The Long Tail

December 14, 2007

Dear Rodney,

In 1847, Karl Marx wrote that working for wages would be
superseded by what he called "self-activity." With the economy
humming along, surplus time would free people to study,
privately create and generally improve themselves. He suggested
they might also hunt, fish, or even become critics in their
spare time. This, of course, was to happen under the Communist
system. It didn't. But Marx's prophetic vision continues to
prove him right.

What Marx did not foresee was the remarkable variety of
interests that folks would pursue. Only a few years ago a
person who painted on the heads of pins would be considered an
eccentric oddball. Today's Internet can bring a world of
pinhead painters together to share techniques, one-hair
brushes, magnifying devices, exhibition ploys, pinhead history
and pinhead lore. A pinhead society is formed and a pinhead
president is elected.

Chris Anderson's "The Long Tail," while essentially a book on
economics, talks about these sorts of esoteric pursuits and
issues that will affect the lives and livelihoods of artists.
The long tail is a graph that describes the vast variety of
niches now available beyond the more standard fare. Amazon, for
example, by offering more than 800,000 CD titles as compared
with the average Wal-Mart at 4500, is an example of the retail
long tail in action. Without "the tyranny of the shelf," and
with its ability to tolerate a great deal of what they call
"noise," Amazon offers stuff that is otherwise hard to find.
Niches rule. We've put long tail graphs and their implications
at the top of the current clickback. See URL below.

With the remarkable democratization of human activity, older
attitudes of scarcity may be waning. The bonanza of choice is
affecting the ways people buy art. The "Star system" may be on
its way out. Not only will people make art for their own
consumption and those of their friends, but they will buy
locally and value individuality and connectivity rather than
name. "Young people today," says media mogul Rupert Murdoch,
"don't want to be told what's good and bad, they want control
over their media, instead of being controlled by it." The
growing presence of large Internet art sites where art is
arranged by genre and niche is part of this phenomenon. "Are
you looking for a pinhead landscape or a pinhead portrait?"

Best regards,

Robert

PS: "Noise can also be a huge problem in the long tail market.
Indeed, if left unchecked, noise--random content or products of
poor quality--can kill a market. Too much noise and people
don't buy." (Chris Anderson)

Esoterica: Not everyone sees the long tail as a good thing.
"Sturgeon's Law," named after science fiction writer Theodore
Sturgeon, states, "Ninety percent of everything is crud."
Galleries, museums and even websites are in the business of
filtering out what they consider to be crud. Part of our job as
professional creators is to filter our own efforts. By the way,
are standards rising? Maybe the democratization of art can only
go so far.