Internet evangelists in Silicon Valley have been proclaiming the end of the music/movie/TV industry’s dominance of pop culture for more than a decade. Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson follows that well-worn path, albeit with less arrogance and one-half of a convincing argument, in “The Long Tail,” a tome that nicely encapsulates (and gives a catchy name to) the explosion of niche content online. It’s on the supposed flipside of that coin — “Hits are starting to, gasp, rule less” — where Anderson fails, due largely to a shallow understanding of the traditional entertainment business that the long tail supposedly upends.
For those who haven’t at least heard of the 2004 Wired article that inspired the book, “The Long Tail” argues that, thanks to the digital revolution, content is easier to make, cheaper to distribute and simpler to find. The result, Anderson claims, is that the mass media become less important and the huge amount of niche content, which resides on the long, nearly flat tail of the demand curve, is on the rise.
Anderson is at his best describing how this works. For those who want to understand the MySpace/BitTorrent/Google-driven consumption pattern of today’s youth, “The Long Tail” is a great primer. He elucidates how democratized tools of production, low-cost broadband pipes and increasingly sophisticated search engines and recommendation tools are making everything from home movies to garage bands to cleverly remixed trailers available to the Internet-connected world.
But what does it all mean? Anderson points out that “long tail” content, which he defines as music, DVDs and books not available in a retail store, makes up between 21% and 40% of sales on three digital-content stores: Rhapsody, Netflix and Amazon’s book section. In a sense, this is obvious. After all, one of the primary appeals of the ‘Net is virtually limitless inventory. The opportunity to sell albums or DVDs that aren’t popular enough to stock in a store, or even self-distribute tunes or short films, is amazing.
Still, does it really follow that hits, as Anderson asserts, “are not quite the economic force they once were?” There’s certainly no evidence of a causal relationship. Despite all the activity on YouTube, iTunes and peer-to-peer networks, Anderson admits he doesn’t really know whether this steals directly from the audience for mass-appeal content, or is simply additive media consumption expanding the market.
And regardless of the reason, the book’s effort to demonstrate the woes of those in the hit business relies on selective data that demonstrate Anderson doesn’t know much about how Hollywood works. He points out, “The theatergoing audience is falling even as the population grows,” but that doesn’t necessarily prove hits are waning. After all, people are watching movies many different ways today: DVD, pay-per-view, cable and digital download.
Anderson’s dismissal of the TV business is that “every year network TV loses more of its audience to hundreds of niche cable channels.” But cable is full of popular channels such as ESPN, USA and Lifetime that hardly qualify as “niche.”
Music is the only media sector undeniably struggling due to the Internet. But while the music market has certainly diversified, a major culprit for plunging album sales is the millions of people illegally downloading hits every day.
Finally, while he’s focused on the long tails new technologies enable, Anderson doesn’t take time to consider the impact of new hits created by digital technology, especially videogames. To the extent that “old media” successes have become less important, especially to young men, it’s largely because they’re being supplanted by new kinds of hits, like Halo and World of Warcraft.
In a world where Grand Theft Auto sells millions of units, “American Idol” performances are available for download and you can watch “Pirates of the Caribbean” in the theater, on HBO, on DVD or on a PSP, Anderson seems to have it exactly wrong: Thanks to digital technology, more people are consuming more hits than ever — on more platforms than ever.
Near the end of the book, Anderson boils down his thesis concisely: “Mass culture will not fall, it will simply get less mass. And niche culture will get less obscure.” The second assertion is undoubtedly starting to come true. But there’s no evidence yet that the first follows.