Party time: A blockbuster book about the demise of the blockbuster

Here's the short version: Justin Timberlake is the linchpin of the modern consumer economy. A surefire way to make a theater full of techno-hipsters laugh is to show a video snippet of Clippit the paperclip getting squashed by the Linux's portly penguin mascot, Tux. Also, skirts for guys are the next big thing. But not really, because there's no such thing as a "next big thing" anymore.

Here's the long version: Back in October 2004, Wired magazine published an article by its editor in chief, Chris Anderson. The article, called "The Long Tail," had a basic message: the days in which media and entertainment culture were fueled by a small number of "hits" are over. Think of today's media culture--books, movies, music, TV, the Internet--as shaped like a tadpole. At one end you have the "head," the concentration of a few hits that are tremendously popular and lucrative: blockbuster movies, top-40 radio hits, TV shows that seemingly everyone watches. Then, stemming from the "head" is the "tail," a skinny string of cultural phenomena that don't have the mainstream appeal to be the next Jay-Z album or Vince Vaughn movie. And Anderson's point? The head is shrinking. The tail is the future.

Flash forward about 20 months to July 2006, Anderson's article has been turned into a new book published by Hyperion, and approximately a thousand people packed into Manhattan's Tribeca Cinemas for the launch party. But, Anderson stressed, it's "an anti-book party"--which essentially means "less book, more party." The music selection was an eclectic mix by the fez-sporting DJ $mall Change. Later on, there would be musical appearances by niche-market up-and-comers like Aloe Blacc, the Brazilian Girls, and Spank Rock. The whole event, sponsored by niche-culture site Flavorpill, was all an embodiment of Anderson's "tail"--music you couldn't find within a mile of top-40 radio, food with unpronounceable names, and men in skirts.

Or, specifically, one man in a skirt. Writer and Guardian developer Ben Hammersley, who was demonstrating his support for the "long tail" of the fashion market in combat boots and a black leather kilt. Like most of the party's attendees, he was eager to discuss the cultural implications of Anderson's book, and his opinion was positive with some reservation. "I think that Chris' reasoning is pretty flawless," he observed. "But the thing that excites and bothers me is that it's what we do now and now we know about it."

Describing his work as "PowerPoint meets indie rock," Anderson showed a series of chart- and graph-filled slides that showed exactly how much bigger Amazon's selection is compared to Barnes and Noble's, and what percentage of iTunes' sales come from music that can't be bought at Wal-Mart. He followed the presentation with a video made by Technorati chairman Pete Hirshberg which featured, among other things, a visual depiction of the triumph of open-source software that showed Tux the Linux penguin squashing Microsoft Office's oft-ridiculed Clippit mascot.

The era of the blockbuster ended, according to Anderson, on March 21, 2000. That was the day that the boy band 'NSync (remember them?) released the album "No Strings Attached." Its record-breaking sales--a million copies in the first day, 2.4 million in the first week--have yet to be broken. And Anderson believes they never will.

The crowd was an enthusiastic one. "It's beautiful," said John Bachir, an engineer for the online information archive Ibiblio. "It's dangerous to say that it's the ideal of Marx, but it is the ideal of Marx. In a controlled way."

After saying that, Bachir glanced at this reporter's notebook and added, "Make sure you mention that I'm not a Marxist, okay?"
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About the author

Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.

 

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