The Paradox of The Long Tail

Creating content of all types has never been easier. An increasing number of people are becoming “creators”—it’s cheaper than ever to create something, there are more homes for distributing and discovering “long tail” content, and, perhaps most importantly, numerous tools are emerging to monetize this content. The paradox which arises is I think that the odds of long tail creators breaking through and becoming well-known are simultaneously significantly improving. In fact, in Seth Godin’s recent post, “Most people, most of the time (the perfect crowd fallacy),” he argues that many of these so-called “open systems” are critical to the long tail because despite the fact they have no barriers to entry, the “previously unfound star now gets found.”

First, the cost of content creation has decreased dramatically over the last few years due to significant technological advances. Articles, such as this one from “Digital Trends” have cropped up showing how to make a DIY recording studio. Even prominent actor and director, Ed Burns has embraced this trend. He recently filmed a movie with a $9,000 budget—he used Twitter to crowdsource ideas and then shot it using a Canon 5D. And it premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival. If a content creator is unable to finance his/her project, Kickstarter and Indiegogo have emerged to solve this problem (along with many others). Indie artist Amanda Palmer raised over $1.2 million this summer on Kickstarter to finance a forthcoming album and tour and showed us the art of asking at TED.

Not only is it cheaper and easier than ever to create content but there are also now more places than ever to showcase it. Behance and Dribbble provide online portfolios for photographers, illustrators, and designers to display their work. GitHub allows developers to share what they’re working on with peers or prospective employers. YouTube and Vimeo enable filmmakers, videographers, and anyone with a video camera to show off their talents (or lack thereof) from virtually anywhere. SoundCloud does for music (and sound in general) what YouTube did for video, giving a voice to anyone with a microphone or recording device. The very fact that these venues (and numerous others) exist implicitly encourage more and more people to create content because they know there is a public place for their work. Startups like Spotify can also push long tail content into mainstream consciousness. Indie artists know that Spotify likely provides them a better forum to potentially build an audience and get discovered than iTunes, as the Apple platform had 8 million songs available for sale in 2011, resulting in 94% of them selling less than 100 copies, 25% selling just one copy, and the top 100 songs accounting for 15% of sales. Meanwhile on Spotify, for example, Foster The People “blew up on the service” according to Spotify’s CEO, Daniel Ek. This rise in prominence is partly due to the music streaming service but also likely due to the ability to share and distribute content so easily on Facebook and Twitter, the two avenues by which content is increasingly traveling up from the long tail to the head of the content spectrum. Quite simply, you don’t need to be on a busy street corner peddling a mixtape or in Central Park showing off your photography when these democratizing forces exist.

However, at the end of the day, for many of these creators, the aforementioned factors are of little consequence if they aren’t able to monetize their content easily. Increasingly, a larger number of companies are focusing on this democratization of content creation, as they seek to democratize content monetization. Chill has pivoted into letting creators sell their videos directly to fans. VHX has emerged as a way for creators to sell video content directly to their audience, as they began by working with Aziz Ansari to release his comedy special. Vimeo recently announced a Tip Jar and Pay-To-View videos as a way for creators to monetize their content, and YouTube has a Pay-Per-View option for those who live stream video. In the music world, Topspin and Bandcamp work with artists of varying import from mainstream to long tail to help them sell content directly to fans. And then there’s a whole swath of competitors that are trying to provide a simple, flexible tool to make selling content as simple and easy as sharing it. This group, led by Gumroad, includes numerous competitors / clones, such as Ameroad, Ribbon.co, Sellwire, Pulley, Quixly, TLJ.cc, EasyPay.jp, Stufflix, Cleeng, Fol.io, and Instamojo. All of these players fighting for content creators’ mindshare is great news for this new long tail, as they are receiving an unprecedented amount of attention and have an equally unprecedented amount of leverage.

Ultimately, I believe that this new long tail is different for a couple reasons. First, this long tail is getting even longer, as all of these tools provide never-before-seen support (and confidence, quite frankly) to many up-and-coming creators or those who may not have seriously pursued their talent. Second, and more interestingly, I strongly feel that this long tail is new because more and more of these creators will work their way up towards mainstream recognition because of these previously described products and services, particularly those that foster distribution and monetization.