December 23, 2009

Surviving on the Long Tail

For those of you who don’t know ~ and as I’ve recently learned ~ the long tail is the concept of selling a large of number of singular items (as opposed to large numbers of mass-produced items) in small quantities. It comes from a 2004 Wired magazine article by Chris Anderson and then an influential book (which I haven’t read), The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.

I think the term originates in statistics (or as we unoriginally called them in college, “sadistics”) where things occur along a bell curve, or “normal distribution.” In other words, for most people, things occur in about the same way, or at the center of the bell curve, and if what happens to you is unusual, it’s out at the ends or tails of the bell curve. On average, people are born about the same weight at about the same time in gestation. They get married at about the same time, have about the same number of kids at about the same time, and die at about the same age. “At about the same time” is the peak of the bell curve. Consequently, things are more likely to happen, be more probable, at the center of the bell curve, rather than at the ends.

Same with selling things. Something, a widget, is created and then begins to be sold. The bell curve starts with zero sold and then slowly rises. The widget gets more and more popular, and its sales peaks (tops the bell curve). Then it falls out of fashion and sales decrease, until there are virtually no sales. “The Long Tail” refers to when the tail extends ~ in other words, small numbers of items are just popular enough to continue to be sold.

(I’m explaining this to myself as I go along.)

How does this apply to art, you might ask? I came across (via Rumpus) the idea of the artist staying true to his or her principles and making just enough money to survive by selling small amounts of his or her work “on the long tail.” Writer and Technium blogger Kevin Kelly calls it 1000 True Fans here and here, and Robert Rich, sonic artist, has lived it.

Rich says, “The sort of artist who survives at the long tail is the sort who would be happy doing nothing else, who willingly sacrifices security and comfort for the chance to communicate something meaningful, hoping to catch the attention of those few in the world who seek what they also find meaningful. It's a somewhat solitary existence, a bit like a lighthouse keeper throwing a beam out into the darkness, in faith that this action might help someone unseen.”

The rise of the internet both helps and hinders artists. It’s easier for fans to have access to an artist’s work (i.e., publicity and direct sales), but then again it’s easier for fans to have access to an artist’s work (download copies without the artist making a dime).

I would think, to live this way, it would help to approach not just the work but also the selling creatively, and it would help to be a generalist and to know how to do a lot of different things (as Rich says). Bartering would be good. A tolerance with insecurity and change would be good.

Rich’s final word is not too cheery. He says, “In reality the life of a ‘microcelebrity’ resembles more the fate of Sisyphus, whose boulder rolls back down the mountain every time he reaches the summit.” Finally, “Starving artists will probably remain starving, although perhaps with new tools to dig themselves a humble shelter; and as in the past, some of these artists will use those tools to build sand castles or works of great art.”

The unresolvable perennial question. I am given hope by the power of the internet and the fact (via Cory Doctorow) that the economy of the internet is not one of scarcity and competition (i.e., each item you buy takes it out of the system) but of abundance and replication (each item you buy creates a new copy of that item, e.g., print-on-demand and itunes). The paradigm is shifting.

What I’m Reading Today: Actually, just web-surfing and watching a bit of Life (Part 2) on PBS. Very interesting show.

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