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.

Diamond touch: Rihanna is in the tiny group of artists who sell tunes by the million. Photo: Patrick McMullan Co/Rex
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