Monday, July 7, 2008

Holes found in The Long Tail theory. What does this mean for radio?

In a recent article published in The Harvard Business Review, Anita Elberse presents strong evidence to suggest that Chris Andersen's Long Tail theory may be overstating the facts.

For those of you who don't know what The Long Tail means, I'll briefly explain the background. The Long Tail takes its name from the long tapering line of the normal distribution when presented in line-graph form. This graph is also known as the bell curve (for its resemblance to a bell). The typical example people site when talking about bell curves (and the long tail, before it was called this) is IQ scores. Most people have an IQ of around 100 (in fact IQ tests are occasionally re-calibrated to ensure this). Most people have either slightly above average IQ or slightly below average IQ. But the farther we go in either IQ direction (i.e. those that are extremely "mentally disabled" or "supergeniuses") the fewer we see, and they drop off from the curve quickly. The same goes for purchasing patterns. We know that most people cluster around the same movies, music, and television shows, and the more exotic we get, the fewer people we see consuming these products.

What The Long Tail theory argues, is that because the Internet creates such a massive marketplace, it is now possible to serve these exotic tastes like never before, and so industry is moving away from serving up hits and blockbusters, and moving towards niche products. While I have no doubt that there are more opportunities to sell niche products over the Internet, the big question remains: is there as much spending and interest in hits and blockbusters? Ms. Elberse's research suggests that in fact we do not compromise on the blockbuster front. Rather our niche purchases are just more sliced up, and we make more of them. To use an analogy with food: We're still buying meat, potatoes, milk, and all those staples as we did before (and probably more so). But instead of going out to a Chinese restaurant once in a while, we dine out more frequently and those outings are now split between: Dim Sum; Sushi; Ehtiopian; Korean; Indian; Persian; etc.

But how does radio relate to The Long Tail? The short answer is: In a big way. The long answer is...

From one perspective, radio has always been the biggest influence when it comes to pop music hits. While I don't believe that radio DJs can actually control what constitutes a hit, they can quickly accelerate the popularity of any given song or artist. The hit (or blockbuster) relies on Opinion Leaders to get the ball rolling. From there, the masses will take over, and a new hit is born. Critics point out that this isn't very democratic, and that services like iLike,, and YouTube better serve the masses. However, I would argue that these services effectively replace the DJ with with a hitcounter which serves the same purpose to guide the masses.

Whether it's a poor DJ (or unethical, in the case of Payola) or a gamed hitcounter, we often run into a problem known as Information Cascade and its close cousin GroupThink. This is why we often see songs like "Who Let the Dogs Out" take on a life of their own, without any one person in particular claiming it to be a song they actually like. In fact most people agree it's one of the most annoying song they've ever heard. Indeed, a stinging moment in my own childhood was going to see a film called "Sky Bandits" for my birthday. I happened to see the trailer in the same room as some of my classmates. They all exclaimed "That movie looks awesome, I gotta see it!" I didn't have quite the same reaction, but second guessed my instincts and chose it for my birthday party. It was a dreadful film and we all walked out shaking our heads. To this day my friends will ask me why I forced them to sit through this boring crap.

Critics of radio will say that bands like Metallica thrived without airplay, and point to the successes of "Ride the Lightening" and "Master of Puppets". True, artists don't require radio to be successful. But keep in mind that Metallica's self-titled 1991 album was even more popular, while getting airplay on the top 40. What's the difference between The Pixies "Doolittle" and Nirvana's "Nevermind"? Why do we know The Smashing Pumpkin's "Siamese Dream", but not "Gish"?

It's easy to be cynical and assume that there is some kind of conspiracy at work here. I don't buy this for a second. Chosing to listen to music requires decision making, and decision making is inherently stressful. If we desire to broaden our artistic horizons, there are plenty of DJs and stations to cater to this. Many people simply just want to hear a catchy hip tune to get them through their day. Admittedly, I've made, and will continue to make bourgeois arguments protesting this. But I'm also a realist (and possibly a hypocrite).

But most interestingly, The Long Tail has come to rest on top of radio itself, which I believe will be a driving force of change to how the next generation of hits will arrive. Like never before, we have the most incredible options available to us when it comes to variety of formats and stations. I suspect a lot of people (myself included) will continue to cluster around the big names like Ryan Seacrest and Howard Stern, but at the same time we are in a better position to elevate the discovery process. I don't know if we'll see a radical change, but there is no question in my mind that we're definitely seeing a positive one.

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