the long tail

Customizing entertainment according to the consumer's taste has become the guideline for online distribution and retail companies. According to Chris Anderson, companies such as Netflix expand markets by drawing buyers to the Long Tail of DVDs considered nonhits in the mainstream. Whereas "the average Blockbuster carries fewer than 3,000 DVDs…a fifth of Netflix rentals are outside its top 3,000 titles." The power of online sources of entertainment gets rid of barriers formed by distance and inaccessibility. It would be unprofitable for Blockbuster to offer less known films that comprise the Long Tail when it could easily offer the top hits. A video rental store must take into account the local audience and the best way to attract customers is to please the masses. Funny enough, several of the Blockbusters near where I live have closed down due to little business. On the other hand, Netflix has the advantage of attracting customers with access to the World Wide Web. It "offers more than a thousand documentaries-because it can." Physical constraints no longer pose a problem for the video rental business, enabling Netflix to provide "offbeat content" that ironically draws in customers.

By providing a vast collection of DVDs, Netflix is bound to offer a film that will suit everyone's taste. It targets the individual, rather than the group. Their philosophy is that as long as people rent the non-mainstream fare, they are worth offering. The problem with the mass availability of all sorts of movies is that it leads to copyright issues. Since Netflix is a subscription service, it allows subscribers to rent an unlimited number of titles per month. From what I have seen, people take advantage of this by illegally burning then distributing the DVD to others. Pretty soon the DVD is available to those without a Netflix account.

The same legal issues arise with music. Though iTunes offers downloads for $0.99 a song and eMusic offers unlimited downloads with a flat fee of $9.99 a month, LimeWire offers it for free. Downloading music on a peer-to-peer network may be time-consuming but people still do it. Lowering the cost for music to "20 cents a track" may increase sales but it will not get rid of illegal downloading. Anderson suggests that the music industry should "pull consumers down the tail with lower prices." But what happens when an obscure track suddenly becomes a hit? Would the price of the track increase because demand increases?

Sometimes entertainment expected to be found in the Long Tail shifts to the "hits" end with enough mass support. Take for instance Little Miss Sunshine. This Sundance film won two Oscars and was a surprise favorite. One possible explanation is the effect of recommendations. According to sociologists, "hits are hardwired into human psychology, the combinatorial effect of conformity and word of mouth." Independent films get lost in the mainstream unless people recommend them to others. Word of mouth has transformed little known films and even unsigned bands to popular ones. MySpace.com is an example of how unknown artists can reach a large audience and eventually get signed by a record label. OneRepublic's MySpace page received thousands of hits from fans, making it the most popular on the site. Now OneRepublic's "Apologize" can be heard on the radio.

The power of word of mouth is incredible. No wonder online retailers use it. Amazon.com combined "infinite shelf space with real-time information about buying trends and public opinion." It recommends products that other people bought, provides customer reviews, rankings. When you explore an artist on iTunes, similar artists are listed. The strategy of online companies is to "use recommendations to drive demand down the Long Tail." Filtering from millions of tracks facilitates the buying process for consumers, who can look at music that they like and might like. Customizing the selection of music based on the individual's musical preferences is effective. When browsing an unknown artist, the consumer can view its "most downloaded" songs and start from there. There are unlimited options if you know where to look and online companies try to guide you there.

Thanks for this really thoughtful, clear response. I'll look forward to hearing more of your thoughts about this...