Long Article, Long Tail. Big Idea.

Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” in Wired Magazine makes for a great read; it takes a stab at explaining a whole host of pop-culture phenomena by linking them together under a seemingly counterintuitive proposition: people’s tastes are not reined in by scarcity.

Put more simply, in a physical world—the one defined by movie theaters, book stores, and music stores, etc.—retailers are constrained by the need to carry material that can earn its keep, i.e., be snapped up in sufficient numbers by a local audience.

Generic Example: Say you’ve got a movie. Say there are 2 million people who want to see that movie. Say the density of this particular demographic is 5 people per square mile. Your movie ain’t gonna fly.

Anderson calls this “the tyranny of physical space,” saying “an audience too thinly spread is the same as no audience at all.”

Now when you start talking online distribution, this tyranny is turned upside-down. Probably the clearest example is Rhapsody, an online music subscription service:

Not only is every one of Rhapsody’s top 100,000 tracks streamed at least once each month, the same is true for its top 200,000, top 300,000, and top 400,000. As fast as Rhapsody adds tracks to its library, those songs find an audience, even if it’s just a few people a month, somewhere in the country.

This is the Long Tail. 1

Anderson’s exploration of the long tail and its implications for, e.g., online music subscription is interesting; but even if you care little or nothing about online music or what-have-you, you may want to stick around long enough to entertain his thoughts on hits vs. sales and the aforementioned tyranny, both of which generate some interesting (if not necessarily surprising) brain-fodder.

Like this, which I’ll leave you with to close:

[A]s egalitarian as Wal-Mart may seem, it is actually extraordinarily elitist. Wal-Mart must sell at least 100,000 copies of a CD to cover its retail overhead and make a sufficient profit; less than 1 percent of CDs do that kind of volume. What about the 60,000 people who would like to buy the latest Fountains of Wayne or Crystal Method album, or any other nonmainstream fare? They have to go somewhere else.

1 Though another good example is Amazon, half of which sales are from books outside the top 130,000 titles.

(Wired: “The Long Tail,” by Chris Anderson [October 2004])