This was a dominant refrain in the aughts; commentators mourned the disappearance of small record stores, big bookstores, broadly popular television programs. Chris Anderson, who was then the editor of Wired, had a more optimistic view: in 2006, he published “The Long Tail,” which celebrated the coming demise of “the hit-driven mindset” and the growing importance of online distribution. Using Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes, you could browse what Anderson called “the infinite aisle,” where vast inventories and smart suggestion software made it easy to shun blockbusters and follow your own passions, no matter how obscure. He argued that retailers, too, had been freed from the tyranny of the hit. Technology made it possible for businesses to profit by “selling less of more,” catering to an explosion of niche markets that, taken together, rivalled the size of the mainstream. Consumers were travelling down the demand curve, away from the head, where the most popular products lived, and out onto the tail, home of the miscellany, which was growing longer (as variety increased) and fatter (as sales of non-hits increased). The new popular culture would be more interesting and more efficient, catering to the ever more diverse tastes of a general public that was outgrowing its reliance on old-fashioned hit men...
...He also hailed a researcher named Anita Elberse, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, whose work on Netflix had been “very helpful.” Now Elberse has published “Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment” (Henry Holt), which is a response to Anderson’s long-tail theory, and in many ways a refutation of it.
So what happened?
One of her most persuasive subjects is Schmidt, who revealed himself to be a long-tail apostate in 2008, scarcely two years after Anderson’s book was published. “Although the tail is very interesting, and we enable it, the vast majority of the revenue remains in the head,” he said. “In fact, it’s probable that the Internet will lead to larger blockbusters, more concentration of brands.” Anderson’s book often read like a manifesto, cheering for the triumph of the underdogs while also predicting it. Elberse wants to reassure her readers that a hit—“The Avengers,” an N.F.L. game, a Taylor Swift album—still draws a crowd, showering profit on the corporations behind it. Her case studies are meant to demonstrate that popular culture remains big business, and that, in an increasingly complicated and unpredictable cultural marketplace, hits are more dominant than ever. The story she tells about the entertainment business resonates with a bigger story that people often tell about America, where Elberse sees “a winner-take-all dynamic” increasing the distance between the most economically productive citizens and everyone else. More efficient markets aren’t necessarily more diverse or more egalitarian, and perhaps there’s no reason that music or film or books should be immune from the forces of consolidation. Anderson assumed that consumers, once freed from the limitations of brick-and-mortar retail, would scatter into countless niches. In Elberse’s view, we would rather lump than split, and new technology—amplified by canny deal-making—is making us lumpier.
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