Hit songs, blockbuster movies, best-selling books — most creative industries are driven by sales of a small handful of the most popular releases.

In 2004, Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson wrote that the internet would render this model obsolete.

Physical limitations of the bricks-and-mortar world led to a focus on blockbusters in the first place. As Anderson explains in Rise and Fall of the Hit, “The world of shelf space is a zero-sum game: one product displaces another. Forced to choose, each link in the entertainment industry naturally selects the most popular products, giving them privileged placement.” Less-popular, obscure, and niche products remained unavailable to consumers because of the “tyranny of physical space.” In addition to this, creative markets are notoriously uncertain and inefficient; focusing on blockbusters helps lower these risks.

The internet, of course, doesn’t have the same physical limitations as warehouses and retail outlets. Shelf space is virtually infinite. Content can be easily and cheaply distributed around the world. The shift from an analog to a digital world is radical. In the music world, for example, what once took a vast amount of infrastructure and hundreds of millions of dollars — distributing music to consumers across the nation1 — could be done digitally for pennies.2

In his influential book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, Chris Anderson suggests that these changes will result in a shift away from the blockbuster effect. In a traditional retail sales distribution curve, blockbuster products make up a large “head” that contribute to the majority of sales, while the rest of products reside in a smaller “tail” that eventually reaches to zero — most commonly this is referred to as the 80/20 rule, where 80% of sales come from 20% of  products. The “Long Tail” theory states that since online retailers have unlimited “shelf-space,” the tail can extend much further; wide product selection and worldwide access increases demand for less popular and niche products in the tail as well, until the majority of sales come from the tail instead of the head.

If the Long Tail theory is correct, what does that mean for copyright? Anderson and others have predicted that a shift in demand away from hits would reduce the role of those companies that have traditionally invested in content creation — record labels, film studios, publishers, etc. These companies typically rely on a solid framework of copyright law to operate. Content creators in the “tail”, it is argued, are less concerned with copyright’s protections, which could result in a “less rigorous de facto regime for the majority of works.”3

Which brings us to our next question. Is the Long Tail Theory correct?

Anderson presents several case studies consistent with his theory. But while a few studies done since the book was published have reached similar results,4 the full range of evidence shows a decidedly mixed bag.5

Billboard Magazine’s Glenn Peoples highlighted some of this recent research and other statistics which show that, despite Anderson’s predictions, demand for content remains concentrated around blockbusters. In The Long Tale?, Peoples writes:

So far, at least according to Nielsen SoundScan data on U.S. music sales from January 2004 through October 2009, that revolution hasn’t arrived—although the demand for albums has changed. Sales of albums, especially digital ones, became significantly less concentrated around hit releases since 2004. But sales of digital tracks—which this year account for 56% of digital sales by track volume—have grown more concentrated in hits during the same time period.

These findings are consistent with other research, including that conducted by Will Page and Anita Elberse. In his recent article, In Defense of Copyright: Record Labels, Creativity, and the Future of Music, Brian Day explains, “The results of both Page and Elberse‘s studies suggest that consumer demand for music has remained fairly constant despite the digital transition, with the vast majority of sales clustered around a small group of extremely popular titles.”6

If any conclusion can be gleaned from this, it is that the Long Tail Theory is not a natural phenomenon, caused solely by the economics and architecture of the internet. Factors besides these drive demand to content located in the tail.

And even though there are benefits to increasing the importance of “tail content”, “head content” still plays an important role. The success of hits and blockbusters provides the capital for content industries to take more risks, investing in the creation of non-mainstream and niche content. The importance of hits remains remarkably the same at every level across many different artistic fields — consider how many ballet companies rely on Christmas productions of The Nutcracker Suite to sustain themselves.7

In short, the demise of “traditional” creative companies predicted by The Long Tail, and any changes in the role of copyright law that may accompany that, has yet to occur in practice. Brian Day offers his own conclusions drawn from the discussion above specifically relating to the music industry — conclusions that I both agree with and think are just as applicable to other types of works covered by copyright law:

The Internet has thrown open the floodgates of music,offering consumers more selection than ever before. As the previously discussed studies demonstrate, however, increased access to music does not suggest that consumers’ appetite for music has changed or that record labels have artificially restricted musical diversity or creativity. To the contrary, the studies demonstrate that record labels successfully satisfy consumer demand by providing useful art to consumers. Without record labels, the long tail would likely grow even longer, requiring consumers to sift through thousands or perhaps millions of songs in hopes of stumbling upon a hit. Labels provide expertise in determining which songs and artists will appeal to specific groups of consumers, and invest significantly to market and promote their selections. A review of Billboard’s Top 100 most popular songs affirms the continuing popularity of label-funded music and artists.8

Footnotes

  1. It’s estimated that a national record distribution operation cost $125 million a year in the mid-1980s, according to David Nelson, Free the Music: Rethinking the Role of Copyright in an Age of Digital Distribution, 78 Southern California Law Review 559, 563 (2004). []
  2. Although there are still significant costs involved with preparing the music for digital distribution, and the costs of creation remained relatively similar. []
  3. William Patry, A Long Tail Effect on Copyright?, Patry Copyright Blog (Dec 19, 2006). I disagree with the contention that attitudes toward the appropriate scope of copyright protection can be generalized in this fashion. Indeed, there are many examples that can be used to show the opposite. []
  4. Brynjolfsson, Hu, and Simester, Goodbye Pareto Principle, Hello Long Tail: The Effect of Search Costs on the Concentration of Product Sales (January 1, 2011); Haro, Sainz, and Somalo, Is One Long Tail Enough? (Cuando Una Long Tail No Es Suficiente) (2008). []
  5. Òscar Celma, Music Recommendation and Discovery in the Long Tail, (2008). []
  6. 21 Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law 61 (2011). []
  7. For example, The Washington City Paper notes that The Nutcracker provides 20% of the Washington Ballet’s total ticket revenue each year; The Cincinnati Ballet received 51% of its annual revenue from the Suite in 2008-09. []
  8. In Defense of Copyright, pp 87-88. []

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18 Comments

  1. A bit of forethought will instantly reveal why the long tail is silliness.

    What Chris Anderson fails to take into account is that it’s not a shelf space shortage issue.

    It’s an attention span issue.

    There are only so many things a human can devote their attention to each day. Record labels fulfill their unspoken, free market role by selecting the cream of the crop and filtering it even further so consumers can avoid the overwhelming, often confusing, plethora of choices out there.

    Have there been abuses of the pact between labels and consumers and labels and artists?

    Yep.

    That does not mean the filter functions provided by labels are undesirable or that they will be rendered obsolete.

    • “It’s an attention span issue.”

      Aren’t musical choices more subjective?

      “Record labels fulfill their unspoken, free market role by selecting the cream of the crop and filtering it even further so consumers can avoid the overwhelming, often confusing, plethora of choices out there.”

      If they’re picking from the cream of the crop, then by whose standards are they measuring? Certainly how I feel of one artist can change based on a number of variables.

      Take for example MTV. The 90s was the era of group bands that were endorsed by labels. Spice girls, Vengaboys, and Nsync were popular. However, this would discredit the alternative rock of the era such as Nirvana, Garbage, or Alice in Chains that came up as a sort of counter culture of the times. The point is, perhaps the labels can be used as a filter, but it may be ineffective based on consumer choices. Nowadays, I would think that those very same filters are being explored by consumers themselves through other channels such as Youtube, Ustream, etc.

      • “” Aren’t musical choices more subjective? “”

        Of course musical choices are subjective. That does not mean that people have infinite attention span they can devote to the pursuit of entertainment.

        That’s why the long tail theory’s premise of unlimited shelf space is nonsense.

        .
        “” If they’re picking from the cream of the crop, then by whose standards are they measuring? “”

        The free market’s.

        People will not lay down their hard earned dollars for products they see as un-entertaining to them. What sells is what the labels will work to offer.

        Most consumers seek out filters to help them make effective choices for the limited amount of attention span they can devote to entertainment.

        You are still free to bypass the label filters.

        You are still free to subscribe to various cliques, forums, blogs, taste makers, etc. for help in sorting out the cornucopia of art pouring forth.

        That’s the democracy we live in.

        .
        (Oh, and Nirvana was a big deal on MTV before Kurt blew his mind out.)

  2. There is a grain of truth in the Long Tail theory. The internet has certainly made it possible to explore and obtain relatively obscure things much more easily than before. For example, a long time ago I heard about an obscure American avent guarde composer called Harry Partch, but it would have taken me a lot of time and effort to explore his work – time and effort that I wasn’t prepared to invest. (I did once see one of his works in a record store, but it was too expensive to buy just ‘on spec’.) But now I can check out his career on Wiki, I can listen to entire works on YouTube, and I can buy CDs from Amazon, or buy downloads at the touch of a button (which is what I have done). And his work is indeed interesting, but I’m sure it will always be very much a minority taste. In aggregate, niche artists may now account for a larger proportion of total sales than they used to. What is obviously dubious in the Long Tail theory is that the Long Tail will ever collectively become bigger than the ‘head’ – the minority of products with mass appeal. If anything, the head is getting fatter, as the financial pressures on the music industry (and films), due in part to piracy, force the major companies to concentrate even more exclusively on those artists with the widest appeal.

    • If anything, the head is getting fatter, as the financial pressures on the music industry (and films), due in part to piracy, force the major companies to concentrate even more exclusively on those artists with the widest appeal.

      Very well said.

  3. This article feels like a bait and switch to me. The title communicates a focus on copyright in the long tail. The actual article, though, is merely about whether the long tail is true. I’m bummed.

    Regardless, let’s be clear on what the long tail is: it’s hype. No company — internet or physical — would profit from having an infinite number of choices. It’s not efficient. Chris Anderson is a gifted purveyor of trendy topics, but I doubt even he fully believes most of what he publishes.

    • Actually, the title references the use of the Long Tail theory in debates about copyright. Quite clearly. If something is to be used as an argument, the question of it’s truth or otherwise is paramount.

      It was done quite often when the idea was still unverified and considered trendy. These days less, because nobody really believes in the Long Tail anymore – apart from the obvious, that if something is available it is easier to sell it than if it wasn’t.

      In any case, if we were considering the connection between the two, it should have been “the role of copyright in the long tail”.

  4. This quote:

    “A review of Billboard’s Top 100 most popular songs affirms the continuing popularity of label-funded music and artists.”

    Doesn’t this contradict the entire idea of long tail? Does anyone think that content from the long tail would make it to the top 100? Or am I misunderstanding this line?

    • I’m not sure what you mean here.

      It shows the *major labels* are still responsible for the most popular titles in music today (which make up “the head”). Increased access to music within the tail has not resulted in the dramatic shift in consumer preference as Anderson predicted. It has not given rise to an egalitarian marketplace where independent artists can shoot to the head by virtue of the new, digital marketplace.

      • Yes, but it seems as if they are using the fact that no long tail artists have broken into the top 100 as proof of their thesis… illogical to me.

        Granted, it’s clear the long tail isn’t the next big thing some predicted.

        • Why do you assume that only record label music will make up the head? Why is that a foregone conclusion? If, despite the digital revolution, record labels continue to produce the most demanded content in the market, we should recognize the importance of those works and ensure that they are protected from infringement. That’s the point of the statement.

  5. The Long Tail is a great gimmick to sell books to the net-generation of entrepreneurs. Chris is laughing his ass off at the way the blog-o-sphear has elevated his musings into a virtual religion. As an author, I applaud him and his publishers for a great marketing effort, but as a realist, honestly, how does anybody who truly understands economics, commerce and the content business have time for this discussion? It’s like talking about Eat Pray Love as if it’s an actual physician’s guide to mental health.

  6. You’re three years late on this discussion. He’s already admitted it’s wrong, as most experienced people in the music industry knew. Your article was linked in an aggregated news delivery service. This issue is dead.

    Just Google Chris Anderson long tail admits wrong from 2008

  7. I don’t think the abstract shelf space issue has much to do with the pervasive success of the large head of labels. It still boils down to something too familiar and grotesquely obvious: The labels have the marketing muscle and the greatest control of the media streams. I’ve been in advertising for years, and if you think you’re going to crack the market with a $10,000 budget, you’re nuts – that’s one spot in a major metropolitan newspaper (and who reads those?) – and few indies are able to even cough up that much. There is not a chance that any part of the tail – no matter how long or short it is – will compete with the monster head. It’s money and marketing muscle. Don’t over-analyze it.

  8. I never quite understood why Long Tail was supposed to be an argument against copyright. If you’re going to make money off of catalog depth, then why would you want that deep content to be rendered valueless?

  9. “Content creators in the “tail”, it is argued, are less concerned with copyright’s protections, which could result in a “less rigorous de facto regime for the majority of works.”

    Why should those of us in the tail be less concerned about copyright? If anything, it’s even more of a concern for those of us whose income is lower, as every penny counts. Copyright matters for everyone.

    • I share in your questioning of this statement, see footnote 3.

      • Thank you for the response, and for noting this. However, such a significant point would bear emphasis in the main text!

        Established mainstream artists with major label contracts can still prosper despite piracy, but anyone who is not top-40 material has a much greater challenge, as many such artists live just around the poverty line.

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