The Long Tail

Joi Ito links to this piece by Chris Anderson in Wired. Dubbed “The Long Tail” it explores the new sales models that the vast catalogues of online services such as amazon, iTunes and netflix are opening up. With their low overheads such services can afford to keep far larger inventories than their bricks-and-mortar equivalents and are seeing significant returns on those inventories with large numbers of sales of items that would otherwise fade into obscurity.

For those of us who tend to make choices of music, film and books that often slip outside the mainstream it is an enticing concept. The suggestion that it is a fair bet that children today will grow up never knowing the meaning of out of print suggests a world of promise. Some of us will certainly miss the hours of searching through used CD shops to find that rare gem, but I suspect we’ll adapt (and if the distribution medium changes, then there will for some time be ‘antique’ dealers whose stock we can search for those antiquated CDs).

Anderson attempts to argue that the current price of MP3 downloads is too high. It is true that the music industry cartel currently controls pricing, and he provides costings to suggest that items could be sold more cheaply, but he apparently fails to take into account for the retailer to make a profit. Certainly their overheads are lower, but that doesn’t mean their expectations of profitability are similarly. They are corporations after all.

And that point is also part of the reason I am sceptical about the argument for subscription services which would have unlimited ‘streaming’ of music replacing the current purchase model employed by iTunes. The idea of paying a limited monthly fee for unlimited monthly music sounds great, but the control that this centralisation of music ownership hands to undemocratic organisations is of concern. This proposal is not about placing the music in a kind of ‘cultural commons’ of the sort being explored by Creative Commons, and could, as competition increases and with it exclusive licensing deals, see a repeat of exactly the same problems that have dogged artists whose labels have gone out of business consigning their unreleased records to purgatory.

Of course there are also the nagging concerns about the decline of traditional retail, in part selfish. While not all retail outlets will be impacted in the near future, when I end up in a shopping centre/mall it’s the bookshops and music retailers that set me at ease. They are the ones under threat. And they are often the focal points of vibrant communities being natural congregating points for creative people. The positive potential is considerable, I hope the urban planners have our backs covered!

UPDATE: Those interested in this topic may like to consider this piece at demos.

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