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Is the Long Tail Shorter Than We Thought?

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Apparently, things aren't so great in the business of unlimited supply of niche goods. Writes Patrick Foster in the UK TimesOnline:

"The internet was supposed to bring vast choice for customers, access to obscure and forgotten products -- and a fortune for sellers who focused on niche markets.

But a study of digital music sales has posed the first big challenge to this "long tail" theory: more than 10 million of the 13 million tracks available on the internet failed to find a single buyer last year. [more...]

But I'm not sure that the Long Tail should imply that everything sells -- crap is still crap, and there will always be lots of it. If everyone can cheaply produce media -- music, text, video, sound, and photos -- then much of it is going to be of little interest to most of us; some of it of some interest to a small number; definite interest to the maker; and sometimes, of no interest to anyone else. Sometimes the little guys will explode, and all of us will have more choice and be better able to get the stuff we really want. But that doesn't mean that the golden 80:20 rule will somehow disappear.

Still, I have benefited greatly from the long tail as a consumer: I listen to countless podcasts from around the world (because neither commercial radio, nor Canada's public broadcaster, are much interested in my tastes); I get all sorts of obscure movies from zip.ca (Canada's Netflix), some of which I don't much like, some of which I love, and almost all of which are unavailable at Blockbuster. Amazon lets me buy strange titles my local bookstore doesn't carry, and where would the Arcade Fire be without the web? You've read all this before.

In short, Long Tail does not mean that everyone is going to get rich, and every author and singer and podcaster is going to find a big audience. And it does not mean the end of the corporate media mega-hit. It means that some of us will find things we could not get before; and those who produce those things will be able to get them to the people who want them.

I am convinced there is great business to be had in those exchanges, not to mention the cultural benefits of a healthy ecosystem for all kinds of makers and consumers of art and media of all kinds.