Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 27th, 2015

The long tail of everything

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The long tail

Yesterday, I noted that we’re living in a golden age for podcasting, and it isn’t hard to see why. If there’s a sweet spot for production and distribution, we’re in it right now: with the available software and recording tools, it’s easier than ever to put together a podcast at minimal cost, and just about every potential listener owns a laptop or mobile device capable of streaming this kind of content. Many of us are more likely to spend an hour listening to a show online than reading an article that takes the same amount of time to finish, perhaps because we can do it while driving or washing the dishes, or perhaps because the ratio of effort to entertainment seems more attractive. And the podcasts themselves—at least the ones that break through to draw a large audience—are better than ever. No matter what your interests are, there’s probably a show just for you, whether it’s a retrospective commentary on every episode of The X-Files or interviews with obscure supporting actors or advice on your career in customer support. And if you can’t find the podcast of your dreams, there’s nothing stopping you from jumping in and making it yourself.

Of course, in reality, the universe of podcasting looks like most other forms of creative expression: a long tail with a few big blockbusters at one end and thousands of niche offerings at the other. Serial may rack up five million downloads on iTunes, but it’s the outlier of outliers, and efforts by media companies to create “the next Serial” have about as much a chance of succeeding as the looming attempt by movie studios to make the next American Sniper. Both are going to inspire a lot of imitators, but few, if any, are likely to recapture the intangible qualities that made either such a success. In the meantime, for most podcasters, the medium doesn’t make for a viable day job—which only means that it’s like every other medium ever. Its relative novelty and low barriers to entry make it alluring in the same way that blogging or self-publishing once were, but it doesn’t make doing it for a living any easier. It simply creates another long tail parallel to, or embedded within, the traditional one, with a handful of breakout hits holding out the promise of success for the rest. Getting in on the rightmost side of the curve has never been simpler, but making it to the left is as hard as ever.

The author's library, temporarily unshelved

This is part of the reason why I’ve never been attracted to self-publishing, which looks at first like a way of circumventing the gatekeepers who are keeping your book out of stores, but really only pushes the same set of challenges a little further down the line. And the long tail is as close to a constant as we’ll ever see in any creative field, no matter how the marketplace changes. (Or, to put it another way, distribution won’t change the distribution.) It exists for the same reason crack dealers are willing to work for less than minimum wage: lured in by the promise of outsized success or recognition, people will spend years slaving away in community theater or writing short stories for nothing, when a job that offered less enticing rewards would have lost their interest long ago. Going in, we’re all irrational optimists, and we’ll always be more likely to compare ourselves to the few famous names we recognize while ignoring the invisible tail end. On the individual level, it’s a flaw of reasoning, but it’s also essential for keeping the whole enterprise alive. Without that subterranean world of aspiring artists who are basically paying for the privilege of doing the work they love, nothing big would ever emerge.

And each part of the curve depends on every other. It’s often been said that blockbusters are what make the rest possible, whether it’s Buzzfeed financing serious journalism with listicles about cats or The Hunger Games enabling Lionsgate to release the twenty smaller movies it distributes each year. And it’s equally hard to imagine anyone trying to make art for a living without the psychological incentive that the outliers provide. Yet the long tail is also what props up the success stories, and not just for companies, like Amazon, that bake it into their business models. On a cultural level, art is a matter of statistics because its underlying factors are so unpredictable: a masterpiece or great popular entertainment is so unlikely to emerge out of pure calculation that we have no choice but to entrust it to chance and large numbers. The odds of a given work of art breaking out are so low that our best bet is to increase the pool of candidates, even if any individual player operates at a net loss. That may not be much consolation to the writer or podcaster whose sphere of concern is limited to his or her life. But that’s a long tale of its own.

Written by nevalalee

January 27, 2015 at 10:32 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 27, 2015 at 7:30 am

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