Life in the Long Tail

June 13, 2008 at 5:36 pm 1 comment

The March cover of Spin Magazine featured Vampire Weekend, a fast-rising indie pop band of Ivy League grads. The band was the first ever to grace the cover of Spin before releasing an album, and yet the Spin story described Vampire Weekend’s meteoric rise to fame. How can a band become so famous without ever having released an album?

Welcome to the Long Tail.

The latest book on my social media reading list is Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. The book describes how the rise of the Internet has transformed our economic model from one based on a limited number of hits (or inventory), to one based on millions of niches (and almost unlimited inventory).

Let’s take an example straight from the book. Rhapsody is an online music retailer that offered more than 1.5 million tracks at the time The Long Tail was published. Meanwhile, America’s largest physical music retailer – WalMart – carried only about 4,500 CDs at the time (roughly 55,000 tracks). WalMart’s inventory is limited by shelf and storage space in a way that Rhapsody’s isn’t. At first this might not seem like a big deal since music sales and downloads are highly concentrated on the top 5,000 or so hits. But virtually every one of Rhapsody’s 1.5 million tracks, even those far along the “tail” of inventory, will sell to somebody. In the words of Anderson, “A very, very big number (the products in the Tail) multiplied by a relatively small number (the sales of each) is still equal to a very, very big number. And … that very, very big number is only getting bigger.”

This means consumers have so many more choices and can tailor their purchases to meet their very specific interests and needs, which creates niche markets. This also means a band like Vampire Weekend can generate buzz and sales before it ever produces an album or goes on a national tour.

What are the implications of this shift from a culture based on hits to one based on niches? The Long Tail offers a few thoughts, including: more people will have the opportunity to create music and art, more watercooler conversations will take place online and across geographic lines instead of literally next to the workplace watercooler, and traditional media like radio and television will be forever changed. The Spin magazine story describes how bands and other creative acts could be “discovered” before they’re ready and how fame might be more fleeting than ever since bloggers quickly move on to the next big thing. As a consumer, I love how I can jump from Vampire Weekend’s website, to LILL studio where I can design my own purse, to niche education blogs like Eduwonk, Eduwonkette, and This Week in Education, which aren’t niche at all if you’re in the education policy and communications business like I am.

I think life in the long tail is a pretty cool place to be. I just hope we never fully lose the occasional and incredible synergy that happens when thousands of people experience the same cultural event at the same time.


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Quantity Versus Quality « Melissa’s Musings  |  July 4, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    […] leads me to the “what is a quality media hit?” question. In our long tail world where the continual birth of blogs, podcasts, vlogs, and more has given rise to countless and […]


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