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Chris Anderson: Digitization of Music

In an influential article titled The Long Tail that was published in 2004, Chris Anderson asserts that we should forget about making about making a few mega hits in the charts. He claims that the future of entertainment lies in the niche markets that are not captured by the much publicized charts. The future market is in the shallow end of the bi-stream and online and digital distributers provide choices without limits unlike the high street shops. Anderson asserts that the conventional entertainment consumers were living in a world full of reduced choices brought about by the geographical barriers in the physical world which affected distribution. Digitization of music has changed the situation because it is now easy to find and buy music without the constraints of the physical world. Digitization has therefore created a world with endless choices and a wide array of niches which has made the buying and selling of music and other items such as books and magazines much easier. The availability of unlimited choices has also created unlimited demand despite economic scarcity.

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If you analyze data from online marketing companies like Amazon, Netflix and Rhapsody you will find sense in what Anderson is asserting. The main point that the author of this article, which is the most discussed article that The Wired has ever published, is that the culture of hits and bestsellers which the conventional world had become accustomed to is quite unrealistic and unnatural. The conventional trends in the music industry used to limit choices and also went against the individuality, diversity and scope of interest of every music consumer by creating physical constraints which have since been removed by the wave of digitization that has made music available to customers in every mode that suits their preferences. The traditional culture that revolved around hits and bestsellers was created by a legion of constraints that include the physical constraints in the non digital world and the limited shelf space that limited the amount that each store could carry at a particular time. The shelves therefore carried those products that sold the best meaning that millions of other products were locked out due to the prevalence of these physical constraints in the non digital world. The other inhibitive factor in the non digital world was the rare possibility to aggregate the dispersed customer segments. The store owners used to allocate the limited shelf space to certain goods basing on the availability of a critical consumer base. Only a small percentage of music released and even books published were available in the record stores and bookshops which locked out millions of products which did not make it to the bestsellers or hit list. To prove the point Anderson is trying to make, it’s important to look at several real life examples. Is it possible to find Canadian newspapers in newsstands in Birmingham? Is it possible to find Australian sports magazines in a newsstand in New Jersey? Why is it that every movie theatre is airing that Samuel Jackson movie while some movie consumers may want to see the new Canadian movie? It’s simply a matter of audience preference. If the movie owner screens the Canadian movie, he will risk running into losses but he is very sure that he will recoup his costs if he screens a Samuel Jackson, Tom Cruise or even Wesley Snipes movie. What the author is actually talking about is the infinite number of niches, micro and nano-niches that are in tandem with the interests of specific individuals and specific interests groups which transcend the physical constraints created by shelf space. I really agree with the postulation that the modern market has become a market of multitudes where what matters is a mass of niches governed by the power law distribution which creates potentially limitless number of niche markets that never existed in the traditional setting. What does Anderson mean when he posits that the market structure resembles the power law distribution? A power law distribution is a continuum that has big products, service providers or players but in limited amounts in the head. The same continuum has a tail with very many but small products, service providers or players and according to the author; the physical world has a continuum with a short tail which is rather finite. However, in the digital world, things change and the finite short tail becomes long and infinite. This creates a limitless number of niche markets that could not be economically served. Digitization of music and books has therefore saved millions of consumers from the tyranny of geography. If I cannot find Rock music in my neighborhood music store, I will have to travel to another place in search of the specific subgenres of rock music that are not available in my home store. This was the problem that existed before the digital revolution. However today I just need to go to iTunes and its competitors, because if iTunes does not have what I want, it is highly unlikely that the competitors will lack. Unlike the physical stores, online stores like Amazon, ITunes and Netflix can store millions and millions of music therefore consolidating demand from allover the world. I can get a copy of any subgenre I want at my convenience and this is the beauty of digitization of music and other products that are being made available online. Digital stores do not lock out music and other products just because they are not among the hits and bestsellers. One will find everything that has been released in the online stores as long as the owner of the intellectual property has made it available or has given consent. This has widened the market because geographical barriers have been broken. A Canadian living in Melbourne does not have to worry about the unavailability of Canadian dailies in the local newsstands. In the contemporary digital world, the Canadian will read every Canadian newspaper and magazine without leaving their house and office because most of them are available online. Even if the newspapers were available in the local newsstands in Melbourne, only the best sellers would be made available by the store owner. However in a digital world, the Canadian will look for his preferred magazine or newspaper online regardless of whether it is a bestseller or not. The same applies to music. Before music was digitized, it was very hard to find music from budding artist or the underground artists in the physical stores. Only hit and best selling music was available. That is why it was very easy to find music by best selling artists like Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Dr Dre, Tupac, Eminem, U2 and Linking park in every music store but you would nt find music by artists like KRS One, Immortal Technique, Emillia and Creed in the same stores because they were not among the best selling artistes. However, the situation is very different today. 90 percent of the music released by artists is available online and what a music consumer needs to do is top download the music that suits their tastes and preferences. For example, I have for ages to look for immortal technique albums in stores allover the city without any significant success. I managed to find those albums at the online stores and this example tries to prove the point that Chris Anderson is trying to put across. When I was doing a unit in Classical European Literature, I searched for Wollstonecraft’s, Wolf and Dostoyevsky’s literature in physical stores without any success. However, all their literature were available online, free of charge, though retailers like Amazon had them. The physical stores only stock what is popular at the time and they do not have specie for classics or the works that are not popular with their audiences.

Anderson also analyzes the evolution of the cultural and economic systems to make his point. He makes a strong case for how the physical infrastructure of access and distribution has shaped culture and his analysis reflects the Marxist approach where Karl Marx maintained that the superstructure is determined dialectically by the infrastructure and this vividly illustrates the influence of digitization on modern sales trends in music. The poor match between supply and demand affects how people think about the popular tastes. What is the long tail all about? Is it about the reduction of costs incurred while trying to reach the niche markets? If that’s the case, then digital distribution is one of the factors that influence the long tail. Apart from the digital distribution of products such as books and music other influential factors include democratized production tools and newer connections between demand and supply.

Another important point that Anderson makes is the ease of finding the products. This is one crucial point because the niches markets cannot be created if the consumers are not able top find the products. The digital revolution has made wider choices available but can these choices be easily found? The consumers need help in finding the stuff they may require especially how they can find that’s stuff quickly. There is a growing mountain of data, content and information online and this means that short cuts are needed. One of these short cuts is recommendations. For example, if today I write book that has very many similarities with another book written decades ago but received a limited readership, people will make reviews of my book especially if it is a hit and will liken to the decade old book. This will give the new book a new life because of the recommendations found in the reviews of my new book, may be in Amazon or Google books. There are readers who after reading reviews go for the older book first, which automatically markets the older book. This is actually the essence of the long tail. The examples given so far indicate that the present and the future economics of entertainment is radically different from the past because in the contemporary setting, hits are not selling as fast as they used to sell in the past as attention on the hits is dwindling fast due to the influence of the digital tools. The sum total of all the niches found in the long tail, according to Chris Anderson, has created a market bigger than the hits because a lot of attention is being increasingly diverted towards the bigger number of niches. The whole economics of the entertainment culture is undergoing a reshuffle whereby the attention is moving towards the tail as opposed to the limited head as was the case in the past. In the contemporary setting, more monetary rewards are actually going towards the tail.

Though I support the theory fronted by Anderson, there are some aspects of the theory that I oppose. To start with, Anderson has analyzed a very small entertainment market meaning that his theory may not be universally applicable because it is somehow subjective. Not all markets behave this way and his study focused on the developed countries where there is a high level; of digitization. All in all, this article is a masterpiece that has been strongly researched. The numerous discussions about the dynamics of economics of the entertainment industry reflect what is happening in very many markets. Though the theory that Chris Anderson advances may not apply to all markets, the author clearly paints the face of the changing economics of entertainment and culture in the developed countries and this change will also be evident in developing countries. Digitization has therefore changed the conventional music industry where physical constraints used to limit choice. The non digital environment also went against the individuality, diversity and scope of interest of every music consumer by creating physical constraints which have since been removed by the wave of digitization that has made music available to customers in every mode that suits their preferences. The most important thing is that customers have been saved from the tyranny of geography that used to be very inhibitive in the conventional music market.

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