Digital distribution changing industries? So very 1999.
The world of physical sales is a world of scarcity. Limited shelf space, limited distribution channels, limited display area; limits wherever you look.
Now, with online distribution and retail, we are entering a world of abundance. And the differences are profound.
To see how, meet Robbie Vann-Adib?, the CEO of Ecast, a digital jukebox company whose barroom players offer more than 150,000 tracks – and some surprising usage statistics. He hints at them with a question that visitors invariably get wrong: “What percentage of the top 10,000 titles in any online media store (Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, or any other) will rent or sell at least once a month?”
Most people guess 20 percent, and for good reason: We’ve been trained to think that way. The 80-20 rule, also known as Pareto’s principle (after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who devised the concept in 1906), is all around us. Only 20 percent of major studio films will be hits. Same for TV shows, games, and mass-market books – 20 percent all. The odds are even worse for major-label CDs, where fewer than 10 percent are profitable, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
But the right answer, says Vann-Adib?, is 99 percent. There is demand for nearly every one of those top 10,000 tracks. He sees it in his own jukebox statistics; each month, thousands of people put in their dollars for songs that no traditional jukebox anywhere has ever carried.
It really does take all kinds.
To get a sense of our true taste, unfiltered by the economics of scarcity, look at Rhapsody, a subscription-based streaming music service (owned by RealNetworks) that currently offers more than 735,000 tracks.
Chart Rhapsody’s monthly statistics and you get a “power law” demand curve that looks much like any record store’s, with huge appeal for the top tracks, tailing off quickly for less popular ones. But a really interesting thing happens once you dig below the top 40,000 tracks, which is about the amount of the fluid inventory (the albums carried that will eventually be sold) of the average real-world record store. Here, the Wal-Marts of the world go to zero – either they don’t carry any more CDs, or the few potential local takers for such fringy fare never find it or never even enter the store.
The Rhapsody demand, however, keeps going. Not only is every one of Rhapsody’s top 100,000 tracks streamed at least once each month, the same is true for its top 200,000, top 300,000, and top 400,000.
This is the Long Tail.
Someone somewhere is interested in every one of almost half a million songs every month.
What’s really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you’ve got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are. …
Rhapsody streams more songs each month beyond its top 10,000 than it does its top 10,000. In each case, the market that lies outside the reach of the physical retailer is big and getting bigger.
That’s worth repeating: The market for books that almost no store carries is as large as the market for all the books that a store has in stock. (To say nothing about the teensy-weensy stock carried by your average German bookstore.)
Author Chris Anderson adds three rules for taking advantage of the new possibilities:
1. Carry everything. Everything.
2. Cut prices in half and then drop them some more.
3. Help people find what they want.
This is the world of the Lisbon agenda.
(Shameless plug: Speaking of things that are very 1999, my paper on digitalization written at the end of that year hasn’t held up too badly, despite the bursting of the dotcom bubble and a few other developments in the field. If anything, its focus was too narrow.)