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Book Review: THE LONG TAIL

The Long Tail, by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, is based on his theory on the changing face of consumption, and what it means for business (and media business, in particular). The market for major hits and limited choices is deviating to one of niches, he says, and the aggregate demand of the songs, films, and books which a relatively small number of people buy can, on its own, become a sustainable market. He writes: “The main problem, if that's the word, is that we live in the physical world and, until recently, most of our entertainment media did, too. But that world puts dramatic limitations on our entertainment.”

In a real-life scenario, Anderson’s notion looks like this: For a record store owner, putting William Hung’s latest CD–an album I hope we all can agree shouldn’t be consumed by a wide audience—in the window is a waste of space and the owner’s rent money. But what if songs and films no longer took up valuable real estate, but could be displayed for a minimal cost in a virtual store? The Hung record would still be available because internet retailers would not have to worry about selling mass quantities to turn profits. “There are niches by the thousands, genre within genre within genre: Imagine an entire Tower Records devoted to '80s hair bands or ambient dub,” writes Anderson. “There are foreign bands, once priced out of reach in the Import aisle, and obscure bands on even more obscure labels, many of which don't have the distribution clout to get into Tower at all.”

In Anderson’s “new” market, the songs that few people buy add up to a substantial market of their own, fueling a new supply and demand. If a retailer could offer 400,000 songs, a figure impossible to supply in a real store, and manage to sell a few copies of each, the aggregate profit would be substantial. As the author points out, this is already occurring, thanks to online retailers like iTunes and

Anderson’s theory is painfully obvious–you won’t be the first to read it and mutter, “Why didn’t I think of that?”–but it’s nonetheless compelling. His research confirms the logic behind his thesis and creates a better understanding of how the web is transforming the marketplace—and transforming people’s tastes.

Unlike past decades, where the top ten shows, songs and films comprised all of our options, we can now step away from the conformity of taste. Allowing for underground titles to have a space on the virtual shelf enables people to broaden there consumption and break free of the Billboard and box office favorites.

Interesting as The Long Tail is, after comparing it to the Wired article from which it sprang, I wonder why Anderson wrote a book in the first place, other than the usual reasons like fame, glory and wealth. Sometimes a long magazine article sufficiently covers what an entire book tries to say (and, in compliance with pre-Long Tail consumer models, takes up less shelf space). I recommend the book, but if you find yourself pressed for time, just dig up the original magazine piece online.

By Intern Mike Singer