January 25, 2005

A Short Tale

At Naresh Fernandes's lecture that I wrote about earlier, I found myself chatting briefly with Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. We didn't have a lot of time, but we did exchange blog URLs (the visiting card cachet of the times, I suppose). And when I visited his, it turned out to be entirely appropriate, in some ways, that we had met at Naresh's talk.

Naresh spoke about Goan jazz musicians and the way they influenced Bollywood music about a generation ago: Anthony Gonsalves, Chic (not, let it be noted, Chick) Chocolate and their bands. At one point, he referred to the difficulty of finding music -- old LPs, mostly -- by these men; and his frantic efforts to lay his hands on some old 78s (if you know what that means, your age shows) by Chocolate that he heard about. Efforts that ended, sadly, in failure. Naresh offered the frank admission that he got a fellowship to write about jazz in Bollywood, which money he spent buying records at Bombay's Chor Bazaar. (Don't worry Naresh, your secret's safe with me. I'm not telling anyone). Though even so, he didn't find much by these guys.

Yet why should he have this difficulty? I often wonder, why should it not be the case that anything that's ever been printed and sold, or any music that's ever been cut on a LP/CD/tape and sold, should not be available in perpetuity? Or the other angle to this: why should it be that a small band in Austin, say, should have its albums available only in limited numbers, and only in and around Austin? Why should I, who might have heard and loved those bands, not be able to find their music here in Bombay?

(I refer, of course, to those excellent musicians Joe Ely, the Mannish Boys, Angela Strehli, Teddy and the Talltops, and many more; music that positively lit up my Austin years. This world has seen few finer songs than Ely's rocking "Mustta Notta Gotta Lotta".)

The answer, of course, lies in words like marketability, profitability a d
so on. Publishers make a decision about how well their products will do: print runs depend on that, how long products stay on the shelves depend on that. Factored into the decision are the reach and appeal of the book or band, as also shelf space in stores. Easy stuff, you don't need me telling you this.

Yet now, with the Web and stores like Amazon where shelf space is not an issue, many of those concerns are simply history. And at least in theory, you have the answer for Naresh looking for Chic Chocolate albums, or me looking for my favourite Austin musicians. You have Chris Anderson's Long Tail. You have an understanding of the intriguing fact that the majority of Amazon's business comes not from its (few) top-selling products, but from the (many) products with small, niche audiences: Amazon's "Long Tail." Suddenly, there is hope that you can buy all those albums you never found in the stores; suddenly, there is the wild thought that "out of print" may be a concept itself in danger of soon being, as it were, "out of print."

Anderson first wrote about the Long Tail in this article for his magazine. He is now writing a book about it, which his blog will turn into. Read his thoughts to get an idea of all that's involved here, the vast changes in markets and consumer behaviours -- even human behaviours -- he sees happening.

But I was particularly glad we exchanged blog addresses when we met. Because if you think about it, what are blogs but a fine instance of the long tail? Suddenly, such constraints to publishing your stuff as space, marketability, appeal, your fame, the right publisher, editing itself -- all are history. Just get on and blog, that's it. Sure, many blogs could well use the services of a good editor, but the point remains. If the Web and blogging tell us anything, it's that however obscure you are, you will find an audience for your blog, and if you work at it, it will grow.

They are very long tails, and they get longer by the minute. But wherever you travel on them, there's much to savour. And that's the power. That's the point.