling album of all time, and declining to see the latest Superman movie won't make you a pariah at the office. And if it does, you work with total ninnies and are way too sensitive.

While the rest of my generations' baby boomer parents toked up and blew their minds to Sgt. Pepper, my mom drank iced tea and listened to decidedly square stuff like Acker Bilk. It wasn't because she was square or defiant; it was because that was what she felt like doing, and she survived the decade just fine, thank you. Pop culture is a common cultural ground, but there's much more to life than top-grossing movies and albums. Anyone who says otherwise can kiss my niche.

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