Up the Downstair

Being a weeklie podcaste from Madison, Wisconsin featuring several remarkable curiosities therein occurring being a compendium of live music from divers artistes

The End of Rarities Is Nigh

April 21st, 2011

The music critic Bill Wyman (vs. the bass player) has an interesting piece up at Slate called “Lester Bangs’ Basement: What it means to have all music instantly available”. It’s about how the Internet has done away with the concept of “rare” music recordings and films. He asks, “Does the end of rarity change in any fundamental way, our understanding of, attraction to, or enjoyment of pop culture and high art?”

Music and movie fans of a certain age and a certain bent have strong visceral responses to this issue of availability. We grew up in an age of excited, roiling change in the music and film worlds, but the vicissitudes of the technologies and industries involved made the logistics of merely keeping up—much less being an expert—a time-consuming, expensive, and sometimes impossible chore.

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.

At this point I think that Wyman overstates the case a little bit and is unclear. I suspect that as far as music goes, the introduction of the cassette is what really dispensed with rarities. Before that your average Joe couldn’t make copies of a vinyl album or single that was rare but after that it was possible to sell or trade the music on those old 78s or whatever. As far as movies go, the invention of the VCR ended the problem of once-in-a-lifetime viewing opportunities. There is a difference between availability and instant availability that Wyman muddles a bit.

He makes it sound like that, in the pre-Internet days, these “rarities” just sat in the hands of collectors and were never widely available. But they were. I suppose it depends when and where you’re talking about. Are we discussing fandom in 1965 or 1985? Is the person who can’t find the magazine to tell him or her what records to buy in the boonies or in a city? In America or Zimbabwe? The end of “rarity” is a First World problem so I’ll stick to time and city vs. country.

I would say that by 1985 anyone in an industrialized country could get a hold of pretty much any song or film that had been made up to that time that we can get on the Internet today. It would probably cost you more money and you certainly would have spent more time in procuring it but it was all there if you made the effort to call or write people. This is what I mean by availability vs. instant availability. Wyman’s first example was the unreleased 1972 Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues. My guess is that by the mid-1970s (or the late-70s as the latest) dedicated Stones fans with VCRs could get their hands on a copy. By the time I started collecting rarities in the mid-80s, there were countless ads in Goldmine magazine advertising it.

To his credit, Wyman notes some music and movies will either never show up on the Net or will remain rarities for a while yet.

And there are a couple of broad categories we might never see. The thousands of films and TV shows forever lost by careless storage or deliberate, if misguided, destruction—like most of Jack Paar’s Tonight Show and the first 10 years of Johnny Carson’s. And there are some films (and far fewer albums) made, but never released in any form and not yet seen, so to speak, in the wild. Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried has famously never been released and is not to be found on the Internet (at least by me).

As far as The Day the Clown Cried I do know that pictures from the set, some behind the scenes footage, and shooting scripts are to be had. (See here.) Perhaps it will leak someday. And being a Stanley Kubrick fan, I appreciate being able to get his early shorts but I still can’t watch the footage he cut from 2001.

Also to his credit Wyman notes that there are still things which are rare on the Net:

Genre is a consideration; jazz fans, I assume, aren’t as Internet-minded as rock fans, so there’s a lot of things that aren’t online. On the other hand, perhaps because fans in that world are more likely than emo-loving college kids to pay for their music, a lot of material is available through legitimate channels.

This runs counter to argument and conflates two things that shouldn’t be. First, “there’s a lot of things that aren’t online”. That statement refutes his thesis “that almost everything is available” online. Secondly he conflates “legitimate channels” with physical product. The idea of his piece is that there’s all this stuff online, whether it be at the iTunes store or at The Pirate Bay. Legality isn’t the issue here. It’s whether you can download it in near instant gratification speed or if you have to seek it out meticulously over a long period of time. But it also denotes a certain contingency that determines what you find online – who is putting it out. If there’s a paucity of jazz online I would highly suspect that there’s even less non-Western music and music not sung in English out there. Rock & pop are ubiquitous and so the rarities from that genre are becoming ever fewer and fewer.

Wyman doesn’t draw a distinction between items that are out of print and bootlegs. Perhaps it’s not even necessary. But there’s something that bugs me about his inconsistency. The title of his article comes from Lester Bangs who “dreamed of having a basement with every album ever released in it” yet when he talks about MP3 blogs that post rare stuff, he points to a Stones bootleg, not a legitimately released album that was in and out of print in a second.

I think what bugs me about it is that Wyman doesn’t talk about rarity as a relative concept. If I own copies of the 78s that Son House cut for Paramount, they aren’t rare to me, they’re in my living room. But to blues collectors elsewhere, they’re rare. (Not sure how many are known to exist but they go for tens of thousands of dollars from what I’ve seen. Are they on the Net?) To some teenager who listens to Lady Gaga, they’re not even an issue. Rarity doesn’t enter the picture for this person.

That the Internet has great utility is beyond doubt but I think part of rarity involves being aware of it. Think of spatterdashes. They’re very easy to find online so availability isn’t an issue. But they are still a rarity in that very few people know what they are and even fewer wear them. Take that long lost Hudson Brothers album that Wyman mentioned. Yeah, it’s simple to get a copy now but the audience for it is incredibly small.

So when he asks “Does the end of rarity change in any fundamental way, our understanding of, attraction to, or enjoyment of pop culture and high art?”, whose understanding is he talking about? If he means music/film critics & reviewers, I don’t doubt that there are changes. And you can add in music/film collectors and –philes too. But we’re talking about a really small number of people. Thusly I’d answer in the affirmative but with the caveat that we’re not talking about a big collective change but a smaller more directed one.

I’d wager that Stanley Kubrick will continue to be known for his feature films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove and not his early shorts. Similarly, I can’t envision a future where The Rolling Stones are popularly known for a batch of Some Girls outtakes or an audience recording of a 1972 concert of theirs. Wyman does a poor job of answering his own question. How does the end of the rarity change things? He begins by acknowledging that the overabundance of music and film can be paralyzing but he ultimately concludes:

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.

Yeah, but how does the overabundance change our “understanding of, attraction to, or enjoyment of pop culture and high art?” He never really answers the question. And I don’t know the answer either. But as someone who was listening to musical rarities long before the advent of the World Wide Web, I can hazard a few hypotheses.

First and most obviously is that you get the simple pleasure of hearing some good music. It’s certainly not the case that all songs which were rare prior to the adoption of broadband were good, but there are some gems out there that bands and record companies never bothered to release. And the same goes for live bootlegs. There are tons of great concerts that never ended up as live albums.

Again from a music perspective, I would offer that you can get a deeper and/or wider appreciation for and understanding of any given band or artist.

For some examples (or at least potential ones) check out my rarities show.

Rarities in both music and film can offer a glimpse of a time that doesn’t become part of the lore. Think about the 1960s. If, like me, you weren’t there, you’ve no doubt heard stories and have formed an idea of peace-loving hippies rejecting capitalism and warring against those over 30. Watching a rarity like Skidoo might give you an idea of just how far the madness went while listening to radio commercials where Cream shilled for Falstaff beer and Jefferson Airplane did the same for Levi’s Jeans can show perhaps how much of the hippie idealism was just rhetoric. Rarities can help create a larger picture of a time and can help your conceptions move beyond the well-worn pieties.

Will the availability of formerly rare songs and films on the Net have a huge impact? Time will tell but I suspect not. The real issue for me is how people will hear about these songs and films and if they can be convinced to seek them out.

Related posts:

  1. Show #210: Demos, Outtakes, and Sundry Rarities
  2. It's Happiness and Other Music Films Immanent
  3. Watch Rolling Stones Doc Online for Free
  4. "Downloads of the Dead are Not Dead Yet"
  5. Internet Radio Broadcasters Take a Sigh of Relief

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