Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Blockbusters. The net is the force that is making us all alike

It's getting hard to see movies other than Star Wars.

 Playing on a record 941 Australian screens, The Force Awakens is squeezing other films out. Want to see a different film? You'd better be quick. Since December, other films have been on screens for mere days, replaced by others on for mere days, as The Force and The Force in 3D monopolise real estate and obliterate potential competition.

Fortunately, many filmgoers I know don't seem to want to watch other films. Some have seen The Force Awakens repeatedly. Others who aren't that interested feel they have to see it in order to find out what everyone else is talking about.

It isn't what we were told would happen.

Ten years ago, in an award-winning book titled The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, the editor of Wired magazine Chris Anderson argued that blockbusters were on the way out. In their place would be "a market of multitudes". There would still be big sellers, of course, but beyond them would be an ever-growing tail of niche products that would do surprisingly well, "shattering the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards".

Anderson used the example of a long-forgotten British book, Touching the Void, by mountain climber Joe Simpson. It sold poorly, until a decade later a fellow mountaineer, Jon Krakauer​, released another book, Into Thin Air, which became a sensation, causing Touching the Void to start selling with renewed vigour. It became a movie and a paperback and eventually outsold the Krakauer book two to one.

It happened because of the internet and online bookseller Amazon recommendations. Amazon's software told people who bought the Krakauer book that they might also like Simpson's story, and ecstatic reader feedback pushed the software to keep recommending it until it rose from the dead.

It could do it because bookstores no longer had physical limits...

"Scarcity requires hits," Anderson wrote. "If there are only a few slots on the shelves or the airwaves, it's only sensible to fill them with the titles that will sell best."

But with bookstores and record stores and movie stores suddenly limitless, and with search engines suddenly clever, the real money was to be made in the "long tail" of smaller sellers, which, when added together, would outsell the blockbusters.

Anderson's data seemed to show the tail growing. Record stores would have once sold only a few thousand units. Apple told him every one of the 1 million tracks in its iTunes store had sold at least once. Netflix told him that almost all of its massive collection of movies had been seen at least once. The tail seemed limitless.

Except it didn't work out that way. According to more recent data pulled together by Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse, the long tail is weakening while blockbusters grow stronger.

She says of the 8 million digital music tracks sold in 2011, an astonishing 7.5 million were barely heard at all, selling fewer than 100 copies. An astounding 32 per cent sold only one copy.

"Yes, that's right: of all the tracks that sold at least one copy, about a third sold exactly one copy," Elberse writes.

It's the opposite of what Anderson predicted. Two years earlier, 27 per cent of tracks sold just one copy. Two years before that, 24 per cent sold one copy. The more digital sales have grown, the less important the tail has become.

Meanwhile, the head is swelling. When Anderson wrote his book, million-selling tracks accounted for 7 per cent of total sales. By 2011, they accounted for 15 per cent.

Google's Eric Schmidt, who endorsed Anderson's book at the time, now says things are moving in the other direction. "I would like to tell you that the internet has created such a level playing field that the long tail is absolutely the place to be, that there's so much differentiation," he told McKinsey Quarterly. "Unfortunately, that is not the case," he said.

"In fact, it is probable that the internet will lead to larger blockbusters and more concentration of brands. When you get everybody together, they still like to have one superstar."

Google ought to know. Few of us ever look past the first few search results. We want what others have found. In the 1950s, when the radio rule was that "no tune ought to be repeated within 24 hours", Todd Storz and Bill Stewart of radio station KOWH in Omaha, Nebraska, broke ranks by repeatedly playing the most popular tunes, to the exclusion of lesser-known songs.

The idea came from a restaurant across the road, where they noticed that when the staff were cleaning up they programmed the jukebox to play exactly the same songs their customers had been listening to all day. The top 40 has been with us ever since.

We want what others want. In 2006, three researchers from Columbia University set up a fake market in which 14,300 internet users were asked to rate 48 previously unknown songs. Those who were told how others rated the songs were far more likely to agree with their peers.

Australians flocked to December's Taylor Swift concerts partly because she is a good performer and also because others were going, too. It became an event, a communal experience, like the Olympics, a grand final, or the final episode of The Voice.Even Netflix, the ultimate long-tail company with a near unending catalogue, felt the need to create House of Cards.

The internet has made it easier for us to find things in the long tail, and diminished our need to do so. Why have separate pop stars for different countries when one or two will do for the entire world?

For a while, it looked as if the internet would free us to be different. Instead, for good or bad, it is binding us together.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald