Creative Diversity and the Long Tail: A Guide for Artist Entrepreneurs


I had a corporate finance professor back in college who once gave a lecture that stuck with me. The topic: diversity. Now, Todd wasn’t talking about cultural diversity, or anything remotely related to socio-economic issues. What he was discussing was diversity when it came to your financial portfolio. In plain language: don’t put all of your eggs into one basket. Invest a little here, a little there, a little over there, etc. That way, if one option crashes, you won’t lose everything. He suggested that this was a basic survival tactic.

Of course, when we talk about artists - such as writers, designers and musicians - that kind of survival doesn’t manifest in the same way as a diverse investment portfolio. Instead, it means playing the long tail with your intellectual and creative assets.  

To explore what this means, we must first understand what is known as the Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule. This “law of the vital few” ultimately states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In business, this concept is often expressed as “80% of sales comes from 20% of clients.” It’s a principle that can be traced all the way back to 1896 when Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto discovered a “predictable imbalance” in which 80% of the land in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population. In other words, only a fraction of the people controlled the majority of the resources. (A 2006 study discovered that online, this principle is more like 72/28…but that’s a little more nit-picky than this article needs to be.)

Still, let’s apply this theory to an artist entrepreneur. If we follow Pareto’s principle, only 20% of your creative products will generate 80% of your popularity. These would make up “the head” or central part of your total distribution, where fewer yet more popular items sell in larger quantities. But what about the other 80% of your creative output? What happens to those less popular products?

Long Tail Graphic.png

According to Chris Anderson of Wired magazine, those products would have had next to zero power in the marketplace before the internet. After all, brick and mortar stores only have so much shelf space available to them, so why would they bother stocking products that won't sell at the rate of an economic “hit?” It’s a far safer bet for them to only stock products that have a chance of selling in frequent numbers with mass audiences, as opposed to the rare tastes of more obscure, niche crowds. 

However, thanks to the internet, the cost of storage (at least for digital files) has decreased dramatically, while relationships with niche audiences have become far easier to create. So those previously abandoned creative works making up 80% of your portfolio now have access to consumers as part of your “long tail.” In other words, you can actually have a larger number of unique creative products selling in smaller quantities to fewer people, with the total sales from these products equating to a much larger market than even the “head” itself. 

In essence, you can create two separate markets: the niche and the mainstream. 

Of course, as a creative, you rarely know which of your artistic brainchildren - if any - will actually obtain mass market success. You would think that this uncertainty would lead to excessive creativity; but because of our indoctrination by “hit-based economics” - where scarcity of shelf space dictates the value of creative work - so many artists choose to chase their own tails in pursuit of mass market success. That, or they feel that mass market success equates to selling out. Either way, we are no longer in a world of scarcity in which you must beg gatekeepers or customers to “PICK ME!” Thanks to the internet, you’re in a world of abundance, where your “misses” and “hits” can stand on the same economic footing. 

Recall the 80/20 rule. That’s based on hits - not sales. And today even your most obscure creative work has the capability of finding an audience online. And since digital products do not require shelf space, manufacturing costs, or even distribution fees - what have you got to lose? Make everything available! You never know what will find a buyer or become a mass success. 

Popularity no longer has a monopoly on profitability.
— Chris Anderson, The Long Tail

Then again, you might say to yourself, “my work is too strange, too out-there, too raw, unfinished, etc.” But we would argue that is exactly why you should put it up for sale online! Not only will your creative work encourage freedom of expression and variety in our choices, but authentic works of creativity stand to gain the most from the long tail system. Because even if a mere one in a hundred of your products becomes a “hit,” that single success could guide customers to your other works, ultimately making a far larger market as a whole. 

Also, consider what is often regarded as a “hit.” In the past, these “hits” in music, writing, and other creative endeavors have been successful because of their broad yet shallow appeal matched by powerful marketing campaigns designed to generate sufficient demand. It’s rooted in the belief that people don’t know what they want, so they need to be told what to buy. However, when customers are given an abundance of choice and the freedom to explore their own unique preferences, they tend to deviate from the mainstream towards more creative and overlooked alternatives. And as a creative, it is your job to create those alternatives, not only to provide the products for a niche marketplace but also to fulfill your own needs as an artist (while making sales at the same time). 

Consider the writer who struggles all their life to create the next great American novel. It’s the only writing project they work on, and as a result, all of their eggs are literally in this single basket. They bring the novel to a literary agent. It’s rejected. They bring it directly to publishers. It’s rejected. Finally, they publish it themselves, and no one reads it. That writer is left feeling worthless, idiotic, and pathetic. Their entire life has been dedicated to this one thing, and it has failed to be the “hit” they dreamed it would be. Now they’re no better off than when they started. 

But let’s say that this same writer chose to go down a different path to diversify their creative portfolio. Instead of only focusing on the novel, he or she embraced their niche (read: their personal style and voice) and actively created other artistic assets that might complement their novel: poetry collections, a novella, short stories, one-act plays, literary criticism, essays, etc. They made everything available for download online through a website they maintained - all at affordable prices based on digital costs rather than physical ones. Then, using social media, they promoted their products, offering free bits and pieces through content marketing. Even if only a small number of people downloaded various products here and there, together that market could become much larger than the single novel mentioned previously, which flopped. 

The biggest money is in the smallest sales.
— Kevin Laws, Venture Capitalist

Now let’s say the writer did this for years, all while working on their novel. Then - BOOM - novel gets published, it’s a huge hit, and readers are going crazy for this writer’s stuff. Instead of having no other content to offer, the writer has an entire long tail for readers to travel down, and they do. It doesn’t matter that the other material is less "popular." It’s variety that these newfound fans are after, and this "long-tail" writer is now in a position to provide that experience at an affordable rate.

Sure, that's the best case scenario, but it's hard to argue that this strategy isn't far more stable than betting on a one-hit-wonder.

So while there is no one-size-fits-all plan for creative entrepreneurs, perhaps it’s at least comforting to know that each and every creative project does not have to be the be-all-end-all of your existence. You can diversify your creative portfolio, make all of your efforts public, and build an audience based on more obscure works. Then, if you do happen to have a hit or mass success, you’re secure in your body of work. And even if you’re destined to remain an underground sensation, the more you offer your fans, the more secure your financial future will be. Naturally, it's best to have both markets - the "hits" and the "misses" - working together to diversify your assets; but if you focus on building this diversity rather than gambling everything on a single project, you're far better off in the long run. 

Remember: Audience size isn’t the only metric for success. Give your customers a variety of choice, because even your “misses” can make money too!