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The Long Tail: Wagging the Digital Dog

By Pamela Yoder

What is "The Long Tail?" In the world of content makers and distributors, it's a new buzz word that's making the rounds.

Now, before you start getting images of a surgically enhanced pet, let me put your mind at ease. The Long Tail refers to the shelf life of content. And it's based on an article in a recent issue of Wired magazine, written by Chris Anderson.

The idea is simply that old media marketing is a based on squeezing dollars from a handful of big hits at the top of the charts: best-selling books, blockbuster movies, Top 40 pop singles. But there's evidence that the future of content isn't in the hit-driven, mass-market media properties.

Anderson argues that media has been driven by what he calls "the tyranny of lowest-common-denominator." The basic thesis is that we live in a physical world and, until recently, our media and entertainment did as well. A poor match of supply and demand means that the media you may want simply isn't available to you. But that's changing.

From iTunes and Rhapsody to Netflix and Cinegreen, selection is deepening. Ecast is a digital jukebox company that offers more than 150,000 tracks. And sites like, CustomFlix and CafePress no offer on-demand publishing of books, DVDs...and even customized lunch boxes.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of, asked a question that silenced a packed room in New York recently: "Why does any book, any record, any movie ever have to go out of print?" For a man who's made his mark selling physical objects (books, and now a whole lot more), the question hung in the air. Already he hinted that Amazon was testing print-on-demand solutions that would allow an almost limitless number of books to live on a server: printed, packed and shipped to a buyer on demand. And while books are still very much physical, other media like film and music are already fundamentally digital products. Why doesn't every song, every movie, every TV program sit somewhere waiting to be ordered up by a newly discovered consumer? The cost of reduced storage and broadband delivery has made this impossible idea possible in just the past three years.

Anderson 's thesis is groundbreaking in a number of ways, the most encouraging of which is this: We are not a country of Top 40 buyers; we are a diverse, complex, matrix of tastes and interests that have been forced by limited choices in media properties into a narrow set of media options. He uses Rhapsody, a music service from RealNetworks with 735,000 tracks available for download on a subscription basis, to lay out a picture of the future of media.

He explains that, as expected, the best-known tracks get huge demand. But it is in the tracks under the top 40,000 that you discover something: Rhapsody keeps selling. "Not only is every one of Rhapsody's top 100,000 tracks streamed at least once each month, the same is true for its top 200,000, top 300,000, and top 400,000," explains Anderson. "As fast as Rhapsody adds tracks to its library, those songs find an audience, even if it's just a few people a month, somewhere in the country. This is The Long Tail."

The impact on the documentary business is already being felt. Netflix, for example, contributed half of all US rentals of Capturing the Friedmans. A Blockbuster retail store carries 3,000 DVDs. One fifth of Netflix rentals are outside of its top 3,000 titles (Netflix carries 12,000 titles). Now Amazon is moving in on the direct-to-home DVD rental are as well.

There is promise in a future that allows filmmakers to let their films reach their audience over time, and continue to find viewers virtually forever. The impact for our society is more choice, more voices, less of a "tyranny of the mass market" and a future that allows important ideas to have an economic base.

This is not crystal ball gazing; it's happening now. For more information, go to


Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at