Diamond touch: Rihanna is in the tiny group of artists who sell tunes by the million. Photo: Patrick McMullan Co/Rex
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The long tail cut short: the economics of blockbuster capitalism

This story of economics is not completely convincing, but a credible and interesting one: that big companies have tamed the market anarchy of the internet.
Blockbusters: Why Big Hits – and Big Risks – Are the Future of the Entertainment Business 
Anita Elberse
Faber & Faber, 256pp, £14.99
 
In 2006, when global optimism about the new broadband-based, interactive Web 2.0 was at its height, Chris Anderson, then the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, published The Long Tail. It was a lesson in the new world order for old companies. Eric Schmidt of Google announced that Anderson’s ideas had influenced his company’s strategic thinking “in a profound way”.

The argument was that the internet had made it easier for consumers to buy specialised products. As they pursued their niche interests, the market would fragment. Customers would turn away from the big hits favoured by conventional retailers and create a sales chart with a long, fat and potentially very profitable tail. The Long Tail offered today’s geeks their own version of that slogan of the 1960s, “Stick it to the man.” It was a new way of breaking the power of the big corporations.

And it failed. Anita Elberse’s Blockbusters is the formal announcement of the death of The Long Tail’s premise. In its place is the old chart showing a few big hits and a million misses, a world dominated by the might not of people, but of money. “All in all,” she writes, “although advances in digital technologies may at first blush seem to have a ‘democratising’ influence, in reality they tend to have the opposite effect: they foster concentration and a winner-takes-all dynamic.” So much for sticking it to the man. As Elberse is a professor at Harvard Business School, we can take it that this was never on her agenda. That does not, however, compromise the truth of what she argues and the research that has gone into making the case.

She starts in 1999, when Alan Horn, the then president of Warner Brothers, decided to aim for four or five “tent-pole” (mega-budget) movies a year. The remaining 20 or so films would have to sink or swim, with buoyancy provided by much smaller marketing and star budgets. It worked. Thanks to the Harry Potter films, The Hangover, The Dark Knight, Ocean’s Eleven and a few others, for over a decade Warner took $1bn at the US box office every year – a record. Meanwhile, over at NBC, Jeff Zucker pursued the reverse strategy with middle-cost, middle-risk television shows. He failed.

There are dozens of similar stories in this book, all from the entertainment industries (sport plays a big part). This leaves the question: why is “blockbusterism” true now and “longtailism” dead? (I stress “now” here because modern business books have a very narrow window in which their ideas appear to be true – probably only a few years – as capitalism is dynamic and it is in the nature of markets to seek profits by opposing the prevailing wisdom.)

Elberse has many answers to the question (too many, in fact) but the overriding point is that the rewards of successful high-investment products swamp anything that can be made out of the long tail or even the medium-long tail. Anderson was wrong because, it turns out, people do not seek out niche products on any significant scale.

Perhaps one of the most devastating instances of this is music downloads, once the great hope of stick-it-to-the-man idealists. In 2011, of the eight million tracks sold in North America, 95 per cent sold fewer than 100 copies and 32 per cent sold only one copy each. Lady Gaga, Maroon 5, Jay-Z, Rihanna and the other superstars wiped the floor with the wannabes. “The level of concentration in these markets,” Elberse writes with a statistician’s fervour, “is so astounding, in fact, that it is nearly impossible to depict the demand curve: it disappears entirely into the axes.”

That seems clear but many of the other examples in this book are less so. She contrasts the business models of the world’s leading football clubs. So Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires finance themselves by generating talent and trying to sell one player a year to the gold mines of the European leagues. Real Madrid pursue a ruthless policy of paying top dollar for the best players, Gareth Bale being the latest example. Barcelona devote resources to local player development. Elberse goes into immense detail about how these clubs can be seen to be pursuing blockbuster policies, but the thesis doesn’t quite work.

This is evidence of a degree of “Gladwelli­sation” – the telling of good stories that are then unconvincingly retrofitted into an overarching thesis. Nevertheless, the general point is credible: that big companies have tamed the market anarchy of the internet. When we think of the web now, we don’t think of a bustling marketplace of small traders; we think of Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook. The gold rush has turned into the same old land-grab.

What is not Gladwellish about this book is that, in spite of Elberse’s breezy tone, there is no happy ending. The evisceration of the music industry that lies behind those download figures is a sad tale, told elsewhere by the great Silicon Valley apostate Jaron Lanier, and only a fool would regard the mindless pursuit of identikit blockbusters as anything other than a disaster for the film industry. Luckily, directors such as Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers have worked out a way to survive with medium-sized budgets that do not require them to be sucked into the philistine maw of the marketing department. Art happens with or without the backing of business books. But if, like Chris Anderson, you thought a better world was riding in on the back of broadband, you were, I am afraid, wrong.

Bryan Appleyard tweets as @bryanappleyard

 

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.