July 18, 2006

The Problem with the Long Tail

Filed under: criticism, culture — ted @ 12:48 pm

In an excellent commentary in yesterday’s Guardian, Natasha Walter questions the desirability of the “long tail” model of distributing works of art. For those not familiar with this burgeoning term, Walter provides a good definition:

The long tail, as [Chris Anderson] explains in his book of the same name, is what you see on the sales graphs for retailers like Amazon or iTunes, where a few hits and bestsellers may sell an awful lot, but most sales are of books and music that sell hardly anything – just bobbing along selling twenties, tens, twos and ones, rather than thousands. For online retailers, who can afford the kind of enormous catalogue that a real-space shop can’t dream of, this long tail of small sales adds up to significantly more than the short head of big sales.

As an alternative to the blockbuster paradigm of movie-making and book-writing, which formulates bland art and survives on expectation and marketing, the long tail is appealing: in our age, it’s very easy for writers and artists to reach their niche audience, and sell directly to them with little interference from the suits. However, as Walter points out, the long tail model leaves out something dear to many creators:

A culture divided between the massive hit and the tiny niche may feel comfortable for retailers and producers of a certain sort, but not so good for others. Many writers do not just want to reach a tiny online community and yet will never follow the formulas that please a massive audience; many film-makers don’t want to go it alone with a digital camera and sell to the teenagers on MySpace, but also don’t want millions of dollars of computer-generated imagery and a first week opening on thousands of screens

I think this is right on: if Anderson is correct, and the long tail truly is a developing phenomenon, our artistic culture could become increasingly divided between mindless drivel and niche interests. The problem here is that the truly great works of art have, throughout history, become great by appealing to a wide audience because of the indisputability of their greatness, not because they were directed at the right market or interest group.

The role of criticism and discernment is important here as well. Blockbusters like The Da Vinci Code — both the book and the movie — are essentially critic proof, counting on buzz and controversy, rather than critical success, as an entryway into our collective consciousness. On the other end of the tail, as writers and artists form a direct link between their specialized creation and a eager audience who is predisposed to love and appreciate it, critical opinion is again neutralized.

Perhaps it is too much to expect a great work of art to garner a large popular following in today’s fragmented culture — but I’d like to think that’s not the case.

Quick Hits:

I love this photo:

(view full)

  • This weekend, a group of teens were arrested in Boulder for “posing a trolls:” namely, attempting to charge people to cross a bridge while quoting lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Read the full article — every paragraph is a precious gem.
  • The U.S Government, according to an ACLU release, is “broadly interpreting and using a controversial Patriot Act power known as the ‘ideological exclusion’ provision to block people from entering the country.” Yet another reason to be very, very afraid of the Patriot Act.
  • Cool Looking Stuff: an enormous Great White Shark jumping out of the water to catch a seal — in super slow motion.
  • Bullet Time Reaction: literally, dodge a bullet. Fun!

1 Comment »

  1. Anderson’s new book is also intelligently reviewed in this week’s New Yorker, which I recommend if you have access to it. One related and excellent point (I wish I remembered the author) was that often the public release of popular works of art (especially films, TV shows, and albums) are news events. We want to see The Da Vinci Code, for instance, not because we think it is great filmmaking or storytelling, but rather because (as their advertisements reminded us) we want to “be part of the phenomenon.” I remember in elementary school, when I didn’t watch any TV or listen to anything but CCM, feeling very left out when classmates would start to talk about TV shows or popular music. We like to be part of the water-cooler conversation.

    Another is that we still need to collect and analyze more data to see how well Anderson’s analysis carries across the full variety of media over time. He seems to peg movies and TV, but what about other art (and consumer goods)?

    Comment by Daniel — July 18, 2006 @ 2:49 pm

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