back to article The Long Fail: Web 2.0's faith meets the facts

The Long Tail has just had another run-in with large amounts of real-world data, and again come out the worse for wear. Tens of millions of music transactions were analyzed by economists and the shape of the sales distribution shows no resemblance to the Pareto (or Power) Curve, 1/x^n of the Long Tail, but a near perfect fit …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Thanks for the great quote

    I urge everyone who is refused credit these days to counterattack using that great quote from Gerd Leonhart. If they don't want to give you money it's only because they are so low to let numbers interfere with dreams.

  2. Kyle

    Another perspective on the matter

    I've long been interested in the idea behind the Long Tail, because of the possibilities it seems to offer to those who implement it. However, I have the impression that the Long Tail for retailers and the Long Tail for creators are two different things, and that may be muddying the water further.

    Case in point: webcomics. There are significant numbers of artists out there making daily or several-times-weekly comics and making a living out of it. Not even close to all of them, of course, but then again not everyone who plays in a band makes their living out of it. The point as I understand it with most of the high-profile and successful webcomic crowd is that they find ways to get paid for the same thing multiple times. So the comic shows for free on the website on the day (but money comes in from ads). Then the comic is collected into a dead-tree-edition and sold. Then the original art for the strip is sold (assuming someone wants to buy it, that is). If the largest part of the work is creating the original artwork, that's 3 revenue streams for the same piece of work (over enough time to make them all viable). Not to mention the possibility of special editions of books, sketches sold at conventions, and merchandise.

    This all relies on the cartoonist being able to establish the comic and find an audience, but that's a pretty universal issue for entertainers. While it may not be possible to find exact analogues for these revenue streams for musicians, I would be interested in seeing someone write up a detailed analysis, and particularly to find out whether there are singers/musicians out there working to the same model and making a living out of it.

  3. Steven Knox

    "Yet search queries are not a market."

    Tell that to Google.

  4. JimC

    Thinner and thinner tail?

    Seems to me that the tail may well have ben getting longer, but also thinner and thinner, thus thinner and thinner are the chances of making a living from it. The whole celebrity/star thing that's so popular with contemporary media things down the tail yet further. Top football players and clubs make more and more money, second division makes less and less. Although I know **** all about football I get the impression that fewer and fewer clubs start the season with a realistic chance of winning... Before recorded music there were probably many more musicians making a half decent living, now there's a few making gigabucks and many more subsidising usic from the dole or the day job...

  5. Simon Greenwood

    Not really 2.0 is it?

    Surely the niche aspect of internet selling was established when Jeff Bezos got his spreadsheets out after Amazon's first couple of years. Here's a case in point: I wanted a thermometer to measure room temperature in my house. I spent a fruitless Sunday afternoon driving around my local DIY and hardware stores and came up with nothing. I got home, did a search and found not one but two specialist thermometer shops, one of which furnished me with a handful of LCDs for a few quid.

    I don't see that as having anything to do with the social aspect of Web 2.0 or the mechanical aspect of it. It's just commerce expanding in the way it does well. What is perhaps different from the halcyon days of 1998-9 is that the niche has remained niche because someone who sells thermometers knows that he's selling something that no-one else is. The growth of dropshipping means that a niche store doesn't even have to have stock, which is where Walmart or HMV or indeed Amazon hits the buffers. Even the model of home delivery learned its lesson after the debacles of Webvan or Peapod in the US, or the hopefuls who let people have bags of jelly babies be delivered by courier in London at the end of the decade.

    In retail, the principle still seems to be 'if you build it, they will come'. Online it's 'if you build it and get yourself on Google and spend a bit on getting into the right places, your niche might not make you rich but it should turn you a living' *breathes*. The social aspect is that there is generally someone else out there who is interested in that same things that you're into and who might want to buy things from you, so shops arise out of collective interests (witness the trade in World of Warcraft items - that's an online market that only sells things that exist online) or a perceived niche - 'I can't buy one My Little Hentai doll in this country but I can buy a hundred and sell them to other people'.

    As the first bubble burst in around 1999, the backlash had begun: I have a bunch of stickers somewhere that say things like 'I don't want to buy toothpaste online', comments on the ideas that had ridiculous sums of money thrown at them and crashed and burned on average in about 18 months. The lessons have been learned: even Walmart, or Asda in the UK, understands that the value of their online business is to sell what they stock, either through getting people into the shops or through home delivery, and not to sweat the minority requirements as someone else will stock them until, as with something that Deliah or Jamie uses on TV, they need to stock them - another advantage of linking stock management with a customer website - why is everyone suddenly looking for smoked paprika?

  6. Will Leamon

    Falling asleep with this stuff...

    Is anyone else getting sick of this Us vs. Them douchebaggery the long tailers always seem to clinging to? Why can't the audience unite and produce big hits (Sopranos, Macarena, Merlot) AND still develop niche interests?

    Yes the Internet will provide the world with far more niches of interest than before. Yes some niche players will make some cash out of it. No - Wal-Mart, Britney and Starbucks aren't going anywhere. Oh their names will change but the mass players will always be there as there is such a thing as a Mass Market.

    And no... none of this makes it OK to steal shit off the Internet.

  7. Anonymous Coward

    Can I...

    ...get the tale of tail fail in English please?

  8. Gulfie

    Maybe I'm missing something but...

    ... it is relatively self-evident that the long tail will always be barren AND worthless. That's why it's the long tail! If something in the long tail proves to be even slightly popular then it would move outside of the definition of the long tail. Ergo, the long tail remains worthless.

    His hypothesis seems to rely on the fact that 'everything has value'. You only have to look at a small percentage of the full content of the web to know that an awfully large percentage of the web has no value - possibly even negative value!

    Is this guy trying to spin a business by convincing people that the valueless is in fact valuable? Talk about the Emperor's New Clothes! He needs a lesson in basic economics.

    I run a couple of web sites. One is definitely in the long tail but, since there are no hosting costs, I only incur costs when I make a sale, and the site takes little time to maintain, it is a worthwhile pursuit. The other is one of the 'top' sites in its niche and although it might classify as long tail overall, it definitely isn't long tail for the niche. You need to understand the difference, look at the costs of maintaining that long tail (money and time) and decide if your efforts are better spent elsewhere... it isn't rocket science! (it's economics, dummy - the long tail is doomed when viewed from an economic standpoint)

  9. Pete Silver badge

    apples and oranges - books and tunes

    The big difference is whether you need to physically store something, or if it's merely bits. Warehousing needs floorspace, floorspace costs money. You also need security guards, inventory management and people to package your sales. Contrast with selling (or renting) bits on a disk, practically free costs of storage, fixed costs for internet security, no packaging (tho' you have to maintain a website - same for internet book sales) and somwhat higher bandwidth costs to push the product to the buyer.

    This makes the cost model for a physical "good" different from that of an internet good. As a consequence, long tales are pretty much cost-free on the 'net. However, try to apply the same model in real life and you can expect to go bust.

  10. Chris

    Re: "media futurist" Gerd Leonhart

    Reminds me of Stewart Lee saying in his ironic, floppy-haired 90s Fist of Fun way, 'Yeah, well, you can prove anything with facts.' Oh, he's still doing it.

  11. Giacomo Bruzzo

    Poor Scientific Method?

    A theory's scientificity is, by ample consensus, associated with its falsifiability.

    The original theory of the Long Tail was an scientific proposition (because falsifiable) about the shape of demand for large online retailers - it posited, that empirical demand for online goods was fat-tailed. (in fact it posits that the availability and "searcheability" of goods generates demand in the tail). It was falsified.

    The Modest Theory of the Long Tail is the original theory with adhoc hypotheses attached to try and save it. It was falsified again.

    The inspirational theory is not an empirically falsifiable proposition, and therefore not a scientific statement.

    As such, the theory of the long tail may continue to exist in the realm of metaphysical/motivational propositions of new age culture, and may, one day, be shown to have engendered all manner of positive spillover effects on the industry (something like a cultural looking-glass) - for the moment I feel it is of very little value but to boost the ego of Mr Anderson and all those who religiously read wired magazine.

  12. Francis Vaughan

    Unclear logic

    There is clearly a lot of very shonky logic being used. But the logic debunking the long tail is not fully watertight either. The mass market; kids downloading the latest music, is clearly, almost by definition, not long tail. There are some neat efforts that show that the very nature of musical trends always yields a small number of very popular items. But looking to iTunes to provide statistics for the effort is self limiting. iTunes by its nature is also mass market. For a number of reasons. First and foremost, it isn't good enough audio quality. It is only good enough to listen to with a basic iPod with its cruddy earphones. Even a small step up in fidelity soon reveals the limitations of the format. People who enjoy music (as opposed to immersing themselves in a sort of background to life's activities) don't buy from iTunes. Ever. Yet these are the people that will make up the long tail.

    Further, iTunes presents some unfortunate barriers to many modern, non-mass-market musicians. It is a pain to provide music through the store, and due to the quality issue, there are not enough sales (versus sales on CD) to warrant the effort.

    Sales of CDs through alternative vendors (most of whom are on-line) remain reasonably strong. No-one is going to make their fortune, but that is the whole point. Of the last 5 CDs I bought, only one is available for paid download from anyone anywhere.

    Analysis of the validity or not, of the long tail argument must take into account a long tail of sales mechanisms. Just using a mass market vendor to reveal a mass market trend of sales is invalid. This isn't to say that the long tail is real - that is still to be proven, or not. But fighting bad logic with more bad logic is not a good answer.

    I'm a long term long tailer in music. I have never bought a download, never downloaded ripped music, and have a very healthy CD collection which continues to grow. Buying music via download simply makes no sense. It is not cheaper, is poorer quality, and often laden with idiotic DRM issues. Using this market as the exemplar is not smart.

  13. Vaidotas Zemlys

    Wrong math

    Lognormal is not exp(-x^2), but exp(-log (x)^2). Pareto is x^(-alfa), yes, but long tail is for alfa close to one. Plot standard lognormal density and Pareto with alfa=3, and you will see that the tails are similar (for a given value of similar of course).

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    @Francis Vaughan: case not proven (yet)

    Well said Francis. I've got a reasonably sized CD collection. A lot of it is original releases, but for various reasons (like the originals being nicked) a fair proportion is re-releases on Castle, Rhino, etc. Same goes for books I'd like. There's a lot more that I'd *like* to add but currently the "free market" business model doesn't support anything that doesn't have an identifiable niche and a supporting route to market... I don't know if I believe the long tail theory or not but the current status quo proves nothing either way.

  15. Paul Kinsler

    ok, so the "long tail" may not exist

    .. but a more interesting question is: now that many tail-ish products can be sold more easily and cheaply, will the distributions involving such products shift towards a Pareto distribution, away from the log-normal?

  16. Paul M.

    Gerd Leonard quote

    Never heard of him before, but that's a GREAT quote. It's like a bus full of clowns all stepped off to be sick at once.

    Bet you he's Freetard hero. Who pays these people?

  17. Rob Aley
    Thumb Up

    @ Gulfie

    "If something in the long tail proves to be even slightly popular then it would move outside of the definition of the long tail. Ergo, the long tail remains worthless"

    Yeah, but no, but yeah, but no. You see, take my business for example. We sell specialty niche tea, coffee and chocolate. Most of our profit comes from products like the Sweet Potato, Mocha and Rosemary chocolate bar :

    Compared to Cadburys chocolate, not that popular in the market place, so still part of the long tail. But for us it (and similar products) are a big seller, so they aren't worthless to us. Our big tail is different from the markets big tail. We still make money.

  18. Oninoshiko

    @Steven Knox

    Google knows it too. Search a loss-leader.

    Google is an advertising company. Google users are not their clents, Adwords users are. even if they do somthing that we all love, if adwords users hate it (and start to leave because of it) it wont stay around.

    So, search queries are not a market, advertisers are a market.

  19. Franklin

    Just looking at the wrong tails...

    Perhaps the original notion of the Long Tail simply came from looking at the wrong dataset. There are indeed places--or, at least, one place--where all this Long Tail nonsense actually makes sense, and that's th world of pr0n. In this day and age, a pr0n movie is considered a 'hit' if it sells four thousand copies; the tiny handful of wildly successful grumble flicks* out there are a very unusual aberration. Pr0n is all about the niche.

    So it's entirely possible that Mr. Anderson is merely looking at the wrong tails, and attempting to generalize from those tails to other industries? (I know there's a pun lurking in there somewhere.)

    Point being that the notion may have some merit in certain highly select industries, even if it is utter hogwash if applied more generally.

    *God bless you Brits and your contributions to language. Seriously. British vernacular is a thing of beauty. I'd dearly love to know the etymology of the expression "grumble flick."

  20. Giacomo Bruzzo

    generalizing from observation

    is not very scientific (it is induction, but science is not...)

  21. Steven Knox


    "Search a loss-leader."

    And that means nothing. Markets can exist around loss-leaders. Look at the games console market. The majority of games consoles are loss-leaders for the sales of video games, yet there are analysts whose entire careers are based on watching the games console market.

    "Google is an advertising company. Google users are not their clents, Adwords users are. even if they do somthing that we all love, if adwords users hate it (and start to leave because of it) it wont stay around."

    Sounds a lot like the broadcast television market. You only neglected to mention the equally important third leg of the triangle. Google's users are like television's watchers -- they're the audience -- i.e, the product sold to the advertisers. If people start to flock to another search engine, just as if a network's ratings drop, the advertisers will lose. So Google has to sell search as much as it sells advertising, just as broadcasters have to sell their shows as much as they sell ad spots.

    So search is as much a market as broadcast television is. That's why Google continues to invest in its search technology and why broadcasters continue to invest in new programming.

  22. Tam Lin

    What, it this a religion now? Give it a miss already.

    The people selling "long-tail" stuff are the same ones who were selling it years and decades ago. It's a skill/knowledge/trust and reach occupation that is thousands of years old.

    I fully understand how a random Wired twit could hyperventilate himself after stupidly and poorly rediscovering something - what I don't understand is why so many columnists bother to similarly poorly criticize it.

    If Orlowski and Slee really like to cover hogwash, they should switch to interpreting the bible or something else equally distant from the tech field.

  23. Pilchardboy

    It's a short fail

    The numbers may seem to indicate one thing, but judging by how I've seen potential long tail organisations operate, I'd say the heart of the problem is a failure to work out how to market long tail inventory, rather than just a failure of the model.

    We're still stuck in the same product and marketing cycles that big companies have been in for years - short lead times and a focus on front page products. Long tail marketing strategies are required and - frankly - I haven't seen them being implemented anywhwere. Let's wait and see how those companies that will rely on long tail sales in the future succeed - the ones that get their marketing right will be the ones that prove the case.


  24. Adam Pritchard

    Methinks you doth protesth too much

    Coyly? Modestly? Demurs?

    Already you demonstrate your resistance to Chris Anderson's thoughts and ideas which immediately makes me interpret you as a very biased writer. Shame because you do further the debate well, only to make me think you are anti-Anderson and are of less worth to the actual debate.

    For my 2p, the long tail DOES exist, as I have seen it with multiple client projects, and where "search terms ARE a market" then yes the Head is still more favourable then focussing heaps on effort on the wide ranging Tail. But as one comment points out Anderson highlights "a potential evolution in content distribution" - that the digital world allows customers to update websites in seconds rather than redoing expensive print runs every time a catalogue price changes, or reworking marketing strategy every time the public changes their most common search phrase.

    The move towards more brand-related search ("facebook" search instead of typing "") shows that a lot of people are lazy and will of course remain in the Head area of demand and supply, but the digital world has enabled easier access to those who wish to seek out the Tail; the small bands, the local bloggers and the random silly jokes and videos that you would otherwise not find. I took from the book the essence of the "democratization of supply" rather than Walmart stocking millions of albums all of a sudden. The Long Tail has incredible value in our understanding of the new digital age, but it can't be seen as a gospel. Even the Bible could be said to be out of date now!

  25. Paul M.
    Thumb Up

    Adam Pritchard doesn't get it

    Oh, look: someone is upset that their Priest / Guru looks stupid.

    "Already you demonstrate your resistance to Chris Anderson's thoughts and ideas which immediately makes me interpret you as a very biased writer. "

    No, Adam. Chris Anderson doesn't look stupid because of biased writing. Chris Anderson looks stupid because his "thoughts and ideas" are useless for digital businesses.

    Can you tell the difference between the two?

    "The Long Tail has incredible value in our understanding of the new digital age"

    You sound like another brain-washed cult victim.

  26. Jodo Kast

    Long tail? Inspirational Tail?

    Get a clue noobs!

    Chris Anderson does not understand IT. He understands "Marketing".

    Which is a totally different beast. Example: There is no "Web 2.0". It's a marketing term for javascript/Ajax and mash-ups that require good database design.

  27. Peter Adamson

    Where are the data coming from?

    You cannot draw the conclusions that this article does without adequate data. Long tail niche products are sold primarily by long tail niche websites, not Amazon. There is absolutely no way to collect enough data on these websites (there are nearly as many of them as there are long tail keywords) to state anything conclusive at all about their revenues.

    Oh well, academics are never bothered by reality. Remember the Efficient Market Theory? It states that you can't make money speculating in the stock market. It is favoured by academics, but not widely accepted by millionaire stock market speculators.

    The reason why the data to not match the expected curve is simple: the data set is incomplete.

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