an all-star break think piece
Sometimes things have a weird way of coming together. Sometimes you hear something, see something, read something that inspires you. Maybe it pushes you further along your path or causes you to blaze a new trail. A couple of weeks ago I attended a concert at Lincoln Center—Honest Jon’s Revue—put together by a small British record label founded by Blur/Gorillaz front man Damon Albarn and an independent neighborhood record store in London.
I went mainly to see a few relatively obscure Malian musicians I was familiar with and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, that I profiled for Wax Poetics back when they were just a street band getting ready to back-up Mos Def. But I became fascinated with the label while researching it. At the pre-show symposium I asked label co-founder Alan Schloefield about the profitability of the label and store. “That’s really getting to it,” Schloefield said. “We just brace ourselves for the future and try to make a living.”
Another attendee asked if Honest Jon’s might be an example that supports the Long Tail theory. Um. Long Tail Theory? From the answers and crowd response it was unclear if anyone knew what he was talking about. It went over my head.
That was a Saturday. On the following Monday, as every day, at some point I check the headlines at Slate. One of them read: “Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” Theory Might Be All Wrong.” Ok, that’s just weird. That guy at the thing was just talking about this. And it’s Chris Anderson. I know who that is (editor of Wired). How have I not heard about this?
After reading everything I could get my hands on, including the blog that came from the book that came from the article, I was kind of blown away I didn’t know about the Long Tail. I had a similar feeling with Honest Jon’s, a label I should have been all over… sometimes, somethings…
Farhad Manjoo does a nice job at Slate of summing up Anderson’s theory:
“Nearly four years ago, first in a widely cited article and later in a best-selling book, Chris Anderson posited that the Internet, with its vast inventories of books, albums, and movies, would liberate the world from blockbuster schlock. Anderson, the editor of Wired, labeled his concept “the Long Tail,” after the shape our digital desires leave on a graph: When we buy stuff online, we can reach beyond big hits and into the “tail” of the demand curve, where we’re free to indulge our most obscure passions. Anderson argued that serving our niche interests could also make for booming Web businesses. This was the thrill of the Long Tail—it seemed to offer a way for art and commerce to thrive side-by-side.
Take a wild guess where I’m going with this. Reach beyond big hits… where we’re free to indulge our most obscure passions? Serve our niche interests, booming Web businesses? Art and commerce thriving side-by-side? It’s a TIAS utopia, a webventure even Buzz Bissinger could get behind and one where American soccer can live free.
Anderson goes as far as using one of my favorite mountain-climbing writers for support. As Manjoo writes:
Take Anderson’s signal example of Long Tail success, British mountain climber Joe Simpson’s Andean-survival story Touching the Void. When it was released in 1988, the book saw only modest success and then essentially disappeared from stores. But a decade later, after Jon Krakauer published Into Thin Air, a mountaineering-survival hit, Simpson’s book enjoyed a sudden boom. The cause was online word of mouth—recommendations for Touching the Void on Amazon’s Into Thin Air page pushed people to purchase a book they’d never heard of. After it was reissued as a paperback and made into a documentary, Touching the Void’s sales eclipsed those of Into Thin Air. Before the Internet, such out-of-the-blue success for a deep-in-the-tail book could never have occurred.
Of course eventually—4 years in this case—someone has to give the theory a go themselves. That’s sort of the competition of science. Harvard Business School marketing professor Anita Elberse—real academic study of journalist’s book!—shoots Anderson down (oh, well). Anderson shoots again. From the back and forth, taking a little from their argument and Manjoo’s analysis, an interesting picture of the digital consumer emerges that I’d never seen all together before:
“There are generally two kinds of customers: those who buy a lot and those who buy a little.”
We’re buying more obscure media. But we’re merely nibbling on these niches.
People who buy a lot are much more critical than those who buy a little.
“The shift from hits to niches is obviously slight—we are not entering an era devoid of blockbusters.”
Joe Simpson was a lucky exception…. but you’re saying I’ve got a chance!
“It’s also clear that even in this supposed age of the Long Tail, companies that favor a slow, meticulous approach and a small catalog see enormous rewards.”
Like a natural ecosystem, the free market is a complex medium. Sure you can make a quick million or two off an interesting theory, but it doesn’t mean that rule reigns supreme. But strained through the discourse there is plenty to remember, even execute.
Even for soccer. From the management of a professional league to the publishing of an amateur blog, there is a place for soccer to thrive. What have I been calling it all these years? Tempered expectations. Anderson, Elberse, and Manjoo weren’t talking about soccer, but if we stay the course and get a little bit of luck, (and you know, create a good product) as Anderson puts it: “the cultural benefit of all of this is much more diversity, reversing the blanding effects of a century of distribution scarcity and ending the tyranny of the hit.”
banner photo of me taken by Harry Brouillette in Keku Straits, SE Alaska