I wrote about the Long Tail in this column some months ago, so I feel it is my duty to inform you that it no longer exists. I discovered this remarkable fact last week, when dozing off while trying to look intelligent as part of a panel of digital music entrepreneurs. The panel was there mostly to listen – albeit on stage – to a predictable report on the plight of the music industry, commissioned by a number of acronymic organizations, behind which, I can only assume, hid the industry itself.
Having just flown back from MIPTV, my mind was in a long tail of its own, trailing at half pace. A TV market can be very numbing to one’s soul. It is the closest one can get to that collective consciousness that programs our home entertainment, which, in turn, programs our culture. And when you get so close to it, you might get scared — for the machine, which from afar seems to operate under some set of cultural rules, becomes, in close up, an example of free market economy at its most chaotic and democratic best – or should I say worst.
As in any market, the best marketing effort wins: not exactly the best program, for who has time for watching programs – but the best sales pitch, the best ad placement or the best PR agent. Television buyers are not trained to look for programs of lasting cultural value, or even the merit of taste. Theirs is the gruelling task of spinning through three days of back-to-back 30min meetings, ducking from any need for independent judgement, acquiring what they already know and rejecting anything that does not fit the mould. Out of this Palais-sized grinder comes the mash that we know as TV programming, nowadays extended by various online efforts of similar nature.
So, as I sat on the stage of Cite de la Musique, half-listening to a researcher paint a depressing picture of slumping music sales, I thought how similar music and TV industry are. Always looking for the magic formula. Always scared of change… Suddenly, in passing, the presenter mentioned that his team found no trace of the Long Tail while looking at music sales. “Well, maybe in classical music you see some long tail effect?” – he turned to an industry player who had recently opened a classical music boutique. Oh no, came a quick response, even in classical music we really just sell the blockbusters, the best-known names. I could hear the music execs in the audience let out a long sigh of relief, while the presenter repeated: yes, in fact, there is no such thing as the Long Tail.
I saw clearly then what I just sensed in Cannes over 3 previous days: as far as the industry is concerned, the Long Tail is dead — buried next to other recently hot concepts, squashed by the new media darlings: Second Life, Joost and Babelgum.
I first encountered the Long Tail long before Chris Andersen coined the term. I glimpsed it through the story of my film mentor, who spent his life filming and getting to know the likes of Hemingway, Louise Brooks, Truman Capote and the Kennedys. In the early 70s his documentary film crew lost its contract with the major US TV broadcaster because “their films did not appeal to an audience of tens of millions”. “Did Tolstoy’s books appealed to tens of millions?” lamented my teacher, when I met him, already in his 80s, brandishing a brand new digital camera and making movies the way he always did – unscripted, involved, masterful documentaries about people and places that caught his refined eye. His was not an “artistic” endeavour – not an art for arts sake, which abhors the word “commercial”. He simply produced meaningful, truthful work, which always found a following among tens of thousands of film lovers. In a Long Tail universe, his films would have found just the right measure of interest – perhaps not enough to make him millions, but certainly adequate for supporting a small digital camera crew, so that they keep producing an antidote to reality TV and scripted “documentaries”. When I talk of the “intelligent” TV of the future, I think of my teacher.
Back on the panel, I had an impulse to interrupt the presenter. Could it be that top sales in classical records are linked to what the store actually promotes? Could it be that you are clipping the Long Tail, when putting it through the eye of a 20/80 needle? Are you sure you research is not biased but what the industry tells you? But then I remembered MIP and knew there was no use. One does not argue with the media industry. Let’s bury the Long Tail and then wait for it to come back, as another buzzword. For as long as we believe our culture has a future, we’ll have to believe that diversity of taste shall one day prevail over the lowest common denominator.