The Long Tail

John Robert Brown

My local bookshop closed without warning early in the New Year. A delightful place, privately owned, the knowledgeable staff knew me by name, obtained books with impressive speed, and phoned me as soon as my orders arrived. They stocked a small but broad selection of books, and included local titles alongside international best-sellers. Classical CDs played quietly to create a calm atmosphere. There was even a small art gallery at the back of the store. When news of the closure was broken to me I was told: 'Trade has disappeared. No one comes here anymore; everyone buys on the internet!'

By coincidence, on the morning that I heard the sad news, I'd been reading The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. Creating a stir in business circles, on internet blogs, in news magazines and chat rooms, The Long Tail defines and debates the very problems that closed my local bookshop.

In Anderson's analysis, with a finite number of bookstore shelves, retailers had hitherto stocked only the titles that were safe sellers: the hits. There wasn't the space available to do much else, so niche titles were neglected, rarely stocked and consequently infrequently sold. Now, on the websites of online retailers, and with the new availability of print-on-demand for books and digital copying for CDs, infinite choice is offered for any products that can be held in digital form (books, recordings, sheet music, scores). Storage, which for digital items occupies a minuscule amount of space, can be located anywhere in the world, because access is via the internet. Amazon, for instance, with European distribution centres in Cork and Regensburg, is said to offer 800,000 CD titles online, though with such an enormous stock, and instant access, putting a number on this is almost meaningless.

However we measure it, their catalogue is enormous and increasing. No traditional bricks-and-mortar shop in the world can compete. The online result is what Chris Anderson describes as a 'shattering of the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards'.

Anderson argues that the future of business does not lie in hits, but in what used to be regarded as misses. Anderson's title The Long Tail comes from the shape of the graph when sales are plotted vertically (along the y-axis), against time plotted horizontally (along the x-axis). At first the curve descends steeply, and then flattens to run almost parallel to the horizontal axis:

The near-flat portion of the graph, stretching out to the right, is The Long Tail.

Hitherto, in traditional store selling, The Long Tail wasn't very long. The formula that worked well at airport bookshops was to order only the top fifteen or twenty bestselling books by authors like John Grisham, Stephen King, Dan Brown or J K Rowling. As paperback publishers noticed the new buying patterns they were forced to choose between star authors and those whose sales fell below an ever-stricter definition of 'commercial'. We all saw what happened.

Now, online, within The Long Tail, modest sellers, niche products and quirky titles are becoming a powerful cumulative force. Of course, classical music is one of those niche products. Of classical music Anderson says: 'In the CD world, classical music makes up about 6 per cent of sales, which is too little to get more than a single rack at Wal-Mart. But on iTunes, where there's room for far more variety, it makes up 12 percent of all sales.'

That is, of the sales of classical music CDs, more than one tenth has come from nowhere (and could continue for ever), purely because of the greater choice made possible by the availability of unlimited digital storage. Indeed, in the Nielsen statistics for the music industry, in 2006 the fastest growing music category was classical music, up 23%, from 15.8 to 19.4 million units, approximately. Mostly this is because classical CDs are so badly served in traditional bricks-and-mortar music stores. That classical music is one of the largest categories on iTunes, despite the demographic dissonance with the typical iTunes customer, is evidence that consumers are crowding online. But Anderson describes the web as a 'non-rivalrous' medium. That is, there's room for everyone.

Critics of Anderson's thesis point out that online markets constitute just 10 percent of US retail. Clearly, the trends are very different online. Bricks-and-mortar stores will never completely disappear, but great changes are underway. We can see that happening already, as in the instance of my local bookstore.

Much of the above analysis concentrates on CD sales and books. But long tail benefits apply well to sheet music and scores, with print-on-demand offering great potential. And a most exciting development is the 3D printer, which is a factory on your desk. Commonly, it uses a laser to transform a bath of liquid powder or polymer into hard plastic, of any design you want. Anderson says: 'Layer by layer, a perfect plastic reproduction of the object emerges out of the bath. It's like magic.'

I can see the time coming when your local garage uses a 3D printer to make small plastic replacement parts onsite, such as handles, floor mats, and ashtrays, to digital coordinates supplied by the car's designers. Will we see a 3D printer used in the local music store to make descant recorders, or parts for a plastic clarinet?

First published in Classical Music, 17th March 2007. Used by kind permission.
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