Searching for Rarities in a Post-Scarcity Cultural World


Bill Wyman—the journalist, not the age-of-consent-refusenik former Rolling Stone bassist—is about the best writer I know of on the deep business of entertainment (well, except for that Joey Ramone thing). His Hitsville blog is a must-read (though he doesn't post often enough!).

He's got an excellent piece at Slate about how we're now all rummaging through "Lester Bang's Basement" and "what it means to have all music instantly available." Back in the old days (that is, the 1990s!), he recalls:

The music you wanted to hear wasn't played on the radio and you couldn't find the records you wanted to buy. You couldn't even find the magazines that told you what records you should want to buy. It was almost impossible to see filmed footage of the artists you wanted to see. And movie fans? We scurried like rats after what could be, for all we knew, once-in-a-lifetime viewing opportunities to see this or that film at movie theaters or in unexpected showings on television.

Fast forward a few decades, and we're approaching a singularity of sorts—one in which the digital convergence, in a gradual warm flash, is nearly complete. If you were born to this it's an unshakeable, seemingly permanent feature of the world. The rest of us marvel that a significant part of everything out there that should be digitized and made available has. And once it's out there, getting your hands on it is a fairly simple process. The concept of "rarity" has become obsolete. A previously "rare" CD or movie, once it's in the iTunes store or on the torrent networks, is, in theory, just as available as the biggest single in the world. (In practice, there are marginal differences, like having to do a few extra searches or wait a bit for a download, but that's a big difference from, say, driving across town to a Tower Records to find that they don't have a CD in stock.)

A rarity might be less popular; it might be less interesting. But it's no longer less available the way it once was.

What follows is a great tour of the streaming services, official channels, and invitation-only bit-torrent sites comprising what back in the 1990s I called "cultural proliferation" and the "culture boom." For centuries, we could only dream of culture on demand, but here it is, every bit as much as human effluvia at a G.G. Allin concert (widely available online, natch):

Occasionally, you see major finds appear and then vanish. One of these for me was Hard Rain, an hour-long Rolling Thunder-era Bob Dylan concert broadcast on NBC in 1976. Like the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, it was broadcast only once in the pre-VCR era and never released commercially in any form. A couple of versions, one from Japanese TV, appear on the torrent networks intermittently—as does Dylan's other important TV appearance of that era, a 1975 PBS special on the work of producer John Hammond, released on VHS but long out of print. (That's a great example of the way fans' abilities to see their icons has changed as well: Through the bulk of the 1970s, Bob Dylan appeared on TV in any substantive way twice.)…

I asked [Big Champagne's John] Robinson whether he had noticed previously unobtainable nuggets coming to the surface. "Visconti adapted The Stranger, starring Marcello Mastroianni," he responded. "If you hear about it in film school it's, 'Forget about it, you're never going to see this film. He hates it, his wife hates it, everyone hates it. It's completely buried. Forget about it.' " Citing online discussions, he said the film emerged in 1999 at a meeting of a group of cinematographers. One showed the film on VHS, and a copy eventually made its way to a private tracker site.

Unlike the annoying collector types who populate third-rate horror flicks, Wyman doesn't shed a tear for the new era:

I have this or that fetish object—theWhite Album on two 8-tracks in a black custom case, for example, or a rare Elvis Costello picture disc. And I remember the joy of the find. But it's hard to feel bad about the end of rarity; didn't a lot of the thrill come from feeling superior when you had something others didn't? You really want to get nostalgic about that? We're finally approaching that nirvana for fans, scholars, and critics: Everything available, all the time. (Certainly Richards and Jagger would approve.) It's not an ideal state of affairs for a rights holder, of course. But for the rest of us, what is there to complain about?

The whole piece is beautifully, even touchingly, rendered, a fan's notes as written by someone other than Fred Exley, reminding us that even or especially in a world of surplus, great prose and perspective is the one thing we'll never have enough of. If the cultural world has turned into a Ross Dress For Less, with heaps of poorly-sorted stuff all over the place, we'll need guides more than ever.

Read the whole thing here.

And check out my 1999 Reason feature "All Culture, All the Time: It's Easier Than Ever to Make and Buy Culture. No Wonder Some People Are so Upset":

The upshot of such a [and explosion in the ability to make and consume culture] is that it is and will continue to be increasingly difficult to enforce any single standard of cultural value or practice, whether the enforcer is a government seeking to regulate material its deems indecent, a corporation trying to protect its franchise, or a group of artists or critics interested in cornering the market with its own aesthetic ideology. In this sense, the increased contests for power, prominence, and prestige that are often lamented in discussions of the "culture wars" are simply signs that all is as it should be in a free society. Indeed, more-serious problems will only be beginning if, as some participants in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education symposium suggested, those wars are in fact over.

Hat tip: It's gotta be Alan Vanneman, whose blog is a total must-read.