Can we discover value in the long tail?

January 2nd, 2009 by Ben

“While you can have a long tail strategy, you better have a head, because that’s where all the revenue is” – Eric Schmidt (Google CEO) in a 9/08 interview with The McKinsey Quarterly

Reporting on a study by Will Page, chief economist of the MCPS-PRS Alliance, a recent article in the Times Online  claims that the long tail theory has been contradicted. The study found that “more than 10 million of the 13 million [music] tracks available on the internet failed to find a single buyer last year.” It’s no surprise that chart toppers sell more than obscure indies, but as Will Page said, “The relative size of the dormant ‘zero sellers’ tail was truly jaw-dropping.”

The long tail theory that niche markets were the future of ecommerce was championed by Chris Anderson in his 2006 book The Long Tail. Anderson (one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world) responded that the sources have to be revealed (“Is it iTunes UK? Some mobile provider?”) before the study can be interpreted meaningfully.

I understand why advocating for the long tail requires an economic argument. And I don’t dismiss the importance of profit in judging the value of the long tail. But is the only possible relevance of the long tail financial?

Back when I was a student of Comparative Literature (“And what are you going to do with that?”), I took a seminar on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Although Shakespeare is the only household name today, he worked among illustrious contemporary playwrights like Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, John Fletcher, and Francis Beaumont. One can argue (with footnotes, if only I’d saved my course materials) that Shakespeare’s work was a result of the flowering of English theater in his day. And just as Shakespeare’s celebrated contemporaries influenced and pushed him to greatness, so many more obscure playwrights inspired them.

Similarly, indie hits like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine rose to win the hearts of the masses from a fertile world of indie film without which they would never have existed. The point is, the short tail couldn’t exist without the long tail. If nothing else, the long tail is the key to our culture because it’s where the next creative, innovative short-tail hits will come from.

So I think all 13 million music tracks are important, even if 10 million of them were never purchased legally online. It’s safe to say that someone has heard those musicians, if only in live performance on Monday night at the local café-bar. That long tail is the source of our creative, artistic culture – which might be part of why, in his Beyond the Multiplex blog on Salon, Andrew O’Hehir could report that indie cinema insiders are sanguine despite the rough economy.

As Chris Anderson emphasizes, marketplaces with good filters behave differently from marketplaces with poor filters. At Jinni, we’ve developed discovery tools to help people explore flexibly and as widely or deeply as they like, to stretch their tastes and be part of discovering that next indie hit or simply personal favorite.

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