I Got Your Long Tail Swinging!

A few years ago a guy from WIRED named Chris Anderson wrote a thesis and basically bet his life (or blog anyway) on something called “The Long Tail.” Given the distribution model of the Internet, compared to real world stores, the theory is that more people will be buying niche items because those items will be available in ways never seen before in mankind. A breakthrough worthy of Magellan sharing noodles and ice cream and Toyota Hybrids from halfway across the world (or something like that). Anderson, I’m assuming, makes a handsome supplement touring the world as the darling of the Kool-Aid swilling Wide Eyed Web crowd with his fancy talk about the how this “revolutionizes” everything.

A few weeks ago a friend of Chris’ from Harvard Business School named Anita Elberse wrote a paper called “Should You Invest in the Long Tail?” in which she used sales data she got from some online music and video retailers which proves, without a shadow of doubt, that the whole long tail theory is dead. Deader than dead.

Now along comes folks like Glenn Peoples from coolfer.com — a darling apologist for the Big Media record industry with a reasonable tone (most of the time) — to pile on with a paper called “Rethink the Long Tail” (you know it’s important because he put it into a PDF) in which he offers between zero and no new extrapolation on Elberse’s work, but instead gives us a joyous celebration of it. Long tail isn’t just deader than dead, it’s fucked in the head. “The implications for businesses are profound.” Get it? Elberse’s findings at Soundscan and Rhapsody proves that Magellan was an idiot for thinking that worldwide trade would somehow pan out because, you know, 20 years after his first round trip people were still buying cow’s brains locally culled. Hey, the numbers don’t lie.

Along the way, everybody’s got advice for the record industry. Anderson says lower your costs and get everything out there, let the market decide. Elberse says you post your niche material at your own risk, because it’s guaranteed a waste of money. The numbers, the numbers, oh those wicked numbers.

Peoples has advice too and you know what? I agree 100% with it. Peoples and my advice to the established record industry is this:


If losing ~15-30% each year from the year before is working for you then it’s certainly working for me! Don’t pay any attention to any of the smoke and mirrors wishful thinking about this Internet thing or let it get in the way of business as usual.

Peoples points out that only 2% of the respondents of a supporting Pew poll said they share music online and “[t]he habits of younger music buyers are probably more heavily skewed toward the Internet.” You shouldn’t make too much of a fuss about that. Sure, he said “probably” in there but fuck it. Keep looking at the buying and sharing habits of 43 year olds because after all “this report is not about future trends and the habits of the youth generation.”

Fuckin’ A right. Whatever you do, don’t look to the future. Keep your head out of the clouds and keep your eye firmly on 1982 when mobbed up “radio promoters” fixed what was on the air with cocaine and beatings (Eliot who??? whatever happened to him??). Keep suing everybody, keep DRM‘ing, (btw I miss root-kits, bring those back), keep fleecing your successful artists with opaque accounting and keep all your signed artists un-unionized and below the poverty line. Above all, keep all the rights to your signed artists music. Forever.

Do not, under any circumstances, invest one copper penny in this Jetsonian vision of online taste-makers opening up consumer’s options. It hasn’t happened yet, it’s just not going to. Ever. That’s just freaky hippie talk. Soundscape told you so, so did Pew. Do not, for heaven’s sake, look at fan funded artists like Brad Sucks or Norine Braun or geeky fringe labels, especially if they are profitable like Magnatune for any indicator of an alternative way for artists and consumers to hook up and completely cut your fucking ass out of the picture. Ignore that. Now and forever.

Let the back-peddling begin…

5 thoughts on “I Got Your Long Tail Swinging!

  1. John Pazdan

    YO Stone,
    Don’t get all snarky on the ol’ skool “record companies”. Without them, how would we ever be able to get the 492 “digitally remastered” Greatest Hitz packages of The (_______)..fill it in yourself, cowboy…complete with memorial booklet and sooooveneer concert ticket stubs (not included with all versions, some restrictions apply)? How would I ever be able to keep some asswipe lawyers kiddies in college tuition money when trying to run down “royalty statements” from (_______)..ditto… And Gebus! Just what would be my motivation for making muzak if there weren’t no promise of a life of sex drugs and the BIG BUCK (S) etcetc at the dark end of the street? Git real here Bud..In our immensely successful, gebus given to us as the greatest gift, Free Market Economy ™, it’s the promise of REWARD that keeps us all striving ahead to the great, umm, I fergit… but that’s ’cause I am sort of a ..maverick.. kind of guy.

    Your Friend, and (maybe?) the only person at ccM to have his own little mention in “Hit Men”,

    j “what’s it to you?” p

  2. Glenn

    Thanks for the critique.

    Perhaps you took my post/paper too far. I have not encouraged music companies to *not* change how they do business, only to shy away from many of the themes and recommendations in the book. The HBR article is about hit and niche cultures. To discuss accounting methods and artist contracts would be to venture outside the scope of the discussion.

  3. fourstones Post author

    Glenn, if you could only be less reasonable it would easier to discuss these things… ;)

    Focusing on the “while you’re at it” aspects of my response is just side stepping the larger point – that a tactical play, aimed at the online habits of 43 year olds, is in the larger context of the business practices of these companies a continuation of the provincial outlook that has put the industry in the hole that it is today. Besides, having a discussion of how lesser known artists sell into their markets can not be a vacuum considering how influential those (mal)practices have been on the market in the past.

    Coming from a world where radio airplay is jerry-rigged using illegal means, artists’ only option was to play their game their way, retailers were kept under the thumb of draconian sell-back rules, charts were rigged at the cash register, and more recently their customers were assaulted by tens of thousands of lawsuits and root-kits it shouldn’t come as all that much of a surprise that buying habits built up over the last 50 years continue as they were, at least for a while.

    Continuing to either fight or flee from the inherent networking nature of the Internet only makes sense if you expect the methods of the past to continue in the future and only if the model has worked financially up until this point.

    Not that I agree or even like the way they do business, the fact is Microsoft’s resistance to more bleeding edge Web trends has paid off in the tunes of billions of dollars continuing to flow their way. They have managed to walk the line between participation in the ‘net culture and an attenuation that proves there is strong strategic thinking going on. I know first hand this is rooted from a deep paranoia of being taken over by the “2 guys in a garage” phenomenon; the same one that allowed them to side-swipe IBM.

    The refusal of the record industry to take active participation in the ‘net culture, especially where it comes to the relationship between artist and consumer, including “niche” artists is exactly why the star and celebrity culture continues to prevail in the buying habits of 43 year olds. But it’s just another strategic miscalculation that leaves the door wide open for a completely different set of players to move in.

  4. John Pazdan

    Agreed! Victor. For some reason, people outside of “the industry” frequently don’t understand the biz for the wreck it is. And as you go up the food chain to the “other” industries, a lot of the same “wreckedness” applies as well. It is the profit motive to the detriment of all else in corporate culture that drives the bus.

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