7.28.2006

Riding the long tail

The settlement between Kazaa and the music and film industries offers a way, should either industry choose to take a chance, for them to tap into the power of the Long Tail. The settlement, which calls for Kazaa to pay the music industry $115 million and the film industry an undisclosed sum, also will lead to Kazaa's operators legitimately licensing and distributing copyrighted material. Sure, you can argue the means, but the ends -- the music and movie industries having a ready-made network of people with the right tools and desire to download their wares -- are certainly enviable.

How does the Long Tail apply? Well, this isn't the first network the industries have aligned with to facilitate distribution of music and movies, but it's one that adds significantly to their reach. It can't cost much for labels or studios to digitize anything in their back catalogs and make it available for sale online. Yes, as critics of Chris Anderson's book The Long Tail have pointed out, hits will still dominate sales charts. But the one thing that keeps people from digging deeper when looking for something to buy is lack of availability (or even knowing something could be available). As more and more low-cost distribution networks become available, more opportunities to sell out of that back catalog are presented.

Andrew Taylor at the Artful Manager blog wrote about the theory and its potential impact on nonprofit arts groups. A commenter wondered if the Long Tail would mean so much choice that the potential audience for any one thing would become fractured. I don't think so, and in fact think that the same thing that makes the Long Tail possible -- near-limitless access to content and information, will actually make it easier to assemble groups of interested people around nearly everything. These niches still won't become mass attractions, but they certainly have a greater chance of finding a sustaining audience than in the past.

Hugh at Gaping Void makes a valid point that, as I wrote in my previous post, seems to get lost in the debate as people try to debunk Anderson's theory: He is a professional cartoonist who doesn't "really publish anything in the conventional sense." He does use his cartoons in indirect online marketing campaigns to help sell Stormhoek wine, bespoke tailored suits and other things. "Would this approach have been possible before the Internet and what Chris Anderson calls 'The Long Tail'? Of course not."

Perhaps Anderson does overstate things at present by implying that the head and the tail are drawing equal. But he is dead-on in anticipating a time when the tail looms very large for those who choose to embrace it. Offer access to enough niches, and you'll find yourself with a very viable business plan not reliant on hits.

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