been giving a series of Long Tail speeches recently, using Powerpoint
as my muse. I actually quite like it as a creative medium (although not
as much as some).
Because it's primarily visual (or should be, when done right), it
nicely compliments a blog, which is primarily textual. But speeches
don't reach everyone, so this post is an effort to create a hybrid:
blogpoint? Anyway, it's mostly just graphics, with a bit of
In these speeches I've been riffing on the dangers of "headism", the mistake of assuming that the economic incentives and other forces that dominate at the head of a demand curve apply equally down the tail. This is a common misconception, much like when people ask bloggers how they intend to make money from their online noodling (other than, you know, turning it into a sure-to-be bestselling book coming out RSN).
For too long we've viewed the economics of the entertainment industry through the lens of hits and stars, studios and networks. Just as we are recognizing that the Long Tail is a huge and growing market that was hidden by the scarcity economics of the old distribution systems, we're starting to realize the nature of the goods, the participants and the incentives in this new market are also different. Here are a few examples:
1) Once people learn to turn their head and shift their gaze from the far left of the curve, the hit domain we've been focused for most of the past century, to the niches at the right, they often go too far. Yes, the far end of the tail is an emerging area of grassroots production and liberated archives that will someday be a marketplace of millions. But in the near term, the greatest potential is in the middle, which is full of existing commercial goods that simply haven't found ways to tap all the latent demand that's out there.
Whether because of the tyranny of geography, the limitations of shelf space, the poor search tools of the physical world, or underdeveloped word-of-mouth networks to provide cheap marketing in their domain, most products don't find the markets they deserve. This category, which Jeff Bezos calls the "hard middle," is where most of the economic potential of the Long Tail is right now.
2) Likewise, the incentives for the producers and creators of these products change as you go from hits to niches; Madonna may be in it mostly for the money, but I sure wasn't when I slapped a bass badly in my misspent twenties. Most authors, meanwhile, write books to find readers, not riches (although those readers can lead to lucrative consulting fees, speeches or tenure; books are powerful marketing vehicles for personal brands). And plenty of up-and-coming independent filmmakers would be only to happy to have their movies freely spread far and wide on bittorrent to build their reputation.
And then there are the thousands of Garageband remixers, bloggers, Flash artists, game modders, and skateboard videographers who make stuff because they can. Powerful computers and software combined with the free distribution of the Internet is the greatest platform for personal expression the world has ever seen. Not everyone wants to be a star, and these days you don't have to be one to find an audience.
3) At the head, they've given up their day job. In the middle they're looking for a better day job or building the one they've got. And the bottom it's not work at all (at least not yet).
Tweak this construction for various different media and industries,
and you can see how the presumption that everyone in the marketplace is
cut from the same cloth, just of varying quality, is a mistake. In a
marketplace with limitless availability, the line between professionals
and amateurs is a continuous spectrum, with lots of semipros in between.
4) Intellectual property is perhaps the domain most distorted by headism. Disney and the Dave Matthews Band may be doing all they can to embrace and extend copyright, but there are plenty of other (maybe more) artists and producers who see P2P distribution as free marketing, and PDF downloads as a way to increase impact and audience.
At the top, the studios, major labels and publishers defend their copyright fiercely. In the middle, the domain of independent labels and academic presses, it's a gray area. Some care about copyright and some don't. Yet the law doesn't distinguish between them, and thus their impact is limited by the scarcity effects of legal restrictions.
Further down the tail, more firmly in the non-commercial zone, an increasing number of content creators are choosing to explicitly give up some of their copyright protections using a Creative Commons license, for the sake of the greater value (for them) of free distribution, remixing, and other peer-to-peer propagation of their ideas, interests and fame. I've done it for this blog, for all the reasons above.
In one part of my professional life I'm near the head of the curve and in another
I'm in the tail. My decisions on intellectual property are different in
each. Someday soon, I hope, marketplaces and regulation will make it
easier to reflect this reality.
(thanks to Andrew Blau of the Global Business Network for helping me think this through over coffee in Berkeley)