The internet is helping revive niche products by making them easier to find and cheaper to deliver. But will the power of the big hit be reduced?by Frances Cairncross / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
The Long Tail by Chris Anderson (Random House Business, £17.99)
Back in the 1980s, before Chris Anderson became editor-in-chief of Wired, the magazine that has become the bible of the internet world, he played bass for a post-punk band called Egoslavia. If you hunt a bit on the internet, you can hear one of their songs (not bad, actually). The discovery by an online gossip sheet of this musical arcanity is a nice irony: Anderson’s book is basically about the way the internet reduces the power of the big hit and boosts audiences for the arcane and obscure.
The “long tail” is a concept already familiar to the online cognoscenti. Anderson’s book began as a piece in Wired two years ago, and it sometimes reads like an expanded magazine article. But it gains depth and charm from Anderson’s grasp of the internet’s impact and of the vast opportunities for innovation it has created. At Wired, which Anderson rescued from a wobbly patch after the dotcom boom, he has hobnobbed both with the big commercial pioneers of internet-based businesses and with the young geeks who set the pace in technology, music and ideas. His book should be read by anyone who wants to understand the social and economic implications of the internet.
So what is the long tail? It was originally a way of describing a graph—a swooping downward curve with a long tail running low across the horizontal axis but never quite touching it. Anderson stumbled upon this distinctive shape early in 2004 in a conversation with Robbie Vann-Adibé, chief executive of Ecast, a virtual jukebox which pipes music down a broadband connection to bars and cafes. Anderson was astonished to learn that 98 per cent of Ecast’s (then) 10,000 CDs sold at least one track every quarter. Although a few tracks accounted for most plays (the early peak of the curve), almost every track along the long tail was requested by somebody at least once every three months.
At Rhapsody, another online retailer, each of the top 1,000 tracks was bought more than 10,000 times in a typical month. But Rhapsody had a library of 1.5m songs. When Anderson trawled through Rhapsody’s sales figures, he discovered that almost every one of those tracks sold each month—even if just to a handful of people. Looking around, Anderson found this pattern repeated with books and videos that could be purchased…