The LongTail questioned - The Register says it's all bunk. I say they are wrong.
Update: Chris Anderson commented here (thanks to ricetopher) Andrew Orlowski at the Register (UK) just published an interesting opinion piece that basically says that Chris Anderson's LongTail concept is a bunch of Silicon-Valley utopia, and self-perpetuating hype. His main argument is that 'evidence' collected by MCPS's Will Page et al suggests that digital music sales don't display a longtail characteristic, at all - rather, they exhibit the very same top-heavy, hit-centric income patterns that we've had in content sales since... well, the advent of electricity and the phonograph, I guess: the few hits make most of the money. Here are some quotes from Andrew and El Reg, followed by my comments:
"They discovered that instead of following a Pareto or "power law" curve, as Anderson suggested, digital song sales follow a classic Log Normal distribution. 80 per cent of the digital inventory sold no copies at all - and the 'head' was far more concentrated than the economists expected. "Is the 'future of business' really selling more of less?" asks Page. "Absolutely not. If you had Top of the Pops now, you'd feature the Top 14, not Top 40. Anderson bet that the orange portion - the "Tail" - has more value than the red portion - the "Head". But it doesn't.
"The Long Tail's argument is that the pattern of consumption for media is bent out of shape by the limits of the shops selling them. Digital media lets the nature of people's demand flow free. Well, we now know what the shape of that demand curve looks like. Bud told the conference that the basic shape of consumer demand for digital music clearly fits the Log Normal distribution, "with eye-watering accuracy". That's no surprise, he says, because so many sales curves he's seen over the past ten years follow this distribution. "Now we've seen what happens when tens of millions of choices are thrown in the air and people can go pick them up. What was astounding was the degree of inequality between the head and the tail - by a factor of three. It's specifically the Log Normal shape that leads to a rather poverty stricken Tail. "There are Tails where the Tail lives as a kind of welfare state. Not this one. You starve in this Tail.... In another surprise, 80 per cent of the revenue came from 52,000 songs. What's eye-catching about the number? Well, the typical inventory of a conventional high street record store was around 4,000 CDs. Or ... around 52,000 songs"
To me, Orlowski's LongTail-shredding efforts are fairly typical of a recently rather prevalent, short-sighted pessimist's view of the world based on the process of crunching statistics and numbers - which admittedly feels much safer - but are totally skewed to begin with (quote "But he [Chris Anderson] didn't examine the numbers closely or critically enough, say the economists"). Isn't a journalist supposed to give us a viewpoint of what is coming, rather than what has been, and isn't he supposed to look beyond the numbers?
Why in the world would I use numbers taken from how digital music has actually been sold during the past few years, when every single aspect of digital music commerce has been flawed and - at best - represents 2-3% of the digital music potential, in total? Why would I want to make assumptions about a new, future model of music commerce based on the obviously abject failure of an old model? 6 Billion (or so) sold songs on iTunes and the various WMA-based services in the past 4 years will show me the patterns of FUTURE CONSUMPTION? Don't believe it.
Here is why the numbers and the research that (the otherwise smart and clued-in) Will Page et al, and now Andrew Orlowski, have based their 'longtail is bunk' assertions on, are ill-suited for any such conclusion:
- Until just recently, there was no real easy way to obtain i.e. buy digital music online - unless you bought into the Apple or MSFT digital content schemes, or went all-indie with EMusic; and that is why very few consumers actually did it. All digital music was copy-protected with that wonderful snake-oil called DRM (which industry bodies such as Page's MCPS supported very strongly), and you had to buy per-track which made any real engagement a very expensive proposition. So - no surprise - what do you think those very very very few people that would actually go though the trouble of legally obtaining music in this way (i.e. mostly via iTunes) would buy: yes, you guessed it, the Hit Songs, the stuff they know from the artists they know, because it is expensive and one cannot afford to experiment - and try longtail stuff you may not be sure about, yet. To assert that this is a realistic reflection of what people would select if in fact there was an open-format, very likely flat-rated and economically easy way of point-click-buying music is like saying that people really love Shell gas if there are only Shell gas stations within a 1000 mile radius! In other words, the economic model for digital music that the music industry has for the past decade tried to force on the consumers has obviously resulted in a total (and I would say, very welcome) reflection of their offline revenue model: only the hits make any real money.
- Therefore, the question is not at all what the 'learnings' from those DigitalMusic1.0 statistics would be -because we already knew that the basis for these numbers was an artificial, limited and controlled environment before we read Orlowski's piece or Page's presentation- but what they WILL BE once we actually have a real Music 2.0 economy, where the users can click on, play and select any song they like, try out anything, anywhere, anytime, share, forward and link, without having to pay extra, without having to ask for permission, without having to buy into the MSFT or Apple club - and those possibilities have only recently emerged (at least in a legal way).
Image by gleonhard via Flickr
Orlowski then tops it all off by saying: "The propensity of journalists - even highly experienced journalists - to fantasize about the world rather than examine it critically is one of the defining features of modern technology coverage..." Andrew, never mind that you don't like Futurists, but please: where would we be if we could not fantasize about the world and its future, and look forward, beyond the oh-so-sacred numbers we have now, the so-called facts called from our painstaking research...? If you were to make decisions solely based on the obvious facts drawn from past actions you would be in deep trouble, indeed.
I am with Paolo Coelho when he stipulates the exact opposite: "Whenever we need to make an important decision, it is best to trust impulse and passion, because reason usually tries to remove us from our dream, saying that the time is not yet right. Reason is afraid of defeat, but intuition enjoys life and its challenges" (Acceptance speech delivered to the Brazilian Academy of Letters)
Finally, I think Einstein has the perfect reply to Orlowski, Page et al: