Long Tails and Passing Shows

When Ronnie Lane died in 1997, Amazon.com sold only books, Google was still the research project of a pair of Ph.D. candidates, and MySpace wasn’t even a figment of the founders’ imagination. But it’s safe to say that were it not for today’s ubiquity of the Internet, thousands of music fans wouldn’t have known of, let along bought, The Passing Show: The Life and Music of Ronnie Lane.

If you don’t know who Ronnie Lane was, you’re in the majority. A founding member of two classic rock bands, the Small Faces and the Faces, he produced a handful of lovely, influential solo albums that didn’t sell much, then died of multiple sclerosis when he was 51.

When I became a fan in the early 1980s, tracking down Lane’s albums was no easy task. For years I scoured the five-point-type classified ads of Goldmine magazine, the bible of music collectors, and flipped through stacks of discs at flea markets and record shows. I swapped videos and cassettes with a record-store owner in Toronto and riffled through the carts of albums discarded by a local radio station that was changing format until I finally had copies of all his albums.

My experience finding The Passing Show DVD was much less labor-intensive. I had just registered with MySpace to visit a new band’s page where I could listen to their as-yet-unreleased songs. While I was there, I decided to search MySpace for “Ronnie Lane,” expecting to find nothing. Instead I found several pages dedicated to him, including one asking for feedback on The Passing Show, which I hadn’t heard of till then. One click later I was on Amazon.com; three days later I was watching the DVD; within a week I had posted my reviews of the film on Amazon and the MySpace page that had alerted me to the DVD to begin with.

This is an example of the long tail of e-commerce in action. Wal-Mart and Borders aren’t going to stock a DVD that will be bought by thousands rather than millions of consumers. But Amazon and myriad other virtual storefronts can, or can at least establish a virtual supply chain to fulfill those orders.

It’s also an example of the commercial power of social networking. The term “social networking” may be relatively new, but the concept isn’t. Having attended comic-book and record conventions back in the day, I was social networking back when MySpace’s uber-friend (and cofounder) Tom was still sucking his binkie. The Web has simply made the word-of-mouth and sense of community fostered by social networking more inclusive. And that’s great news for niche marketers (such as the folks behind The Passing Show) who can’t afford mainstream advertising and wouldn’t see an ROI on it even if they could.

And I like to think it’s also an example of how there’s always a market for quality merchandise. It’s just that sometimes you have to be creative to find the goods — and the people who will appreciate them.

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