Mr. Long Tail and Mr. Free Culture on the ‘end of the blockbuster’ at the New York Public Library

I got a chance to go to see Chris Anderson (author of the Long Tail Wired article, and since then of a Long Tail blog and now a book) speak tonight at the New York Public Library. After a brief talk, he sat down with Lawrence Lessig and chatted, eventually answering some questions. My sketchy bullet-point-y notes, from my 770:

  • older crowd than I expected- very mixed. (Not everyone stayed the whole time, which was surprising; I would have thought that anyone who paid to get in in the first place would have found it interesting enough to stay.)


  • the hits-driven culture of the 20th century was a temporary anomaly; culture was previously fragmented by distance and manifested itself as folk art.
  • Then tech rises- particularly radio- physics and economics lead to the rise of one-to-many (i.e., one broadcaster using expensive gear and limited bandwidth to broadcast culture to many people). Radio first, then TV.
  • The big hit is on the decline. Nsync c. 2000 was last big hit album- last to break the one-day sales record. Not going to happen again, likely.
  • now distribution will be by taste, not geography
  • end of the blockbuster impacts not just music- Big 4 TV networks have cratered in viewership, even though total # of viewers across all networks same or even growing. music radio dying; newspapers too.
  • The ‘long tail’ is… well, I already knew, so I didn’t take notes on this. Read the wired article I linked above or the Wikipedia article. :)
  • Distribution costs led to a ‘savagely truncated’ end of the tail- we could only afford so much broadcasting/shelf space/whatever, so we didn’t even try to sell the stuff at the end of the tail. Along the way, we convinced ourselves that no one cared about the stuff at the end of the tail.
  • Some numbers on the truncation: about 1% of new albums make it into walmart (crazy.) 21% of netflix sales come from dvds not available at blockbuster; 40% of rhapsody sales come from albums not available at walmart; and this segment (the stuff not available off the shelf at physical retailers) is growing more quickly than other segments. Defines the long tail explicitly as ‘everything not available at the largest physical retailers.’
  • Five big takeaways:
    • we confused limited distribution with shared tastes- i.e., we thought that since no one could affordably get variety, no one wanted variety
    • everyone is outside the mainstream in some way- you might be totally mainstream in everything except your music, or your reading habits, or something.
    • one size no longer fits all
    • the best stuff isn’t necessarily at the top
    • Mass market is now a mass of niches

In the chat:

  • Chris Anderson (CA): hits will still hapen; but they have to compete broadly now. Hits can also bypass the hitmaking machine, and become a bottom up hit. (See: OK Go.)
  • word of mouth more powerful than it was- can create new hits (obviously), but less obviously also kills manuactured hits quickly- new data shows that films fall off much more quickly after their first weekend than they used to.
  • more content now- mentions lulu- not sure if there is a causal relationship between long tail and more content; but he thinks lots of publishing is non-economic, so long tail means even economic failures have readers and motivation. (Like this blog.)
  • Lessig (LL): question: read-only v. read-write (RW)- how does longtail relate?
  • CA: RW: wikipedia- long tail gives you an audience, therefore motivation. LL: qualitatively different? non-traditional economy? CA: motivation by non-cash- are attention/ reputation a parallel economy? Maybe. LL calls it second economy (see his blog post today). CA: hitdriven culture was purely economic; tool democratization and spread critical (‘you have all the tools of the record industry on your laptop’). Allows identification of new talent more efficiently.
  • LL: how do you have ‘hybrid economy’ company like Red Hat? Can you make youtube profitable w/out pissing off users by putting ads in there? CA: the audience is now a demanding mob, with ability to go elsewhere, so they have all the leverage. Old media had less competition, so they had leverage over the (presumably bored) audience.
  • LL: how does IP play into this? CA: rights clearance can kill small productions, even in Read only-mode. Obviously in read-write this is a mess. CA: rights are elephant in room of tail. Notes that old stuff is in tail too- if a long tail analysis demonstrates that old stuff has more value than we thought, maybe we should extend copyright? Counters LL, possibly? LL: answer I (Luis) did not quite grok. CA: We need a rights clearinghouse; and registration/expiration of old stuff. (Ideas CA says up front were stolen gratuitously from LL.)


  • CA: New tastemakers are bottomup. Old tastemakers will have to compete with that. (Ed.: I prefer ‘editor’ or ‘tastefinder’ to tastemaker, but CA is an editor in a media empire (Wired) so he would use tastemaker :)
  • Q about network neutrality. CA: doesn’t think net neutrality is practically a problem. LL: networks want to be old-schol gatekeepers, just like the bottlenecks in radio/TV that were supposed to go away.
  • Q: political long tail? CA: There is political scarcity (only so many seats in Congress; winner-take all situation), which leads to consolidation- compare to lack of scarcity in new ‘net world. Tangentially, notes that capitalism, democracy and evolution are the most powerful forces on earth, and yet totally counterintuitive and no one understands them. CA and LL agree that clearly the long tail makes control of speech/opinion harder than it was, even if we’re still in a two party duopoly.
  • Q: Micropayments? CA: Micropayments are already sort of here via clicks/ads (i.e., payment for attention); tinks people/woyld hate to be nickel-dimed for actual cash. LL points out crowding out (doesn’t say it by name), notes that micropayments would make that worse. Gives example of paying wikipedia volunteers per edit- would totally change nature of their relationship to the project.
  • Q: Balkanization- that’s supposed to be a bad thing. CA: moving towards a tribal culture- deep connections w/ small groups replace shallow connections (i love lucy) w/ everyone. CA notes that he thinks that over time we’ll mature and our political blog reading will moderate- more bell curve, less extreme edges. Early balkanization is abberation.

A lot for my poor brain to ponder in one night, even if I’ve heard it all before. I’m putting my money on Lessig’s next book being titled ‘The Second Economy’; I’m guessing that he’s going to extend Benkler’s Peer Production thesis into something more human readable, and explicitly more pragmatic. We’ll see- should be interesting, no matter how you slice it.

Oh, and it was great to meet Michael Dolan. Yay for more real world meeting.