With great anticipation, I pre-ordered Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail two months ago. I received it last week and have read it through fairly quickly. I enjoyed the book as it was much more of a social commentary than a business manual. I like this approach, as the long tail is not a “how-to”, but a “because why”. The difference is vast between those, as it is the difference between the understanding the market forces or being subject to them.
In the opening chapters of the book I had many shared experiences, growing up in the 80’s and being a fan of the British New Wave and Punk music that crept into the top 40, but wasn’t the “hit” music. Trying to find the “good music” was next to impossible unless you were able to go to a large city and find some seedy record store that was in tune enough to carry some of the hard-to-find music, like Clash and Depeche Mode imports.

I contrast that with my five-year old, who cannot grasp the concept that I cannot replay a song that we hear on the radio. Her world is CD’s and MP3 players where she can replay songs immediately (over, and over, and over). Radio is a foreign concept, as she only hears it in the car and that only once in a while.

The only hesitation to fully agree with Chris is his analysis of why radio has lost listeners. His proposition that market forces such as the growth of ClearChannel, increased FCC regulation, the iPod, Cell Phones, and the 1996 Telecom Act, all contributed to bland radio. My contention is that radio was bland before all of those things came into play. I attribute the decline of radio to three factors; first, Chris’ own explanation that radio has to play the “head” hit songs to appeal to the broadest of market segments, which naturally leaves out the niche markets. Really, who doesn’t channel surf when ads or songs you don’t like come on the radio?

Second, the accessibility of MP3 player FM broadcast ability, personal CD’s, XM radio in the car makes regular radio a weak alternative. Finally, in the home and in the workplace; the availability of cable and internet radio on demand allows hundreds of niches and all are available commercial-free. Add to that the added benefit of burning an entire CD collection to a computer for your own digital library of music. All of these factors make regular commercial radio seem out of touch and agonizing to endure in comparison.

Fans of the book may also enjoy The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman and Entertaining Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. Both books explore the social circumstances leading to disenchantment with mass media and the resultant globalization of production tools. Both of which lead to consumer-generated news and entertainment markets as a reaction.

Anderson breaks down the phenomenon of The Long Tail in a few ways, the most humorous was the comment that the “Long Tail is full of crap.” Which is true – the Long Tail is mostly things we don’t need or want, but someone does. The tail is everything in the world.

The tail has two important factors that make it the market force that it is today and will grow to be in the future. First, access an extensive amount of products. Past and present songs, books, movies. However, not just limited to entertainment media, we see the long tail in wine, beer, T-shirts, clothing, coffee, news, Pez dispensers, and so on. The internet has given us unprecedented ability to access products never before available so quickly and easily.

Second to access, but just as critical – is being able to filter results, or search, to find what you want. Knowing that all of your favorite niche music is available is useless unless you can find it. This is where search has become so huge for the long tail. Search, filtering and refining results are all tools to drill down to specific parts of the long tail. Add to this social media recommendations, tagging, social bookmarking, blogs, and online communities dedicated to enabling us to find those niches or niches that may interest us as well.

All of these factors combine to bring us to an amazing time in our history. I think The Long Tail as a phenomenon will only increase as products and the ability to find them become more available.