Monday, August 07, 2006

Where The Long Tail comes up short

Since everybody's talking about it on the blogs and it's a totally digital thing, I thought I'd weight in on "The Long Tail," the new book by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson. Luckily, rather than have to come up with something original for this blog, I can link to my review that ran in Variety today. (outside the subscription wall for your blogalicious pleasure)

In sum, I think Anderson nicely analyzes and summarizes the what, why, and how of the explosion of niche content on the Internet. But his attempt to analyze the business of creating hits, and argue that it is in decline, is completely unconvincing. It demonstrates a quite shallow understanding of how the modern entertainment industry works, in fact. Here's the "money quote," so to speak, from my review:

In a world where Grand Theft Auto sells millions of units, "American Idol" performances are available for download and you can watch "Pirates of the Caribbean" in the theater, on HBO, on DVD or on a PSP, Anderson seems to have it exactly wrong: Thanks to digital technology, more people are consuming more hits than ever -- on more platforms than ever.

My primary argument is in the review and I stand 100% behind it. But I also want to pile on a bit here, with something that he mentions in the book and again on his blog that really bothers me. This is Anderson's explanation on his blog for which hits will still prosper in the "long tail world" and which won't:

As I see it, there are essentially three kinds of hits, which we can call Type 1,2, and 3:

* "Top-down" hits created by the usual hit-making machine: major labels, major publishers, major studios, etc. Those fall into two categories:
o Type 1: Authentic hits: products that are excellent and resonate with a broad audience (think anything from Coldplay to the World Cup). These start big and stay big.
o Type 2: Synthetic hits: lame products that are marketed within an inch of their life, sucessfully getting lots of people to try them even though they're probably sorry they did. (think Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties). These start big but quickly plummet.
* Type 3: "Bottoms-up" hits, that rise on word-of-mouth and grassroots support. (think Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or March of the Penguins). These start small and get big.

I think Type 1 hits will continue to do well. Type 3 hits will do even better, since the web is the greatest word-of-mouth amplifier ever created. But Type 2 hits will suffer, as the consumers spread the word of their suckitude faster than ever.

How is this anything other than subjective, post-hoc reasoning? What objective way is there to say which movies are "synthetic hits" and which are "authentic?" To take an obvious example, most critics slammed "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," a corporately-created sequel based on a theme park ride, and Disney marketed it within an inch of its life. How in the world is that not the definition of "synthetic?" Yet it's the biggest hit of the year, despite the long tail.

I can guarantee you that if it was a flop and somebody asked Anderson about it, he would say it's a "synthetic hit" that no longer prospers in the long tail world. Nonesense. There have been "authentic" hits and "authentic" flops and "synthetic" hits and "synthetic" flops since the entertainment industry began and there's absolutely zero evidence that the long tail has changed that one iota.

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