'The Long Tail' was supposed to boost alternative voices in music, movies, and books—but the exact opposite happened. What went wrong?
Nothing you say here is wrong. I agree with it all.
AND, I have some observations. If an artist or creator, of any kind, can find 10,000 people to pay them $10/year directly, they will have a nice living. I can think of examples of this off the top of my head, but few of them are musicians.
Large businesses are not going to try to address this, as a rule. Here is an exception: Computer games - not so much consoles, but games on actual desktop computers, that still exist. There is a computer game platform called Steam, run by a company called Turbine. It is a lot like Substack for games. Steam has the really big ticket AAA games, such as Skyrim or Elden Ring or Grand Theft Auto on it.
But Steam also has lots of indy games. Many of these are even "Early Access" (Not a thing that would work in music I think). These are very small companies that can find their 10,000, or 50,000 users via the Steam platform. One reason they can do that is that the candidate pool is worldwide. Another reason is that discovery mechanisms are pretty darn good on Steam. Steam has a stake in making games of all kinds popular, and its cut is its cut, which is probably a lot more profitable than those obscure Amazon inventory items. Do you think Amazon has a 20% margin on everything in its stock?
I don't know if this can work for music but it suggests that having a platform that serves the interest of selling more music, and promoting more music is critical. It also suggests that good discovery mechanisms - forms of The Algorithm that are tuned not to herding but to selling more music to people who love it - could also be valuable.
There's always a market for excellence in any endeavor but that market grows smaller as mediocrity becomes the norm.
Good piece. A couple observations:
I think the fact that some artistic works became vastly more popular than others is because those works speak to the experiences and dreams of a larger number of people than do the ones that don't sell as well. Sure, The Beatles sold a lot of records because some people were curious about what all the hype was about, but there wouldn't have BEEN any hype if a lot of fans weren't already excited about what they were hearing. It didn't matter how much marketing muscle the label put behind, say, The Replacements or The Bad Brains, they're simply weren't going to become The Beatles. If hype made the difference, Yoko Ono would be famous for her music.
And in my experience (through the years, I wrote for probably half of the San Diego-area alternative publications - except Revolt in Style; that was just too dumb a name to overcome) the supposed "counter-culture" is an overwhelmingly white, college-educated product of - and FOR - the middle- and upper classes. Great lip service is given to promoting "diverse" viewpoints, but those "diverse" viewpoints all seem to coalesce into a frankly rather narrow world view. (And I always found it interesting that most of the distribution boxes for the "alternative" press were located in the trendy coffee houses and bookstores, and in the libraries in the nice parts of town. You go into the rougher neighborhoods, and it is the black and Latino publications that are found - a TRUE alternative media!)
The cost of making movies does seem to have squeezed out interesting new choices in cinema, I'll grant you that. And Amazon's chokehold on book sales - and its ability to simply "de-platform" perspectives its staff deems offensive - is making it harder to get a broad range of viewpoints published.
But in music, there are all KINDS of "countercultures" - I mean, if jazz isn't a counter-culture, what is? Blues, bluegrass, folk, gospel, metal, even classical have thriving, if small and out of the spotlight communities that support them. Young bands are playing punk and prog rock simply because they like it. Just here in San Diego, hardly a cosmopolitan mecca, we have an annual bluegrass festival (at least one), a couple blues festivals, a jazz festival. We have the symphony and a few smaller classical ensembles. We have coffee houses and brew houses that feature live original music of all stripes.
But the local theater scene kind of makes my above point about the "counter-culture" really only serving the existing dominant culture: While the Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse regularly debut new works that will go on to Broadway runs, there are close to a dozen "alternative" theater companies in town that produce all kinds of supposedly edgy, counter-culture plays each year. But outside the actual community theaters that produce revivals of old musicals, and the local Christian theater company, few draw an audience outside the professional class.
Too often, I think, what is marketed as the "counter-culture" is nothing more than a way for the professional class (and the future professional class - i.e., college students) to feel like they're slumming it a bit, to console themselves that despite the Lexus and Rolex, they're really salt of the earth working class.
Maybe I'm too cynical, but the folks whose kids I coach at the Boys & Girls Club, or who I see at Boy Scout meetings, don't seem to be the folks the "counter-culture" is interested in speaking to. I certainly don't see them at the local theaters.
Your Long Tail analysis is spot on and can also be applied to the sciences. (I
am a soil scientist and have studied soils/natural systems for more than 40 years.)
I made a few additions to your summary.
We should nurture Long Tail endeavors in science because:
They create a more pluralistic, diverse, and multifaceted science.
They remind us that not all riches are measured in grant money terms
They serve as a counterweight to group-think and narrow-mindedness (e.g. over focus on one view of climate change when there are many other environmental views that need to be addressed.)
Genuine scientific breakthroughs often start on the fringes before entering the mainstream
Our science and discovery is genuinely more fulfilling and productive in a society with more science/options rather than fewer
In summary - science is an important part of our culture and if done properly helps create a healthy culture.
Thanks for your insight Ted!
Some of this I think is an American problem, both the long tail baloney and the missing counterculture. For example, today is World Music Day known in France where it originated in 1982 as 'Fête de la Musique'. Something tells me that approximately 99.99999% of Americans will not know this and would not care if they did. Yet there it is, thriving over the years in a culture that it is not as driven by the economic imperative of maximizing profit, but instead values both diversity and believes that vernacular arts deserve public government support.
Not so much long tail but long tail adjacent adjacent: Patreon and Substack and Kickstarter
The couple of newsletters and webcomic Patreon's I contribute to monthly and occasional Kickstarter are hopefully contributing to some creators middle class existence
Another excellent article. It is a kind of a variation on the winner takes all motif.
Every day I read reviews of new records that I might be interested in, but they are all released by small independent labels. For decades, the major labels were never interested in selling 10,000 copies each of 100 records, or even 100,000 copies each of ten records; they only wanted to chase million-sellers. (Do major labels still exist?) The long tail can only be supported by (ahem) the more discerning of us.
In artistry as in life, movement among the tails economically has a "starting point". Some through accident of birth have an easier starting point that others, child of successful artist for example, some start in obscurity, the journey up the long tail. Seems to me the things that make a difference in one's journey (either up or down the tail curve), a bit of luck with the random walk, a passion, (motivation), resilience (more chances for the random walk), experience (result of persistence and resilience), a bit of genetic help (some people just have a natural talent born to them), all of which molds into a thing we call talent. The tail is not a one way street. The journey up the tail is more fun I think.
My wife and I have discovered with our self-produced music show, that any attempt to imaginatively program is to risk being rejected as avant-garde. In plain English: unlikely to attract an audience. You would think that as there are thousands of these stations out in them clouds, that there would be room for a bit of experimenting, but such is, apparently, not the case . . .
Plain brilliant! Thank you. Great point about the herding of people as sheep by the web world. Explains why at least some of us are disengaging and becoming much more selective about looking at pixels.
It always seemed to me—and I’ve made this argument in passing for years—that the idea of the Long Tail was about the benefit to a centralized market place, rather than to those whose work makes up said tail. Of course it hasn’t benefited small producers. The opposite is true, as the regional and counter cultural formations that formerly supported said artists have been dissolved by our smorgasbord culture.
Between 1975 & 1980, I was part of trio that featured a female vocalist, songwriter, instrumentalist, that filled every club we played and opened for major artists. Every week producers would come to the club to hear us. A few wanted to produce us and always stopped short because she didn't fit into their prescribed categories. Some of them wanted her to be a R&R singer, others a Soul singer, others a Pop singer. No one wanted to let her be who she was, which was the most exciting vocalist since Janis Joplin. The long tail got cut short. "Big business sittin in the wings, kinda likes the way I sing. Hey mister, you got a fine shoeshine, but you want to much sugar for just one dime."
Around the time that Chris Andersen's book came out, many of us in public media were very excited about the premise and promise of the "long tail.￼"
Theories about the long tail imply the value derived from monetization comes at no cost. Utopian expectations in this new era have proven to be as mistaken as they were in the old.
Thankfully, a lot of obscure national stuff has been salvaged, but many more local things are gone. If not for the "Internet Archive," we'll lose even more.
The gatekeepers must be paid - and there are always gatekeepers.
I have not read the Long Tail by Chris Anderson, so I can't talk about its thesis, but the claims that this article makes are not how I understood the the Long Tail thesis. As I understood it, the Long Tail is that, because of efficiencies in Internet search and retailing (both physical and digital), it can be profitable to serve niche markets, in a manner that was not profitable previously. As a result, the long tail will be longer and thicker than before.
The Long Tail thesis says does not say that the Short Tail, i.e. the blockbuster hits, will go away. So the fact that the movie business continues to dominate the movie industry is not evidence against the Long Tail thesis. Evidence against the Long Tail thesis would need to demonstrate the shrinking (or failure to grow) of niche movies. I'm not familiar enough with the movie industry, narrowly defined, to say whether this happened. But if you define the market as "commercial video" the growth of Youtube and Tiktok would support the Long Tail thesis.
Personally, my own taste in music is (and has been since the early 1990s) in niche genres. I don't really follow blockbuster music hits, but my own experience is that it is much easier to consume, and more profitable to produce, music in niche genres as compared to 30 years ago.
Ted, what were the countercultures that were financially successful in their time? That’s where your argument loses me. Every counterculture I can think of involves sleeping on somebody’s floor and that hasn’t changed.
Also, I think that skyrocketing rent is a far more salient factor than distribution. The sites of cultural production are too expensive for working and middle class kids. Interesting subcultures of the past have been more economically diverse.