Long Tail Theory Disproved in the End

Chris Anderson’s Long Tail (Random House, 2006) made a greater impact than most airport-business-books with cool taglines. It suggested that the internet turned the rules of supply and demand upside down, with digital there is no cost for storage and stock kept can be unlimited. Anderson’s hypothesis is that this would create “unlimited demand”, that each item will be purchased (or downloaded, accessed, clicked-on, whatever) at least once. To some extent, the theory was a case of “faith economics”, as only long tail phenomena had been observed to a limited extent around the time Anderson’s book was published. Now, seven years later, we have the evidence, however. Turns out the Long Tail-theory does not hold. It may have looked like the tail end of the long curve was infinite, but given enough supply it actually does end. Let’s take a look at a few examples of this.

Earlier this autumn, music streaming service Spotify celebrated its fifth birthday and released some data. One fact was particularly interesting in this context: out of the 20 million (or so) songs available on the service, 20% have never been played. Not a single time. Sure, Chris Anderson might argue that five years is not enough, but that would lead to the conclusion that with his theory only works with an infinite time span – hardly the case in real life and surely not to base economic assessments on. Spotify, by the way, is working to speed things up by introducing a function that lets users listen to random unplayed songs. The jury is still out on whether that is long tail dogmatism or an honest attempt to find hidden gems in the catalogue.

Another example is Amazon’s literature self-publishing service Kindle Direct Publishing which lets “publish once and reach readers worldwide”. “Potentially” is the missing word in that sentence: while no data has been made available, you only have to look to the user forums to find self-publishers scratching their heads wondering why their books get zero downloads, in spite of the fact that they are free.

The third case in point is the Iphone Appstore, where hundreds of apps are added daily. In the early days, an app typically cost one US-dollar (in some cases more), but these days with more than one million apps available and almost thousand added new every day free is the normal price (which coincidentally was the title of Anderson’s subsequent book). Some sources suggest that two thirds of apps have never been downloaded.

It seems the long tail grew too long in the end. Even online, the old laws of supply and demand still apply. With endless choice came not unlimited demand, but zero value. The new game is making money from free, but that’s a different topic altogether.

The Long Tail: http://www.longtail.com/about.html

Spotify data: http://news.spotify.com/us/2013/10/07/the-spotify-story-so-far/

Kindle Direct Publishing: https://kdp.amazon.com/kdp/self-publishing/signin

Two thirds of apps never downloaded: http://www.ijailbreak.com/applications/over-400000-apps-in-apple-app-store-have-zero-downloads/

Free – the book: http://www.longtail.com/the_long_tail/2009/07/free-for-free-first-ebook-and-audiobook-versions-released.html