As I write these words I am listening to a tune called "Sutta na mila" by the Pakistani band Zeest. Also known as "the BC Sutta song," it's a catchy little number with alt-country stylings (think Billy Bragg and Wilco with a vaguely South Asian beat) that recounts the frustrating tale of a young man denied access to his smokes. The lyrics also include a few industrial-strength Urdu profanities that achieved the double effect of keeping the song off the radio but making it a popular underground hit in both Pakistan and India last year. (You can download it here, although you'll have to jump through a couple of hoops.)
This is a test. This is a test of the Long Tail.
"The Long Tail," popularized by Wired editor in chief Chris Anderson, is the theory that in the new era of digital, networked communications, "hits" don't matter as much as they used to. The future will belong to those who can provide access to all the other stuff, much of which might not be popular with the masses, but scratches somebody's itch, somewhere. There's been some pushback against the statistical validity of the Anderson thesis by Wall Street Journal columnist Lee Gomes, but culturally speaking, the concept resonates with everyone who has downloaded some obscure tune that the rest of the world has forgotten or been able to purchase some out-of-print oddity from networked online used bookstores or managed to score that missing Erector set piece from the world's greatest source of Meccano hardware. We don't care if the numbers may or may not add up as to whether "hits" are being overwhelmed by "nonhits" or whether the nonhit business model is the future. We just know that now we can get whatever we want when we want it.
So, Jayesh, at the blog 'Boo'let Point: The Transient State, ruminated today as to whether the Long Tail applies to Indian culture on the Net. He answers with a qualified yes. The BC Sutta song is Exhibit A. It makes a certain sense, given the dramatic spread of computer-literate Indians around the world.
"In fact," writes Jayesh, "the Indian diaspora which is desperate for desi content is one of the key enablers of the long tail. Starved of home food but with good purchasing power and speedy broadband connections they are creating ecosystems which a lot of campus junta from India frequents and then popularizes." (Desi = South Asian; campus junta = graduates of India's technology institutes.)
I've been surfing on this Indian long tail for a few weeks now, dipping into YouTube clips of ancient Bollywood movies, pictures of smashed elephant god idols on the beach, and now, thanks to a reference from Jayesh, a crazy little tune from Pakistan that I can't get out of my head. And I've done my own searching, and found a handful of videoclips of South Asians rocking out to the BC Sutta song (ranging from unlistenable, to joyful, to mad-disco-dance-frenzy, to not bad at all, complete with cigarette).
I don't smoke cigarettes or speak Urdu, but I'm down with band founder Saqib "Skip" Abdullah's description of what it's all about: "Basically the philosophy of this song for us is not only the love of sutta (a smoke) but also a song dedicated to all the aims that haven't been fulfilled and all the things in the world that have gone against our will."
So here's another gloss on the Long Tail. Of late, a great deal of global mind share has been devoted to the polarization between Islam and the West, the clash of civilizations so neatly epitomized by the furor over the pope's recent allusion to a Byzantine emperor's negative characterization of Islam. Think of that as the "hit" that gets all the mainstream attention and dominates the mainstream discourse. But there are an infinite number of other discourses going on -- Zeest proves there's a whacked-out youth culture in Pakistan that slips right around mainstream obsessions with the whereabouts of bin Laden or the latest manifestation of jihad. If the Net's powers extend to bringing us more in contact with these underground flavors, then who really cares if there's a business model?