The Long Tail is dead. The Long Tail is a theory penned by Wired editor Chris Anderson which states that the rise in digital markets, and the slow demise of brick and mortar shops, particularly in media and entertainment, will translate into more spending and viewing of smaller niche markets.
Harvard professor Anita Elberse claims that she has evidence that the Long Tail is wrong, and that digital markets translate into more power to the blockbuster. In an article in Variety, she describes the Long Tail in this way:
“But in his book, Anderson goes much further. Online channels, he argues, actually change the shape of the demand curve. In his view, consumers value niche products geared to their particular interests more than they value products designed for mass appeal, and as Internet retailing enables consumers to find more of the former, their purchasing will change accordingly. In other words, consumption will shift from the head to the tail of the curve — and the tail will steadily grow not only longer, as more obscure products are made available, but also fatter, as consumers discover products better suited to their tastes. Ultimately, obscure products will erode the huge market share traditionally enjoyed by a relatively small number of hits.”
And then attacks it with data:
“Take the music industry. According to Nielsen, which collects recorded-music sales information, of the 8 million unique digital tracks sold in 2011 (the large majority through the iTunes Store), 94% — 7.5 million tracks — sold fewer than 100 units, and an astonishing 32% sold only one copy. Yes, that’s right: Of all the tracks that sold at least one copy, about a third sold exactly one copy. (One has to wonder how many of those songs were purchased by the artists themselves, just to test the technology, or perhaps by their moms out of a sense of loyalty.)”
I will definitely try to purchase her book to look at her evidence in more detail, but right away, I have some problems with her interpretation of the Long Tail. Anderson never claimed that blockbusters would disappear, or that they would be less prominent. The whole point of the Long Tail is that more purchases would go to items that would not even be stocked in a brick and mortar shop, and this was a good thing. The entire premise here is that we will see an increase in more vibrant niche markets.
I also have an issue with regards to her interpretation of the data. The iTunes example cited above is a good example of the Long Tail in action, which seems to bear my initial suspicion that Elberse might be trying to attack a strawman. 7.5 million songs selling sound like quite a lot of small sales, and it would be good to contrast it with the blockbuster sales.
But the real problem that I have with the little shown in this article is that it selects skewed datasets, or simply seems to ignore what is really going on. Elberse is still using the metrics of the pre-Internet age by choosing to focus on iTunes sales. Anyone who knows anything about the music industry nowadays will tell you that all the action is on streaming, be it YouTube, Spotify, and Last.fm. Anecdotal evidence from Spotify users will tell you that they are using it to find music that would be impossible to find under other models; Spotify does show that the Long Tail works as intended. Moreover, we have now 10 years of evidence of waht people are actually listening to in the shape of Last.fm Scrobbler data, which seems skewed towards Indie music (probably because of the user base), but gives an indication that the story is very different to the very small sample used by Elberse.
Finally, her look at YouTube seems also rather biased, and didn’t seem right, YouTube is Long Tail heaven for the most part. Elberse claims:
“Meanwhile, among the 10 most popular channels in early 2013 were those run by Jay-Z, auto magazine Motor Trend, humor site the Onion, Warner Music’s The Warner Sound, and wrestling giant WWE — all entrenched, popular brands that could presumably have achieved YouTube fame even without Google’s funds. Once again, blockbuster and superstar brands are carrying the day.”
Good, a claim I can corroborate directly! Firstly, the Onion is NOT mainstream, it’s as Long Tail as you can possibly get. Secondly, I checked YouTube’s data on VidStatsX, a YouTube statistics aggregator. According to their data, the top 10 Most Viewed channels were:
Of these, only 4 are mainstream in any way, the rest being a combination of gaming and Internet-only humour. Moreover, muyap is a channel dedicated only to Turkish music, this is as Long Tail as you can probably get! Granted, views can change, so a more accurate manner of looking at popularity is to measure subscriptions:
- YouTube Spotlight
- TV Shows
Here, niche interests are doing quite well as well against mainstream. In fact, you could claim that only 4 channels are mainstream at all, and I’m including the channel that helps to highlight other channels.
Concluding, it is very early to dismiss Elberse’s arguments completely, but if the above feature some of her best examples against the Long Tail, I don’t think Chris Anderson will be too bothered.