Monday, July 24, 2006

The Long Tail

Chris Anderson has expanded his Wired article into the book The Long Tail. The book's strength is that it pulls together many things about how we're currently producing and consuming and brings them into focus. It's hard to see transitions while they're happening, but Anderson has managed to identify a very basic shift in economics and culture.

Before mechanical reproduction, all culture was local. Culture couldn't travel unless a human carried it and humans could only travel as fast as an animal could carry them.

The 19th century was an explosion of technology and mechanical reproduction. The telegraph annihilated distance. A message could cross the continent instantly, instead of having to be carried by railroad. Improved printing technologies, phonographs and movies enabled the creation of mass culture. By the early 20th century, when they were joined by radio, these technologies allowed people over a wide geographical area to be reading, listening and seeing the same cultural products.

The problem with this model was the cost of production and distribution. If you made a movie, you needed the equipment to photograph and edit it. Beyond that, you need a lab to develop and print copies of your film and an organization that could carry the copies to theaters over a wide geographical area. All those things took money, which meant that once the mass culture industries were established, it was difficult for a newcomer to compete with them. The cost of starting such an enterprise was prohibitive.

Because of the high cost of production and distribution, the culture manufacturers had to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to turn a profit. They needed hits. They couldn't afford to alienate any part of the audience (one reason for the adoption of the Hays censorship code) and they often stuffed something for everyone into a movie whether it fit or not. This is why MGM Marx Brothers comedies have romantic couples, songs and in The Big Store, a fashion show.

TV followed the same model, especially in the years before cable.

At the retail level, where books and records were sold, stores were physically limited by shelf space. Given the choice of an item that would sell 10 copies a year or 20, the proprietor naturally gravitated to the 20 copy item as it generated more cash from the same amount of shelf space. Items that didn't sell sufficient copies weren't stocked. They were invisible to consumers.

With the internet and other technological advances, everything has changed. Production and distribution costs have come down, especially for items that can be created with software and then downloaded. Retailers who sell over the internet are no longer restricted by needing space in a high traffic neighborhood or by the size of the local population. The result is the long tail.

(Image swiped from Slate's review)

In a nutshell, the long tail says sales of niche items add up to a significant portion of revenue. Physical limitations (space, number of outlets, etc.) used to truncate the tail, but now it just keeps on going. Where 20% of the merchandise used to result in 80% of the revenue, the proportion is no longer nearly so lopsided.

You're in the long tail while you're reading this. No question that this blog is a niche item. Rather than read or watch Harry Potter, you're here. And because you're limited by the number of hours in your day, the time you spend here and in other niches can only take time away from the hit properties. There will still be hits, but Anderson thinks that in the future they will be smaller due to competition from niche items.

What are the repercussions? If you're a consumer (and aren't we all?), you've got much greater choice than before. Rather than settle for the books or the DVD's in your local shop, you've got a vastly larger choice available to you online. If you're a creator, there are two possible repercussions. If you're working in a company that depends on hits, you may find that budgets will be squeezed if audiences don't turn out in the same numbers that they used to. If you're an independent creator, you've got an easier time reaching an audience that is increasingly seeking out specialized material that's more satisfying to them than the mainstream.

However, the long tail isn't utopia. Sellers will have a much easier time taking advantage of it than creators. If storage space is cheap, sellers can afford to carry an item that might only sell once a year. But a creator can't live on something that only sells one copy a year.

There are lots of creators who do things for the pleasure of it without financial compensation. This blog is an example. For those people, reaching an audience is its own reward though it may possibly lead to paying gigs of various sorts. For animation creators who are looking for the work to pay their way, the business model is still evolving. I've already pointed to Keith Lango's essay on this and he has some good points. I've got some ideas that I'll be tossing out here eventually.

Regardless of your goals, The Long Tail is a book that will help clarify the world you're living in. Anderson's insights are worth reading and as they describe changes to the consumer culture, they are relevant to everybody.


Pete Emslie said...

Hi Mark,

This comment is in regard to both of your most recent posts. Though I also can see the benefit to creators of bypassing the "gatekeepers" via the internet, I am leery of what this is all leading to. Generally speaking, I am not sure that this myriad of choices is a good thing, given that it is further fragmenting the audience more and more.

We've certainly witnessed it on TV, what with the plethora of cable/digital specialty channels carving out niche markets for themselves, the sad result of which is that nobody generates enough money to create anything of lasting value. Thus, even the major U.S. networks are doing programs on the cheap with their trend towards more reality shows. These shows depend little upon established talent, either in terms of writing or performing, and instead only serve to provide 15 minutes of fame to an awful lot of people who have no business being on camera.

The music business has also been severely dumbed down, due in great part to downloading anything and everything off the internet, most of which consists of talentless hacks recording noise in their parent's garages. Where are the Sinatras, Ella Fitzgeralds, Peggy Lees of today? Nobody has either the time or the money to nurture great musical talent today it would seem.

And of course, there's the sad situation with animation. I didn't mind so much when Flash animation was merely a staple of internet sites, allowing for some movement of images using little memory. However, once it made the leap to broadcast TV it resulted in a huge dumbing down and cheapening of the animated cartoon. Limited animation has never before been this limited, with images that don't so much "move" as simply "shift" onscreen. It's really nothing more than glorified paper cutout animation, made to look slicker by the computer. Tragically, this cheapening of the medium has had drastic effects upon the smaller animation studios, many of which have deteriorated into sweatshops, demanding huge amounts of footage each week while paying bare minimum wages. Not to mention the fact that an animator has virtually no job security anymore, working from contract to contract and moving around often between studios.

Personally, I miss the days when the entertainment business was controlled by a chosen few. Though, yes, it meant that one had to get past the "gatekeepers" to get something on the air, the resulting series and seasonal specials tended to be a lot more entertaining and lushly produced. I honestly believe that a lot of money in the coffers of a few good companies makes for better decisions and more commitment to excellence. I would far rather partake in any form of entertainment, be it film, TV or music, from that period of the 1940s through the 1970s. In my opinion, very little from the last 25 years or so can compare favorably to that era, least of all that which has been created in this recent age of the internet.

Michael Sporn said...

I have to say that I agree, in large part, to what Pete has said in his comment. Animation has turned into jerking cut outs popping back and forth in extreme poses. It's unfortunate, that this even pops up in feature animation - I guess they're trying to emulate flash animation in cgi.
Smaller studios are pushed out of the work unless there's so little that no larger studio would want to be bothered.
I'm not sure where things are heading, but I watch attentively and try to learn as I go. I hope it'll someday lead back to better animation. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like that's going to happen.

Thanks, Mark, for these insightful posts on the business models. They've taken a lot of time and thought on your part. I appreciate them and look forward to them.

Nancy said...

I liked animation a lot better when it was smaller and had a less 'sexy' profile. The hours and pay were good, the people were employed longer, and the work was more fun. The few good projects out there are over too soon, and while they may pay better the hours can be pretty dire.
What does that have to do with your post? Well, the Internet does level the playing field for low budget filmmakers.
As for Flash, it's a great program but it's only as good as the people using it. It can do much fuller animation than 'moving things back and forth'--as with anything else, it's a question of hiring, and paying for, the right people.

Mark Mayerson said...

There's a lot of what Peter said that I agree with as well, but the point of these business posts is that the world is changing. We can love it or hate it but we're not going to stop it.

The thing about this change is that it's potentially more democratic than past changes. The costs of production and distribution have come down due to computers, software and the internet. The business model for making money on the web still hasn't solidified for animation, but that's the last piece of the puzzle.

I'm hoping that by talking about these changes and opportunities, animators won't be satisfied just taking whatever job is out there. If somebody can figure out how to make this thing work, then others will follow and some of them will have taste and talent.

For my money, gatekeepers are too interested in following trends rather than starting them. If there's going to be a sea change in animation, it's going to come from creators, not gatekeepers. As bad as things may be, I'm more hopeful for the future now than I was in the '70's or early '80's.

Pete Emslie said...

While it is certainly a tantalizing prospect to go straight to the consumer and cut out the middleman completely by way of the internet, I just see it as being inherently self-limiting both artistically and commercially.

I know you are quite high on the JibJab model, Mark, and I can certainly admire them too for what they have acheived commercially with their product. However, the fact remains that, though their "This Land is My Land" is funny, satirical and entertaining, it is not art on the same scale as a vintage Disney or Warners short. I am not a fan of Flash animation for all of the inherent limitations I have described in my last post, and I have yet to see any example of full animation produced either with Flash or similar program, even if Nancy claims such a thing exists. In fact, whenever I bemoan the look of Flash, its fans always seem to point to "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends" as a great show produced with that software. With all due respect, though "Fosters" is well designed, it is nothing more than very inorganic graphic designs being shifted, not really animated to my way of thinking. I have yet to encounter any truly full animation produced in Flash. Also, the vectorization process just seems to kill the line art of a skilled cartoonist.

In short, I still believe that only the major studios have the resources to produce animation of lasting value. What has sadly been missing for about the last decade, however, is the will to aspire to such greatness. Hopefully the tide is turning now that John Lasseter will have a controlling hand at Disney, making it a creative and artist-friendly environment once more. With some luck other studios will follow their example.

In the meantime, I would certainly encourage all young talents to experiment with software that allows them to cut their teeth and get their work up on the net for all to see. However, if they aspire to producing great art, that takes both the willpower and the money to do so, the latter of which I believe can only be provided within a major studio setting with the necessary finances for both production and mass distribution.

Kevin Koch said...

I just want to put in a counter-point to the idea that in "the old days" animators had some kind of job security, that sweatshops didn't exist, and that top quality was the primary goal of the studios. We get seduced into this view when we start to think that the lives the nine old men lived were common for our industry.

I've been spending some time reading the newsletters for the Screen Cartoonists Guild from the 40s and 50s, and from the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists from the 60s and 70s. Except for a tiny handful of people at Disney Feature, the business then was like the business today -- no job security, project to project employment, low wages, frequent workplace abuses, unrealistic quotas, clueless producers, and constant anxiety about the changing nature of technology and the marketplace.

Pete Emslie said...


I don't have access to the information you do, obviously, and I will not dispute what you say. However, I do have some doubts about it as I can't help but believe that back in the "Golden Age" of studio animation time and money was better spent, resulting in real craftsmanship up there on the screen. How could that not be so when all you have to do is look at any Disney, Warners, MGM or other studio short and see the artistry plain as can be? Also, it seems to me that every studio had a fairly consistent team working on shorts that spanned a couple of decades, judging from the end credits of the cartoons.

To be fair, even if we compare today's TV animation to that of the early TV years, a typical episode of a 1960s Hanna-Barbera show is miles ahead of the Flash-produced mediocrity of today. My beef is not with the animators but with the current studio system that keeps the artistic bar set painfully low and will not put any decent amount of money into producing something better.

There are of course exceptions, such as "SpongeBob" and a few others still doing genuine hand-drawn animation, but the Flash shows look cheap and nasty to a discerning fellow like me who appreciates good cartooning. Sorry, but I remain very critical of an industry that seems to have no artistic pride left.

Kevin Koch said...

I hear what you're saying, Pete, but when I talk to the animators making today's cartoons, and see them work, I know that they take tremendous pride in what they do. Times change, and tastes change.

Regarding Flash, it's only used in a minority of TV productions today, and those actually account for some of the most carefully crafted shows made (since the work is often all done here in LA).

By the way, I want to point out again that I wasn't originally commenting about creativity or quality -- my comments were related to "the good old days" being typified by good pay, long employment, and respect for artists. Over time we plan to post more of the old union newsletters on the TAG Blog, but till then you'll have to take my word that disrespect for animators, lack of job security, and low pay have been constant refrains since the earliest days.