Long Tail Cut Short: 10 Million Tracks Remain Unsold

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired Magazine, is given credit for coining the term “the long tail,” a phrase which launched a thousand blogs with the hopes of fame and fortune. The idea was that the Internet, for the first time, allowed for almost limitless content. As such, there could now be a market for anything, no matter how specific or small the audience. This led to many launching sites and services catering to a very, very specific niche, in the hopes that their small yet devoted audience would have value. In 2006, Anderson published his book describing the paradigm, appropriately titled The Long Tail.

What most people did not realize is that the value of the “long tail” was only to those who aggregated it. Google lives off the long tail of web pages; by having more of the web than anyone else available for search meant that everyone went to them to search, which in turn meant big dollars for Google. Amazon took the same approach, expanding their catalog and enabling third-parties to sell to their audience, allowing them to benefit from the long tail of books and other media that were out there, even if only a few people were looking for them. But the owners of that website on rare South American sports paraphernalia, or the sellers of the cult classic novel? They are just a small piece of the aggregated pie.

Now more news comes along that says the long tail wasn’t as long as we had thought it was. Will Page, the Chief Economist with MCPS-PRS Alliance, the not-for-profit royalty collection society, released a new study which seems to indicate the money is still in the big hits: “for the online singles market, 80 per cent of all revenue came from around 52,000 tracks. For albums, the figures were even more stark. Of the 1.23 million available, only 173,000 were ever bought, meaning 85 per cent did not sell a single copy all year.”

Page and his co-author Andrew Bud plan to publish a book with details on their findings, which adhere to the more traditional 80/20 rule (80 percent of sales are generated from 20 percent of the inventory). I’m not sure that this contradicts the long tail theory, but instead points out that the money is not in being in the long tail, but organizing and owning the means by which consumers sift through the tail. Still, if the majority of sales are coming from the head, Anderson’s theory might end up in the long tail of history, along with his book.