Supernova ’05: Chris Anderson on the Long Tail…

06/29/2005

Quick apologies – my notes and write up of Supernova have been thrown out of whack by various unforeseeable pressures. I’m going to try and get through them very quickly now. This session was held last Tuesday at 11am.

It’s getting like it wouldn’t be a conference without a long tail somewhere in evidence and Supernova didn’t disappoint. The third main act of the first day of the conference proper finds us watching Chris Anderson working through his thesis in public again. He clearly knows his schtick pretty well by now, and that he knows how to present it. But this shouldn’t really be a shock – it’s been nine months since his first article on the subject appeared in Wired (The Long Tail) and he’s taken his core ideas and extended them across a number of conference appearances since then. I myself have had the pleasure to read the article and see him talk around it at least twice.

Of course, familiarity breeds contempt, and while it’s clear that he’s not standing still and that the thoughts are developing, the conference backchannel was not positive about the whole enterprise. The idea already seems dangerously close to over-exposure in the geek community – perhaps because of the weblog of the same name and the planned book on the subject that’s supposed to emerge from it. Apparently it’s now also become a fairly standard piece of rhetoric for people working their way around venture capitalists. No presentation, it seems, would be complete without it.

None of which is Anderson’s fault of course. For the few of you who aren’t familiar with the idea (and I suppose I have to believe that there are a few of you left) in a nutshell it is that – under certain new democratised and superfluid economic circumstances – there can be as much value (normally financial) in the enormous amount of unpopular, niche products as there is in the big ‘hits’. If you can:

  • Democratise the tools of production
  • Minimise the transaction costs of consumption
  • (and) Connect consumers to amplify word of mouth

… then you can turn a market where it’s only economically viable to sell things you know are going to be popular into one where costs are so low and consumers are so connected that the true revenue comes in the millions of people buying products that almost no one else is interested in. If you’re engaged but still confused at this stage, I suggest you read the article itself. The link again is: The Long Tail.

I’m not going to go into much more detail about the whole talk, but there was one particular area (or set of observations) that he made about TV and radio distribution that I should cover. He observed that television was the industry that was going to be most strongly affected by move to a long-tail philosophy because it was the industry with the highest ratio of produced content versus available content. That is to say – an enormous amount of television programming has been produced over the last sixty years or so, but at any given time an almost trivial percentage of that is available for people to consume. The desire of individuals to open up that back catalogue – he argued – was inevitably going to be completely industry transformative. This all seems perfectly reasonable to me.

In a previous session the day before (which unfortunately I’d missed) he talked in much more detail about the implications for radio along with Dave Goldberg (VP Music at Yahoo!), Jeremy Allaire (CEO of Brightcove) and David Hornik (August Capital). I got a by-the-blows account of the whole thing as it was happening from Nat Torkington which he subsequently wrote up for on the O’Reilly Radar weblog: Supernova 2005: Long Tail Panel. There was a particularly interesting summary of some of David Goldberg’s comments which I’ve quoted below:

Goldberg: They’re closing one rock radio station per week. Audiences for rock couldn’t get what they wanted from rock radio, now getting it from other places. Yahoo has a thesis: music will disappear from terrestrial radio within ten years. Don’t know implications for preferences, but will change way artists get invested in and marketed. Major record labels and movie studios have controlled distribution. When you take away that distribution, they have to be good at either marketing or investing. Right now they’re good at neither. All these things will change at the same time.

I can really recommend that anyone interested in the future of music and programming in general reads the rest of that summary. It’s extraordinarily interesting. But Beyond that, there’s very little for me to explore here in particular depth that my full rough notes won’t articulate more effectively. So I’ll move on…