The Long Tail has failed the cultural industries

There’s growing evidence that the Web 2.0 ‘Long Tail’ theory is a bust for the online creative sector. Back in 2004, then Wired editor Chris Anderson theorized that blockbusters would matter less in the internet age and that everyone would sell “less of more.” But in today’s cultural world, where Marvel movies dominate and tech company algorithms all but ignore independent creators, the Long Tail theory is more like a fairy tale than a reality.

In this week’s Cybercultural newsletter, I look at four news stories that illustrate the failure of The Long Tail.

  1. The Long Tail is a failed economic theory 📉

This week’s theme was inspired by Terry Matthew, co-founder of Chicago music publication 5 Magazine, who recently published an on-point takedown of the Long Tail:

Far from being democratized, media has become Marvel-ized, as in Marvel movies: dependent on a tiny number of massive blockbusters rather than an abundance of niche alternatives.

Moreover, that “infinite shelf” is being constantly – and invisibly – reorganized by algorithms. That nearly “infinite” music may still be on a shelf somewhere, but without an equally “infinite” amount of time, there’s no way to explore it. Online retailers are investing more and more heavily in algorithms that put what they think you want in front of you – and thus what you don’t know you want further and further down the shelf.

My take: The 5 Mag article is specifically about music, but it also applies to other cultural industries like book publishing and movies. The key problem with the Long Tail theory is that in this era, attention is extremely hard to come by unless you’re already popular. The algorithms of Big Tech make this situation even worse, since they have a bias towards corporations and people who have previously gotten a ton of ‘likes’. In the case of popular individuals, typically it’s because they’re some kind of celebrity or they were put on a ‘suggested user list’ by the social media companies (this is more common than you’d think).

So can this be fixed? I think it will take a concerted effort from companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Spotify to drastically overhaul their ‘discoverability’ algorithms and somehow make them fairer to indie creators (e.g. independent movie producers, self-published authors, and battling musicians). Internet platforms like Netflix, Spotify and other popular apps focus too much on promoting and highlighting mainstream content that is already well-consumed - i.e. the head, not the long tail. Not enough is being done to help people find the hidden gems of our culture.

  1. The Streaming Era Has Finally Arrived. Everything Is About to Change. 📺

This New York Times article is purportedly about how the streaming era is only now getting serious, with Hollywood big shots like Disney and HBO entering the fray with streaming services this year. But the real story is that while the big entertainment players will compete well with Big Tech like Netflix and Amazon, the ones below this elite tier will struggle:

Big cable channels like ESPN, Fox News, Bravo and HGTV aren’t going anywhere, but channels that are already poorly rated — BabyFirst, Ovation, Viceland — will have a harder time staying in business, analysts say. The culling of the herd has already started, with cable outlets like Cloo, Esquire, Pivot and Al Jazeera America calling it quits in recent years. Glenn Beck will pull the plug on his Blaze cable channel next month.

My take: Naturally the NYT doesn’t even mention independent players (other than Glenn Beck), but they will be most impacted by the maturation of entertainment streaming. Consumers won’t want to pay for too many streaming services, and the likes of Disney and Netflix stand the best chance of being retained. What I most worry about, however, is that the content on the big players will become more and more bland as these platforms try to appeal to a wide audience. I think we’re already seeing this on Netflix, which has a huge amount of sub-par content on it now.

  1. Is Big Entertainment gentrifying the podcast ecosystem? 🎧

Nicholas Quah, who runs an email newsletter about the podcasting industry, worries about UCP, a subsidiary of NBCUniversal, getting into the podcasting business:

The gameplan outlined by UCP Audio feels more like a gambit — to slather the scene with audio-only cosplays of film and TV products for the purposes of market testing, risk-reduction, and increasing the value of future projects. These half-baked, commoditized products could crowd out actual native works and contribute to an environment that only creates value for the film and TV people — if any value is even created, of course, as it’s entirely possible these projects mostly end up being sub-par experiences nobody wants to spend time with.

My take: A key concern here is that podcasts from UCP and its bigco ilk could take both attention and revenue away from more worthier independent podcasts (“native works” to use Quah’s term). We saw a similar thing play out in the blogging world in the latter stages of Web 2.0, once big media companies and VC-funded operations like Buzzfeed realized they could take a big slice of this new media market. Never mind that the professional blog market collapsed in the end anyway, the point is that podcasting feels like it’s at a similar inflection point - where it’s vulnerable to large, faceless corporations taking over. And as Quah pointed out, ultimately it’s we consumers who will suffer.

  1. On getting books to the top of the cultural agenda 📚

Anita Sethi writes on The Bookseller, in a preview for its upcoming FutureBook Live conference:

Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, said: "The book business has long punched above its weight in terms of media attention, but with the news agenda bristling, and other entertainment sectors, led by Netflix and Spotify, burgeoning, books—as the original creative industry—need to work harder and harder to maintain their cultural cachet. This high-powered panel will tell us how."

As we teeter on the brink of a new decade, it is sure to be a fascinating discussion about how books can not only survive but thrive in an age of other cultural mediums which can either threaten their existence or—and we'll be discussing how—enhance them.

My take: If there’s a “long tail” of cultural content categories, then streaming tv and streaming music are at the head…and books are lost in the tail somewhere. It’ll be interesting to see what ideas this panel at FutureBook Live throws around, but I think those of us who love books have to accept that this just isn’t our era. It’s not only attention that is limited now, it’s attention spans. Most people would rather curl up in front of the television at the end of the day. Plus, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s physically hard for many of us who work with computers and digital devices all day to focus on reading in the evenings.

That said, as Sethi hints at, the book is still a wonderful format to explore ideas and culture in a deep way. If you want to explore the life of a great musician, for example, then reading a well-written biography (or autobiography) is usually the best way to do it. The movie version of a musician’s life typically only touches the surface (see Bohemian Rhapsody, or The Doors). So that’s where I see the value of books going forward: as a deep well of original ideas, creativity, and thoughtful explorations of various cultural topics. Plus, books will continue to be used as plots and inspiration for the vast river of streaming tv series and movies currently flowing through our culture.

Data Points 📊

  • Tubefilter: Patreon Now Counts 4 Million Patrons That Have Paid Creators $1 Billion To Date (RM: solid growth, so all is not lost for the long tail…) 💰

  • Ampere Analysis: Global spending on TV, film and sports content has increased by 65% between 2008 and 2018, with most of that growth occurring in the past 5 years. 📹

  • Hub Entertainment Research: 24% of US consumer respondents say they are interested in subscribing to Disney+, compared to about 10% for Apple TV+. 📺

  • Leichtman Research Group: Pay TV companies lost about 1.74 million customers in the third quarter, the biggest single-quarter loss the industry has ever posted. 📺

  • Sensor Tower: TikTok Clocks 1.5 Billion Downloads on The App Store and Google Play 📱

Tweet of the week 🐦

Joost Rietveld from the UCL School of Management makes another good point about the impacts of long tail economics:

That’s a wrap for this week’s subscriber newsletter. Ping me any feedback you have, or suggestions for themes in upcoming editions. Thanks as always for your support, it’s much appreciated. 🙏