July 5th, 2020

The failure of the long tail

On multiple occasions in the past, I've written about the theory of "the long tail", an idea popularized by Chris Anderson in his book of the same title. Briefly, the gist of this idea is that the Internet has enabled a huge market of relatively unpopular items to be sold; whereas pre-Internet companies tended to focus on selling just a few items in large quantities, the "long tail" represents "tail-end" products among which each individual product is not bought or sold in large quantities, but where such a huge array of niche products for niche consumers abounds that there's a whole new market opening up where people with specialized interests can buy products which they would likely have never been able to buy in the pre-Internet era.

About four years ago, I described this phenomenon as "The death of the hit", reflecting the popular notion that big-name music groups which sell millions of albums would give way to smaller-time musicians who don't sell millions of albums each, but are given a new opportunity to flourish because of the artistic and creative diversity opened up by the Internet. That's the potential benefit of the long tail: a newfound variety in mass media which wouldn't have been possible without the Internet. In the blog post which I wrote back then, I sounded a cautionary note from this perspective, because while it's true that small, independent musicians can now receive global exposure due to the Internet, the music business is still a business, and the copycat effect tends to prevail in it: If one thing becomes popular, a huge array of imitators suddenly appears, people hoping to cash in the popularity of a current trend. So rather than enabling a new generation of unprecedented diversity in music, the long tail may simply enable unprecedented numbers of me-too artists simply hoping to catch whatever is selling right now.

That's the possible risk of the long tail from the artistic perspective. It has recently become apparent to me, however, that the long tail is also problematic from a financial and economic perspective. People who tout the long tail see it as an economic equalizer: Instead of a few really huge, big-name bands dominating music sales, we're promised a future in which lesser-known artists can also sell their music to more people than they could before. But how much are small-time, independent artists actually making from sales that have been enabled by the Internet?

In 2013, Apple trumpeted that iTunes had sold 25 billion songs--a lot of songs, to be sure. At that time, it had a catalog of about 26 million songs, which means that on average, each song on iTunes had been sold about 962 times. As of this writing, iTunes has a library of about 60 million songs, but it's probably reasonable to assume that average sales per song are somewhere in the same ballpark, because there are also more songs available in the library than there were back then. A song on iTunes usually costs 99 cents, and while you might be tempted to make the math easier by calling it a dollar, remember that not all of that money goes to the artist: Generally, Apple collects a 30% commission on iTunes sales, meaning that only about 70 cents of each sale go to the artist. That means that in 2013, the average amount an artist earned per song released on iTunes was 962 sales * 70 cents = $673.40, which is certainly not bad, but not nearly enough to make a living on, especially since this is not what the artists were making monthly, but rather the total intake over the entire time period that iTunes had existed, which at that point was 12 years since iTunes launched in 2001. $673.40 in 12 years is an average of less than $5 a month. And remember, that's an average; some artists are still way more popular than others, meaning there are some artists who were earning much less than this. I consider it likely that despite iTunes' 60-million-song library, there are probably many songs which have not sold even a single copy, and I feel quite certain that there are a great many songs in the library which have been bought less than 10 times in iTunes' history.

What we see here is a sort of fundamental failing of the long tail in terms of is economic viability to artists and producers: Yes, the Internet opens up a new market to people which had been previously closed to them, but that market has been opened up to all people, in all places of the world, and that's a lot of people. One of the problems with a very large global population is how big numbers become when they're multiplied by all those people: Climate change is a serious problem partly because even if each individual person's economic footprint is small, almost any practical number--even a very small one--multiplied by the current estimated global population of 7.8 billion people becomes a very large number. And math works in reverse, too: Any number multiplied by 7.8 billion tends to become really big, but any number divided by 7.8 billion tends to become really small. Any resource available to people, even a seemingly plentiful one, becomes scarce if it is to be equally divided among 7.8 billion.

The long tail was once seen as an economic equalizer because it gave everyone a chance, but the thing is, if you give everyone a chance, few people are going to emerge successful, because they're all competing against each other. As it turns out, what the long tail has done is repeated the same pattern we saw before: There is a huge array of starving, unknown artists who lack exposure or income, and a tiny group of very popular artists whose fame is replicated by mass media. And who's the big winner? Why, the big winners are, of course, the services which distribute that media to the people; distributors like Apple (music sales), YouTube (video views), and Amazon (sales of nearly every consumer product imaginable) are the ones making the big bucks from all these sales. The actual artists are lucky if they can get the average amount of $5 a month, because that number, as a mathematical average, is skewed upward by big-name artists who make much more than that.

So the long tail just ends up perpetuating what we saw before: Unequal distribution on a mass scale, with the big winners being only the sellers, who ironically are the people who did the very least: The distributors didn't create the music, write the books, or film the videos, all they did is resell other people's work. This recalls an article I wrote earlier this year noting that "Trade benefits the people who work in trade enormously, but traders are the people who do the least work, because they do nothing more than take other people's work and sell it". The long tail does not resolve this pattern, but simply repeats it.

This pattern also reflects the repeatedly-seen consequences of economic communism, in which wealth is forcibly redistributed to the masses. The problem with communism is that there are a lot of people, and if you really evenly distribute everything to everyone, the results are not that everyone becomes rich, but rather that everyone becomes poor, because you're adding so little money to each person's actual net worth that inflation quickly eats up the difference; communism does not benefit the people at the bottom, all it does is destroy the people who have even slightly more than the poverty baseline. It ruins even people's dreams of attaining a better life, because there is no better life to be had. Its only victory is its gratification of people's sour-grapes jealousy, gleefully proclaiming: "There! Now everybody has nothing! Now we are happy!" What is astonishing about human nature is how content people are with poverty as long as everyone is poor: they will howl and complain ceaselessly if anyone has anything they do not have, but if everyone is terribly poor, they are happy and satisfied with this state.

To provide the example of a popular target: As I write this, Jeff Bezos is listed as the richest person in the world, with a net worth of 113 billion U.S. dollars. For any one single person, that's a lot of money, but again, the current global population is estimated to be about 7.8 billion people. If Bezos' money were divided equally among all those people, each person would end up with less than $15, not enough to feed even a frugal person for a week. What benefit does the public really gain from attacks on Bezos or demands that his money be redistributed? Each person would get such a small amount of money that it would be meaningless, not even worth the time and trouble it would take to get that money. All it would do is gratify people's petty jealousy. No, Bezos may not have "earned" that level of money, he may not "deserve" it, but what does it benefit us to hurl bitter accusations against him? Hate damages everyone; people who hate the wealthy also end up hurting themselves because they fill themselves with a lot of pointless negative emotions that bring nothing.

This is why I tend to discourage anger and jealousy towards the rich: Yes, each individual member of the elite may have more money than you or I, but if someone were to take all their money and distribute it among the masses, it would come out to such a pittance that it wouldn't be worth the effort. If some person had enough money to make every person on Earth a millionaire, that would be different, but to have that much money, someone would need $1,000,000 times 7.8 billion people = 7.8 quadrillion dollars, which is about 100 times the estimated amount of all the money in the entire world. There literally isn't enough money in the whole entire world to make everyone rich. So let the damned rich people have their money; it wouldn't be enough for the rest of us anyway.

The long tail was and is a nice idea. At the very least, it's an interesting reflection of how marketing, shopping, and distribution are changed by the Internet. But it hasn't really materially changed the world very much; at the end of the day, there are still too many people in the world competing for too few resources, and only a few winners. This is not a problem which can be fixed through political or economic change; it can only be changed by reducing the number of people. The number-one problem in the world is overpopulation, by far the biggest contributing factor to nearly every other major problem which the world faces today, and that's something you can't fix through a communications network. The Internet is pretty cool, but as the decades go by, it's becoming apparent that the Internet has changed the world less than people thought it would. The more things change, the more they stay the same.