Sunday, May 25, 2008

What Chris Anderson missed

The Long Tail is upon us, and it's great for digital content aggregators, such as iTunes, Rhapsody, Amazon, CDBaby, and Netflix. How great is it for artists?

Authors and pundits like Chris Anderson (author of the watershed book The Long Tail), and Michael Masnick of proclaim that the revolution is here. Music moguls and Hollywood fat cats are running for the hills, as their kingdoms built on artificial scarcity of goods crumble around them.

The premise of "Long Tail Economics" is that, beyond the normal hits in any content industry- books, music, movies- there are thousands, even millions more sales of non-hit titles. These may be obscure foreign films, unknown garage bands, or self-published novels. Alone, they may sell only a few copies per year. But aggregated by a major supplier like Amazon or iTunes, these millions of one-off sales add up to 15 or 20% of an aggregator's business. With the additional costs of distributing digital goods being next to nothing, this amounts to found money, providing a significant competitive advantage for the e-tailer over brick-and-mortar retailers.

But what of the artists? You know, the writers, actors, musicians, and directors who spend their lives in pursuit of that brass ring- fame and fortune, Hollywood Superstardom. Well, for them, the news is less stellar.

True, the barriers to entry have been demolished. Musicians can (and do) make hit albums from their garage. Student filmmakers can make the next Sundance Festival winner with a handheld camera from Best Buy. But, just like their major-label superstar idols of yesteryear, they are the exception. Most people producing films, music, or books (even good ones) are not benefiting from the Long Tail phenomenon.

Filmmakers, for example, who now compete with cell phone videos of skateboarding dogs, piano-playing cats, homemade "Jackass" stunts, and the like, find it hard to rise above the noise. Without a budget or marketing expertise, it's hard to get decent numbers of viewers, even for free. Even someone who might have made the grade into the traditional system in years past may be lost in the ether. Just because they can sell 10 copies of their film, CD, or book to fans in France or China doesn't mean that they can make a living that way.

Does that mean the Long Tail is a bad thing for artists?

No. But it does mean that artists have to recognize that they are no longer in the business of selling music.

"Wha-wha-what???" I hear you say. It's true. Music is their loss leader to sell other things, mostly live performances, and sometimes licensing rights, endorsements, and other merch. And yes, T-shirts.

It means that content producers have more competition. But now the competition is coming directly from other artists, not from major labels, studios, or publishing houses that have acted as gatekeepers to the Kingdom of Fame and Fortune. Actually, getting a "deal" with one of these gatekeepers was often the beginning of an artist's demise, but that's another post.

Artists can now go directly to the public, the end-consumer of their work. And they will be the final arbiters of success. Today's competition is greater, fiercer, and aligning along the lines of public taste, not corporate taste. Artists will have to develop thicker skin, and, frankly, produce more appealing content.

Oh, and one more thing: they'll have to find other ways to make a living. At least until they hit the viral big-time.

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