More on The Long Tail: Draconian Legislation May Be Good for the Head, but not the Tail

So with the general review done, let me note one point from The Long Tail that is particularly relevant for copyfighters.  Some argue that draconian copyright legislation, while pushed for primarily by major entertainment companies, is actually about protecting the institution of copyright law as a whole and thus all artists, big and small, hit or niche.  But as Anderson points out:

“Hollywood economics is not the same as Web video economics, and Madonna’s financial expectations are not the same as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s.  But when Congress extends copyright terms for anothe decade at the request of the Disney lobby, they’re playing just to the top of the curve.  What’s good for Disney is not necessarily what’s good for America.  Likewise for legislation restricting technologies that allow digital file copying or video transmissions.  The problem is that the Long Tail doesn’t have a lobby, so all too often only the Short Head is heard.”

In fact, while some artists from the Head and Tail certainly share Hollywood’s sentiments, many of both groups do not.

More broadly, such restrictions are bad for our economy as a whole and tremendously harmful to innovators and consumers as well.  We do have a lobby, but we all have to make our voices heard now.

Review: The Long Tail, now in Book Form

Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail is coming out soon, and he was nice enough to send bloggers review copies.  You’ve probably already read his earlier article, so I won’t spend time summarizing it — in fact, if you’ve read his article and all his blog entries, you probably don’t need to read the book. 

Anyway, here’s a quick take: This may be the most important work on digital media written in the last two years.  That doesn’t mean the book says something wholly novel or that this will be the one book-about-the-future to rule them all.  Rather, Anderson has made a critical contribution by matching empirical evidence with leading edge cases, pointing out how a long-theorized future is now becoming the present while also recognizing how past projections now need to be rethought.

The Internet and digital technologies have made it far easier to produce and access niche content, changing the power held by traditional mass media gatekeepers — that’s a familiar notion by now.  As The New Yorker’s review points out, Alvin Toffler among many others have made similar insights. Anderson acknowledges such thinkers early on and throughout his book.

But many other authors have started from macro-trends and then tried to deduce particular effects on our society. In contrast, Anderson generally builds out from particular cases (e.g., Amazon, Netflix, and Rhapsody) to a theory of how business and culture as a whole will change. More than naked anecdotes, he presents the most in-depth look at these companies’ sales stats yet.  Anderson’s not just talking about some far off future world — he’s describing our world as it exists today and tomorrow.  In that way, he’s closing the loop on earlier futurists’ visions; at the very least, he’s helped put to bed once and for all many myths built around the mass media world and “hit-ism.”

At the same time, Anderson tempers and adjusts the futurists’ visions.  For instance, Anderson is quick to point out that abundant choice isn’t very useful if consumers can’t adequately navigate those choices with “filters” and recommendation tools.  He also notes that it’s critical to aggregate both the “head” and the “tail,” both hits and niches, so that consumers can start navigating from a comfortable place. All this may seem obvious, but go back just a few years to the time of the original MP3.com‘s clutter of niches.  Certainly many of the articles about that site overstated how it would change the game for independent artists.

Most importantly, Anderson doesn’t confuse evidence that niches are becoming more prominent for evidence that mass culture is going to totally die off.

“This shift from the generic to the specific doesn’t mean the end of the existing power structure or a wholesale shift to an all-amateur, laptop culture.  Instead, it’s simply a rebalancing of the equation …. Today, our culture is increasingly a mix of head and tail, hits and niches, institutions and individuals, professionals and amateurs.  Mass culture will not fall, it will simply get less mass. And niche culture will get less obscure.”

This is a key clarification, one many earlier writers struggled to make well and many critics of Anderson seem to gloss over. Sometimes even Anderson isn’t particularly clear — for instance, he repeats that we’re becoming a culture of niches and opens the book by describing a hypothetical typical teenager jumping effortlessly and continuously between mass culture and random niches, but it’s not clear to what role mass culture is playing.  By book’s end I think he makes clear that his analysis and predictions are actually more modest yet no less significant.

Anderson certainly doesn’t avoid some relatively speculative projections.  Because his stats derive from online entertainment content distributors, his predictions about other “long tail” businesses feel weaker.  The New Yorker’s right that the changes we’re seeing in the music industry won’t necessarily fit other businesses.  But by carefully considering these particular leading edge cases, Anderson’s focusing our attention on where to look next, and that’s quite useful.

I could make other quibbles (for instance, he could have made his chapter countering “Paradox of Choice” author Barry Schwartz much stronger, following thinkers like Virginia Postrel), but on the whole Anderson nails it.

Common Sense on HD-DVD v. Blu Ray

Mike Gartenberg blogged some common sense on the HD-DVD v. Blu Ray.  Bottom line: like SACD and DVD Audio, these formats might never catch on and thus the format “war” may be entirely irrelevant. As Michael points out, HD and Blu Ray don’t offer significant added value compared to typical DVDs. With hardly any content available that can make the quality difference noticeable, consumers have no reason to shell out for new hardware.  The heightened DRM restrictions certainly don’t help matters.

A good friend of mine is a wholesale AV dealer, and he offered much the same conclusions. He pointed out that older movies look downright crappy on an HD or Blu Ray player — it makes imperfections far more apparent.  With that in mind, why are “Goodfellas” and “Blazing Saddles” among early releases on HD-DVD?