Riding The Long Tail To The Bank

by | Mar 19, 2005

Seth Godin points to a great article on “the long tail” by Wired editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson. The piece is available as a PDF from Change This, a site which Godin helped give birth to last summer.

So what is this long tail? I first heard the term a few months back, and like most things involving the web, there was no explanation, just the assumption that I knew, or that I cared enough to catch up to the conversation. The long tail, at least in terms of entertainment and media products, refers to the vast catalog of books, CDs and films that do not rank as best sellers, or even as profit-generators in the traditional distribution-via-retail model.

Anderson explains how bricks and mortar-less enterprises like Netflix, Amazon and iTunes make as much money by providing obscure titles as they do by providing hits.

With no shelf space to pay for and, in the case of purely digital services like iTunes, no manufacturing costs and hardly any distribution fees, a miss sold is just another sale, with the same margins as a hit. A hit and a miss are on equal economic footing, both just entries in a database called up on demand, both equally worthy of beeing carried. Suddenly, popularity no longer has a monopoly on profitability.

The uncovering of this new economic truth has several implications. As a writer, the point couldn’t be clearer that simply making one’s work available—especially with today’s print-on-demand self-publishing options—is the big push. For over a decade, I’ve gotten lost in the idea that to “make it as a writer,” I first had to convice editors at small literary presses to take notice of me. That’s the old model. The new model allows me to bypass the gatekeepers and go direct to my audience, especially if I have the ability to market myself, which I do.

Another implication that occurs to me as a music lover and internet entrepreneur is the power of successfully serving niche markets. How about an iTunes-style service (or a hybrid, where users are empowered to choose downloads or streaming) that specifically carries the music iTunes does not? Given my ties to, and history in, the jamband community, I can see such a service providing only live recordings, commonly known as “bootlegs,” although that definition is fast losing meaning in an era where bands increasingly encourage taping of their shows and peer-to-peer file sharing.

Because I know first hand how big a subculture can get, and the startling buying power of said subcultures, the point is to simply provide. One needn’t be the next iTunes or the next hot author to make a living. As Godin says in his post, “figure out how to be: patient, persistent and low cost.”

p.s. Chris Anderson has dedicated a blog to this subject and is busy making a book of it, as well.