Heads or Tails

by on September 10, 2006

Chris Anderson was nice enough to send me a review copy of his new book, The Long Tail, which has been storming the best-seller lists. So far (a third of the way through) the book lives up to the hype: it’s a quick read that’s packed with interesting stories and insights about the changing rules of the information economy. If you haven’t gotten your copy yet, you should.

For those who haven’t yet encountered Anderson’s work, he argues that by reducing the costs of distributing information, the Internet has radically expanded the set of products that are economically viable. A big Wal-Mart might have 5,000 CDs on its shelves, but at the iTunes Music Store, I can choose from among hundreds of thousands of albums. Anderson dubs these less-popular works the “long tail” of music, and he demonstrates that while each of these “misses” aren’t commercially significant by themselves, when you add them up, they comprise a significant part of the total demand for music. Anderson demonstrates that the same phenomenon can be found everywhere you look: Amazon makes a substantial fraction of its book revenue from books that can’t be found in any Borders. A substantial fraction of Netflix rentals can’t be found in any Blockbuster.

Anderson’s book explores the implications of this shift. He argues that once consumers have the option of wandering far from the beaten path of mainstream hits, many of them discover stuff they like a lot better than the mainstream fare. Now that “long tail” products are readily available, the demand for them is growing, as more and more consumers find new products they never would have found in a pre-Internet age. This, in turn represents a serious threat to the hit-dominated culture of incumbent content companies, whose businesses are carefully tuned to cranking out mainstream fare that will appeal to the broadest possible audience. The upshot is that over time, the tail will be more an more important, transforming our culture from the homogenous, hit-dominated world of the 20th Century to a decentralized culture with thousands of micro-niches of varying sizes. In short, Anderson argues that the blockbuster isn’t an inevitable feature of modern media, but rather is an artifact of the centralized distribution technologies of the 20th Century.

I don’t have any real quarrel with that thesis. But “what he said” doesn’t make for an interesting blog entry, so below the cut, I’ll offer a quick criticism.

Around page 75, he argues that peoples’ attitude toward copyright are driven by their position on the long tail distribution:

Up at the head, where producers benefit from the powerful, but expensive, channels of mass-market distribution, business considerations rule. It’s the domain of professionals, and as much as they might love what they do, it’s a job, too. The costs of production and distribution are too high to let economics take a backseat to creativity. Money drives the process.

Down in the tail, where distribution and production costs are low (thanks to the democratizing power of digital technologies), business considerations are often secondary. Instead, people create for a variety of other reasons–expression, fun, experimentation, and so on…

Each of these perspectives changes how the creators feel about copyright. At the top of the curve, 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. Further down the tail, more firmly in the noncommercial zone, an increasing number of content creators are choosing explicitly to give up some of their copyright protections.

I think Anderson is right as far as he goes. But I think that what’s happening is actually a little bit more radical than he’s suggesting. There are already long tail distributions in which the people at the head are eschewing copyright, and I think we’re likely to see more of them as the long tail revolution picks up steam.

The blogosphere is Exhibit A in this phenomenon. As Anderson acknowledges, Instapundit, Daily Kos, Atrios, and other blogs at the top of the blogospheric totem pole link and quote one another promiscuously, with nary a word about copyright protection. I can’t think of a single blog that charges for access, and that’s probably because any site that tried it would lose 99 percent of its traffic overnight. Now, it’s true that if we consider these blogs to be part of a larger curve called “punditry,” it’s true that the folks at the head of that curve, say the New York Times op-ed page, say, are still fiercely defending their copyrights. But I suspect that’s a temporary phenomenon, as these papers coast on the momentum created by their dominance of 20th Century media. Those folks still have a large enough market share that they can make serious money by setting up toll booths. But doing so comes at the expense of their long-term influence. The columnists of the New York Times got a lot more attention from the blogosphere before they went behind the Times Select paywall. In the long run, the Times will have to either tear down their paywall, or their columnists will fade into obscurity. Why should people pay to read the Times’s anointed pundits when there are as good (or at least nearly as good) pundits whose work is available for free?

And as I’ve argued before, the same will eventually be true of the music industry. Not because of peer-to-peer piracy, but because there are simply too many ambitious and talented musicians who, given a choice between being rich or being famous, will choose being famous every time. Musicians will give away their music because that makes it more likely people will listen to it, just as bloggers give away their content to get more readers. And once music fans discover how much high quality music is available for free, they’ll begin to wonder why they should pay for music at all, just as many readers are beginning to wonder what’s so special about Paul Krugman and David Brooks. When supply exceeds demand, as it seems to for both music and punditry, the equilibrium price is zero.

So I think Anderson is actually understating his thesis when he suggests that people at the head tend to resist the copying of their products, while people at the tail tend to encourage it. To the extent that there exist people who are anti-copying, they’re likely to be at the head. But I suspect that when the long tail revolution finishes a few decades from now, there will be many categories of content, such as music and punditry, where liberal copying is the norm all the way up the curve.

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