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Why the Long Tail Isn’t Long Enough

October 7, 2008

Sometimes, as one bounces around the Web, one comes across something particularly interesting and/or surprising and/or pleasing. (Something that isn’t even being hyped on another blog!)

Just such a serendipitous event occurred on Sunday, when I got bored with the Patriots game. I came across this video by alt-rock-pop mainstays The Lemonheads that I didn’t know existed:


“Big Gay Heart” was a single off The Lemonheads’ 1993 album Come On Feel The Lemonheads, and is included on The Lemonheads’ 2007 Best Of compilation. But is it available on iTunes? Nope. iTunes doesn’t feature Come On at all, and only carries a “partial album” of the Best Of. A partiality which, annoyingly enough, disincludes “Big Gay Heart.”

Chris Anderson’s “long tail” theory of business holds that with low enough storage and distribution costs, selling the bottom 80% of demanded goods will make more profit than selling the mega-selling top 20%. That is, given Apple’s low low cost of storing and distributing songs via iTunes, they can make more profit by providing access to songs like “Big Gay Heart” (which I would buy) than they will by selling Britney Spears’ latest disc (which I will not buy).

Which would be lovely, and I’m sure Apple would love to sell me my choice of Lemonheads songs, but licensing and distribution deals with the record companies makes that impossible.

But, of course, while the distribution of long-tail products is hampered by a short-tail marketing mentality, the desire for long-tail products is a big deal. And I think this disjunction us a major contributor to music and video “piracy” (yarr!). How many people try to find music on iTunes and when that fails, fire up LimeWire or head to Pirate’s Bay? I’m guessing quite a few.

Of course, one could argue that people who download the song for free rather than trying to track down a physical copy of the disc are simply spoiled by instant push-button convenience and gratification. But that expectation of instant gratification is now a part of the market, probably a big part. And record companies should be doing everything they can to facilitate legal ways to satisfy that expectation.

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