You are, of course, familiar with the Long Tail principle – Chris Anderson’s now famous idea that attempts to explain what happens to hits and niche products when things like the scarcity of retail shelf space go out the window thanks to the internet.

There was an extremely good and important article, which was then developed into a fairly good book (which kind of amounted to the article with a bit more colouring-in and some more examples), and has continued as a very interesting blog.

In short: as more products become available (thanks to the internet), more people check out what’s going on down the shallow end of the curve – the tail. The tail lengthens and expands.

But what most people seem to have missed is the fact that this is not some announcement of a brave new world for the independent niche musician. In fact, the extent to which this has been misunderstood virtually amounts to some sort of mass self-deception based solely on a wildly creative interpretation of the text and a bucketload of wishful thinking.

There are two categories of helpful that the Long Tail principle can be to the independent artist: marginally helpful, and freakishly helpful. The first is extremely common. The latter is extremely rare.

To understand these two scenarios, it’s important to understand what the Long Tail is and is not.

The Long Tail is… an economic principle that reveals a strategy that can be used by creative businesses: sell less of more. That is to say, release a large amount of things that sell in small quantities. To date (and much to everyone’s surprise) the major record labels have grasped this far more quickly than the independents.

To release as many titles by as many artists as possible is the lesson that independent businesses can draw from the Long Tail. Reissues, rarities, outtakes, concert recordings, deleted recordings… as many things as you can find. Because the fixed and marginal costs of getting things up for sale online are so low, it only takes a few sales of each item to make it worth the effort.

The Long Tail is not… the death of the hit. While the niche market expands because the availability of products is greater and greater – to the extent that the sum economic value of all non-hits combined is greater than the sum economic value of all hits combined – that doesn’t mean that the number of hits decreases, or that Britney Spears goes away.

The Long Tail raises this very simple observation about reduced-friction release and near-zero costs when you no longer have to manufacture 1000 CDs to begin selling. It doesn’t say that therefore you will sell 1000 copies without having any expenses.

Critiques of the Long Tail, based on evidence of a growing market for hit products, simply misunderstand The Long Tail.

Marginal helpfulness
To the independent artist, then, it’s helpful that the Long Tail phenomenon exists because it means that if there’s a chance to sell a few copies of your work, there are no longer any barriers in your way to stop you selling those few copies. That won’t make you a millionaire, but it’s better than nothing.

The Long Tail wasn’t promising you stardom, or even a decent wage.

Collectively, those little bits could be added together so that some entrepreneurial sort who wanted to release an awful lot of those small sellers could take a tiny margin, which could be economically significant over hundreds or even thousands of releases.

Freakish helpfulness
Sometimes when you make something available, people like it out of proportion to your expectations. Removing the barrier to entry (ie: no longer having to justify pressing 1000 CDs in order to ‘release’) means that you can take a punt with much lower risk – and sometimes those risks pay off.

And the great thing about the internet is that something that would not have even seen the light of day under different circumstances can become a runaway success simply because people like it, talk about it and send it to their friends.

This doesn’t happen often, and everything has to be in pretty much perfect alignment in order for that to work – but it does happen. And what that does is to take something that would have been part of the long tail of low sale items, and catapult it up to the realm of the hit. And that’s pretty cool.

So – is the Long Tail good for musicians? A little bit. Not really. Occasionally it’s great, but on the whole, it’s hardly the panacea for the struggling artist a lot of people were pretending it was (or getting cross that it wasn’t).

Is it good for the independent music sector? Absolutely – if the independent music sector would actually grasp the concept and use it, then it would be enormously beneficial.

So far, I haven’t really seen that happen.