Where Did the Long Tail Go?

I recently wrote about the decline of the counterculture—and promised I would have more to say about that matter.

The article below is part of this same discussion, because many of the fringe activities of any counterculture operate as part of the so-called Long Tail. If there really is no economic support for the Long Tail (as described below), our opportunities to nurture alternative voices are severely constrained.

The downsides of living in a society without a healthy counterculture deserve our closest attention, so I will probably address this issue again in the future.

by Ted Gioia

When I first heard people predict the rise of the Long Tail, I was amused. Not only did it seem wrong-headed, but it ran counter to everything I saw happening around me.

It pains me to say this—because the Long Tail was sold to us as an economic law that not only predicted a more inclusive era of prosperity, but would especially help creative people. According to its proponents, the Long Tail would revitalize our culture by expanding the scope of the arts and giving a boost to visionaries on the fringes of society.

Alternative voices would be nurtured and flourish. Music would get cooler and more surprising. Books would become more diverse and interesting. Indie films would reach larger audiences. Etc. etc. etc.

Hey, what’s not to like?

But it never happened. More to the point, it was never going to happen because the story was a fairy tale. I knew it back then because I had been hired on a number of occasions to analyze the Long Tail myself. But the flaws in the reasoning are far more obvious today, even to me.

Nonetheless many believed it—and many still do. So it’s worth digging into the story of the Long Tail, and examining exactly why it never delivered its promise.

And maybe we can find some alternative pathway to that lost cultural renaissance by seeing how this one went off the rails.

“According to its proponents, the Long Tail would revitalize our culture by expanding the scope of the arts and giving a boost to visionaries on the fringes of society.”

For those who don’t know the term, the Long Tail concept refers to businesses that focus on products and services with almost no customers. The basic idea is that you can make a lot of money selling to these microscopically tiny groups of consumers—because they are under-served, and although each cohort has only a few members, if you attract a lot of them it adds up to a meaningful opportunity.

Take for example, a bookstore which must choose between two strategies—either (1) it just focuses on the bestselling books that almost everybody is reading, or (2) it can keep tens of thousands of unpopular books on the shelves, so that even customers with obscure tastes can find exactly what they’re looking for.   

According to the Long Tail perspective, the smart bookseller in the Internet age keeps all those poor-selling books in inventory—because the blockbuster hit is in decline, and underground niches are the way of the future.

This idea was popularized in the 2006 book by Chris Anderson entitled The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Anderson was anticipating a world in which more businesses were like Amazon, with huge warehouses filled to the brim with everything from bacon-shaped bandages to jail cells for your teen’s mobile phone.

After all, Amazon is successful—so why shouldn’t everyone follow the same strategy?

Even at first glance, this approach seems bizarre. If you know the history of Amazon, you might remember that its cash flow was awful for many years—many even expected it to go bankrupt. And even now, Amazon gets all of its operating income from its cloud and web services business. If it just relied on retail sales, Amazon would be a bomb.

Pundits have long questioned the profitability of Amazon’s basic retailing model

The other case study at the heart of the Long Tail book is Netflix. And it’s true that when Anderson published his book back in 2006, Netflix made a huge number of movies available to subscribers.

But those days are gone.

Not only has Netflix sharply reduced the number of movies it offers on its streaming platform, but now has a lot of competitors (Disney, Apple, Paramount, etc.) that are also tightly managing the titles they feature.

The Hollywood studios are even more obsessed with the Short Tail than the streaming platforms. Back in 2006, Anderson predicted the End of the Blockbuster—but what has happened since then?

This chart looks at the shrinking role of original content in the film business. The major studios would rather chase after the most predictable blockbusters, rather than take a chance on anything new or different.

They want the Short Tail—and more so each year.

Source: Reddit with source data coming from BoxOfficeMojo

This data is pre-COVID. But the pandemic and lingering audience caution have made studios even more obsessed with surefire blockbusters. If you doubt it, look at the list of the biggest budget Hollywood films slated for release in 2022 or 2023. There isn’t a single original film concept on the list.

  1. Avatar 2 (2022)

  2. Lightyear (2022)

  3. The Gray Man (2022)

  4. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

  5. Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

  6. Black Adam (2023)

  7. Shazam 2 (2022)

  8. The Flash (2023)

The last holdouts for the Long Tail are music streaming platforms such as Spotify. They haven’t narrowed their music offerings—well, not yet. But cash flow in music streaming is ugly, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these platforms soon start putting the squeeze on their offerings too. Spotify is already trying to get record labels to pay for promotion, and it doesn’t seem outlandish to suggest that they will eventually charge fees for listing tracks with poor clicks.

I’m clearly not the only person anticipating this—just a few days ago, a leading independent analyst of music industry trends raised the same concern.

Yet even under the current regime, the Short Tail dominates music. If you’re a musician, there’s almost no way to earn a middle-class living if you operate on the fringes. We still have musicians trying to do just that, but instead of gaining recognition as representatives of a vital counterculture, they merely languish as the forgotten souls that the mainstream culture left behind.

The bottom line is that the blockbuster hit didn’t die. It didn’t die in movies. It didn’t die in books. It didn’t die in music. The contrary happened. It was the counterculture that got squeezed and marginalized.

And if you’re looking for the final irony, check out both the front cover and back cover of The Long Tail book, where the first thing the publisher announces is that the book is a BESTSELLER! If they really believed that the blockbuster hit was dead and small niches are the future, they would have made a different claim—something along the lines of: buy the book everyone else is afraid to read. Because that’s what a flourishing underground culture actually says to the mainstream public.

But even the people behind the Long Tail book want to operate on the short end of the distribution curve.

Bestsellers are a bad bet, the book claims—except on the front and back cover

I’m not saying that all those ‘underground fringes’ that Anderson celebrated have disappeared—I’m merely claiming that they have less cultural impact than at almost any point in modern history. To operate on the fringe is almost akin to wearing an invisibility cloak from one of those Harry Potter stories.

I can see all that clearly now. But my initial skepticism about the Long Tail back in 2006 was driven by other considerations. When I was a newly-minted MBA, many years ago, my very first project involved solving a Long Tail problem.

It was a ridiculously complex problem that required analysis of which customers bought a company’s major products. You might think every business already knows this, but they really don’t. A fast food chain probably knows how many burgers it sells every year, but still has only the dimmest notion of who is eating all those Whoppers. Even now, with all those tracking cookies, this is still a hard question to answer, but back in those days, it was almost impossible.

So companies hired people like me to find out.

My analysis forced me to juggle various pieces of market research and finally create an enormous spreadsheet. I’m talking a humongous, Orca-size spreadsheet—so big that it almost crashed the personal computers of that era.

I actually filled up the entire spreadsheet in a digital file—I used it up to the last cell! I bet you didn’t even know that was possible, but it was. And when I started doing statistical analysis on all these numbers, my powerful IBM would often freeze up for five or ten minutes trying to complete just a single calculation.

“We must torture the data and make it talk,” a friend who helped on this project kept saying. And that’s what we did. And, finally, the data spoke.

What I learned was that a tiny number of customers were responsible for most of the purchases. Without these key users, the business would be dead—and no joke. These heavy users were far more important than any of us had guessed.

They call this the 80/20 rule, and my analysis validated it again and again. When I focused on customers, I found that 20% were responsible for 80% of revenues. And when I looked at products instead, I found the same distribution: 80% of sales came from 20% of the products.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised—after all this is a familiar rule in economics. Even so, it was amazing to see it proven again and again in this project, and almost every similar subsequent study I undertook.

I now know this is a fact of nature, or at least human nature. I hadn’t yet studied René Girard and mimetic desire back then—I can see clearly now that he was the true prophet, but of the Short Tail not the long one. But even back in those early days I was already seeing what a Short Tail looked like in my spreadsheets. Trends feed on their own energy, with desire for popular products spreading like a virus. So the individual components of the top 20% might change, but whatever made the cut and entered that elite group would always attract 80% of demand.

(I am exaggerating slightly. The distribution is not quite that precise. Sometimes you will see a 90/10 relationship or a 75/25 split. But the key finding is that every activity is concentrated among heavy users and popular products.)

Surely Chris Anderson knew all this when he wrote The Long Tail. He must have learned about the Pareto Principle somewhere along the way. And in fact, he admits as much in the book. But he immediately counters the 80/20 rule with his own discovery, which he calls the 98% rule.

And what is the 98% rule?

Anderson proudly declares, based on data analysis, that 98% of offerings will find at least one buyer every 3 months. Even those candles that smell like Apple computers or that creepy Nicolas Cage pillowcase.

But the math here is a joke. The idea that one person may buy an obscure, despised product every few months is trivially true, and doesn’t refute the 80/20 rule. In fact, it is part of the 80/20 rule.

If I’d tried presenting ‘analysis’ of this sort to a smart client, they would have laughed me out of the boardroom. The so-called 98% rule explains exactly why big business chases after blockbusters—because if they relied on one customer every three months, they would soon become small business. And eventually reach the final stage of out-of-business.

For reasons like these, the Long Tail is a cruel joke. It’s a fairy tale we’re told to make us feel good about all those marginalized creative endeavors. Their happily-ever-after day will come—or so we are promised—because the Long Tail will rescue them.

But it won’t. We live in a Short Tail society. And it’s getting shorter all the time.

There is always more money to be made from the heavy users and the bestsellers than from fringe products. This is true not just in business, but also culture and the arts. People in the music or publishing business who want to make the most money the fastest will always ignore niche categories.

The digital world hardly changes this equation. Even if Amazon doesn’t operate stores, it still has expenses (rent, labor, etc.), not much different than a bookstore. In addition, digital merchants have variable costs that other retailers can avoid, most notably all those picking, packing, shipping, and delivery costs. They may still want to offer a full line of products for various reasons, but more as a competitive barrier than a genuine business proposition.

There’s one more reason why the Long Tail has died in the digital world. Web platforms aren’t really focused on serving users—what they really want to do is control users. This almost always requires them to squeeze out niche and alternative views, and force as many customers as possible to follow the herd.

That’s a useful comparison. Web platforms are herders. And, if you follow the analogy, that makes us all sheep.

I wish I didn’t have to say all this. Because I love those niches and fringes in the creative world. I believe they deserve our support. But in most instances, this support must be driven by our generosity, philanthropy, and commitment to our core values—and not merely by profit seeking. Because as soon as profit maximization enters the picture, these outliers on the distribution curve don’t make the cut.

The situation isn’t completely dire. Because there is some money to be made on offering obscure, niche items. And in every business, you will find a few retailers who will pursue that strategy. But just look around you, and you will notice that more businesses take a 7/11 convenience store approach, selling lots of fast-moving items and ignoring the rest.

All of that is sadly true, but let’s put money aside for moment. Because I want you to support Long Tail endeavors. I won’t promise that you will get rich doing it, but there are benefits.

We should nurture Long Tail endeavors because:

  • They create a more pluralistic, diverse, and multifaceted society

  • They remind us that not all riches are measured in monetary terms

  • They serve as a counterweight to group-think and narrow-mindedness

  • Genuine breakthroughs often start on the fringes before entering the mainstream

  • Our lives are genuinely more fulfilling in a society with more options rather than fewer

Those deliverables might not add up to a big fat bank account. But they create a healthy culture. So the Long Tail does have a role for us—but it should be built on our wisdom and generosity, not our business plans.  

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