Leveraging the Long Tail


The Last.fm Logo

The term “Long Tail” was popularised by Chris Anderson in his famous Wired magazine article in October 2004, where he demonstrated the concept by citing Amazon, Apple and Netflix as examples. The theory of the Long Tail in a nutshell is that we are experiencing a shift in our content consumption patterns from focusing on a relatively small number of mainstream products (also know as “hits”) towards the much larger market of niche items. In the physical world, shelf place has been historically physically constrained and expensive, therefore stocking only the best-selling products was the only economically viable alternative for a given store. However, it turns out that the Internet is an ideal marketplace for catering for the niche interest groups. Since there are no physical shelf-space limitations to speak of, it is just as easy to provide access to a huge number of niche products as to only the most popular, selected “hit” items. Online retailers, such as Amazon, can stock virtually everything, and these millions of narrow niches seem to better suit the individual interests than of the customers than the generalised best-sellers.

But not only online retailers can capitalise on the long tail paradigm. There are a growing number of services who are leveraging the power of the long trail in a number of unique ways, to cater not only for the mainstream audience in the head, but also to address the many millions in the tail. Last.fm is such a service that helps its users discover new music based on their listening habits, which is especially useful for individuals interested in obscure, hard-to-find niche genres.


Last.fm is a music service that helps its user discover new music based on their music listening habits. To quote a large recent study done by Yahoo on consumer preference data, “the vast majority of users are a little bit eccentric, consuming niche products at least some of the time”. Last.fm capitalises on this exact aspect; it offers individuals with niche musical interests the possibility to discover similar bands they might like and connect with people having the same musical tastes, while also catering for people interested in more popular forms of music.

The heart of the service is the so-called “Audioscrobbler” recommendation system, which collects data on the songs the user listens to, builds a detailed profile on each user’s musical profile based on the collected information, then uses sophisticated algorithmic methods to recommend similar music to the user. Audioscrobbler can collect data from a computer via plugins installed to the user’s music player, from Internet radio stations the user listens to, or directly from a portable music playing device. Apart from the extremely popular recommendation system, which uses collaborative filtering algorithms to discover new content suited to a particular user’s tastes, the service also provides social networking features, such as formation of groups based on a common interests, friends lists, manual music recommendation by users or groups and journals written about artists. What’s even more interesting, the recommendations system also sports a widget reminiscent of the long tail diagram itself, in which the user can drag a slider towards the head or the tail part of the chart to explore more popular or more obscure recommendations.

Potential issues

The Long Fail

The Long Fail

Not everybody, however, agrees on Chris Anderson’s theory of demand distribution in the Internet age. Some recent statistical data seem to support the views of the opponents of the Long Tail theory: out of the total 13 million of tracks available on the internet, 10 millions have never been purchased even once. Scientific analysis has shown that the sales distribution of online music retailer do not follow the power curve of the long tail curve, but rather exhibit normal logarithmic characteristics. Furthermore, social aspects and basic human behaviour have to be taken into consideration as well. According to Jonathan Karp—the founder of the highly successful book publishing company Twelve, whose objective is to focus on quality rather than quantity and publish no more than twelve books each year—”It’s been a truism among my colleagues that generally people want to be reading what other people are reading”.

Future directions

While the universal applicability of the Long Tail theory is being challenged currently, it goes without saying that online retailers such as Amazon and Apple have made quite sizeable profits due to their huge size of online catalogue which were inherently niche-buyer friendly. What me might see in the near future is a refinement of the theory and a more detailed understanding of the exact scenarios where it could be applied with great success.


About Last.fm
Wikipedia – Last.fm
Anatomy of the Long Tail: Ordinary People with Extraordinary Tastes
Last.fm user distribution, long tail of mainstream-ness
Last.fm: The Long Tail music picker
Music Recommendation and the Long Tail
Last.fm the Robotic DJ
Twelve Publishers – About Us – Mission Statement
Long Tails and Big Heads
The Long Tail Theory Gets Challenged, Just Not in Search Query Demand


11 thoughts on “Leveraging the Long Tail

  1. Wow, I did not know that lastfm existed, good post! It’s good that we are developing algorithms to help us find the music we like. There is quite likely a lot of music out there that I would like to hear but have not found yet, so it is refreshing to see that I have some help in doing that. Do you know if they have any direct competition for providing this service, maybe there are some other sites out there trying to do the same thing? Thanks for the post:)

    • There are quite a few similar sites, such as Spotify and Pandora, but as far as I know, Spotify is only available in some Western European countries at the moment and Pandora is restricted to the Unites States. Glad you liked my post 🙂

  2. once again great post!! Last.fm is good example of the long tail of products. with the huge database they have and the recommendation system for music is really interesting on how they leverage the long tail effect. Great Post 🙂 thanks

    my only concern is how they artist get paid for their songs?

  3. The actual statistics of purchasing patterns is interesting, particularly as the supply side (eg amazon books offerings) and the demand side (eg user reviews building the popularity of items and influencing other users purchase decisions) interact. I think you’re spot on with your crystal ball gazing, like any economic model it’s helpful to understand shifts in patterns but they’re not universally applicable and they are constantly being refined and adjusted to better describe patterns.

    • Yes, I think every ‘new invention’ goes through these two stages: initially, it is applied to everything, but later on, as a result of some more thorough analysis having been done, people actually understand which are the good use cases and when should alternative approaches be used.

  4. I’m an avid user of Last.fm and have discovered many artists and genres that I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed too. Funny thing is I never purchase music. I do pay for Last.fm. I’m wondering if artists actually profit thanks to having their music on Last.fm? Anyway, I really like the social networking aspect of Last.fm as well. I can listen to my friend’s stations and get a feel for what artists and styles they enjoy. Thanks for the interesting post, Vivien.

    btw, feel free to add me on last.fm -> http://www.last.fm/user/danieldurrant

    • That’s a great benefit of Last.fm, indeed, to be able to discover new music in genres that you wouldn’t normally listen to. I’m not sure if artists are actually profiting from the Last.fm subscription fees, though… but my assumption is that they must be some way.

  5. Another great post and great read. That really is quite an interesting statistic that only 3 million of the available online tracks have been purchased, In my experience in the Brisbane music scene, followers of underground or independent music never purchase digital music for 2 reasons: they want a tangible product in their hands and they don’t believe that the artist receives financial recognition for their work. That statistic gives the impression that it is only Top 40 or popular music that is being purchased.

    • Hmm, interesting that your experience is that most people don’t buy digital music… That’s a shame actually since selling digital copies on the Internet is a great opportunity for artists to monetize their art.

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