The long tail. The generated sales based not on the popular traditional media, but on the lesser known selection now widely available through various digital channels. The article “The Long Tail” which appeared in Wired’s October 2004 issue went a long way into foreshadowing the next decade to come. There was much that I found particularly eerie, as I’ve watched the fall of several major retail institutions that I grew up with and enjoyed frequenting when I had the time.
Let’s begin with Blockbuster. I spent my Friday evenings there from 1993 – 2003 with my Dad, siblings or friends preparing to get into our weekend ahead. Every time you walked in the door, you didn’t know what you were looking for (or maybe you did) but when you found it, it was like striking gold. One movie, one video game, one candy was the standard rule. Conversely, there was always the risk you wouldn’t find a copy of what you were looking for behind the box cover for the latest game. There were several weeks in 1993 where Mortal Kombat wasn’t available on any system, and I was devastated. Nothing like seeing shelves lined with empty boxes because the games were all checked out. You didn’t need the recommendation, you went by the cover and the summary description on the back. If it looked halfway decent, you rented it. So different today, with the age of Netflix and Sling where everything is on demand, streaming and at your fingertips. Along with user ratings and recommendations based on what you’ve previously viewed. There’s a small element of chance with it, but looking back it really takes the fun out of the experience.
Now, I began my PR career in the music business. I have the utmost respect for musicians of all genres trying to sell their music for pennies on the dollar. The long tail sales game that’s come out of the digital revolution is an ugly one. The Wired article didn’t take into account that streaming services would ultimately kill physical sales entirely. Of course, piracy factors heavily into that as well, but piracy was just as much a part of the digital revolution as streaming video. The ability to rip a song onto MP3 and listen to it on an iPod in 2001 was brand new. I remember seeing my first iPod when I got to college in late 2003. I was amazed. I couldn’t wait until I could afford one so that I could stop burning CDs. I had already discovered the long tail upon working for my college radio station and realizing there were incredible bands, specifically from Scandinavia that I would have never heard had I not discovered them through the radio and the internet. I sought out any MP3’s I could get my hands on from these rare bands and found myself stockpiling burned CDs. The iPod would make that much easier. Of course, that didn’t mean I wasn’t still completely bummed out when my local Tower Records and Sam Goody closed down because of the digital revolution. I loved the feeling of going into a record store and picking an album out that I’d never heard and playing it in the car as I drove home. While I can still do that today through the last remaining stores like FYE or Best Buy, digital music has just made finding weird bands that much easier.
The Economist’s article “Hidden in the Long Tail” published a little over ten years after Wired’s article ran brings many valid points to light about the technological advances helping the lesser known brands and media properties succeed in the present day. No longer is it truly necessary to have a brick and mortar storefront, instead a well-designed e-commerce site and good word of mouth or SEO promotion can gain you a customer base. If you have a product that caters to a niche audience, like documentaries or the like, and you’ve found a platform to do it in – by all means, advance the system. I think the Long Tail for Netflix, while they beat the system by offering so many titles through the mail, was that they saw the digital revolution happening with the music industry and beat every other competitor to the punch by adapting to video streaming faster than any other company. Now their stock is soaring. If you’d invested 10 years ago, you’d be making great returns now. Same goes for Amazon. But not so much for Blockbuster, Borders or Tower Records.