I read 'The Long Tail' a few weeks back. Kind of late, I know, but I actually read the original seminal Wired magazine article by Chris Anderson when it came out in 2004 and still read the blog off and on.
The book rightly celebrates the growth of the niche and how people aren't bound by the Lowest Common Denominator anymore. Mass entertainment has been turned on its head by an increasingly high number of people happier to stick to their favorite niches and not bother about what is mainstream as much.
This is great for the personalized 'me-first' world we now inhabit. However, David Brooks, an iconoclast as always, asks a very relevant question in terms of music. This is true of music but will probably be equally true of any sort of art or public discourse in general:
"...the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation. There are now dozens of niche musical genres where there used to be this thing called rock. There are many bands that can fill 5,000-seat theaters, but there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2."
It's kind of difficult to disagree with him or the points he makes. As he says:
"We live in an age in which the technological and commercial momentum drives fragmentation. It’s going to be necessary to set up countervailing forces — institutions that span social, class and ethnic lines.
Music used to do this. Not so much anymore."
The truth is, there's no single cultural force left in this country that does this anymore. Sports is going strong, but the insular world of sports in the US means the cheering is local and parochial. I can't go to Pittsburgh and cheer for the Seahawks or to Boston and cheer for the Yankees.
This is great for the small creative guy who's trying to get a hundred CDs sold to break even, but a country which defined cultural flashpoints by events like Woodstock and Elvismania now struggles to find one cultural icon. This is also the tale of the Long Tail.