Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bill Wyman on the end of rarity

Every once in a while I still find something worth reading on Slate (and when I do I simultaneously realize how rare it is for me to actually visit that site anymore: it used to be a daily read for me, but I really can't stand their knee-jerk contrarianism and self-satisfied snark anymore. Like, it oozes from just about everything they print. Which, in media terms, probably means they've honed an identifiable brand. Awesome!).

This essay by Bill Wyman ("no, not that Bill Wyman") is one of them (I got there through a link on a Dylan site). It points out that the concept of rarity or scarcity, which once governed the lives of serious aficionados of music or film, is now virtually extinct. There's almost nothing in pop music, no matter how obscure, that you can't find with a little savvy net searching. What does that mean?

It's a great essay, but in the end perhaps a little too technoutopian for me. It is great, no doubt, for everything to be available all the time. I mean, I certainly enjoy it. But aren't there prices we're paying, without even knowing it? In the end he nods toward someone else's thoughts on the early Stones, and how the very inaccessibility of the blues they loved had a lot to do with their early thinking on it, and their goals in forming their own band. Bands today, formed in a surfeit of knowledge about whatever music that interests them, aren't going to have that problem: doesn't that explain a lot of the contemporary music scene? That it's fueled, not by overpowering desire for something that's truly unknown, but by a sort of finicky curatorial discrimination between things that are known too well?*

Of course merely being able to possess all this music doesn't at all mean that we're understanding it - having doesn't equal knowing. I even wonder if having too much precludes knowing, to a certain amount. I wonder about this the bigger my music collection grows - and I mostly confine myself to CDs still. But I've felt myself learning more about music in the aggregate - understanding, or thinking I do, the broad contours of a genre or a label or a period - but at the same time I know I'm failing to take the time to listen deeply, to understand the full dimensions of records. My knowledge is becoming wide and shallow, rather than deep.

All of these are not necessarily bad things - there's a real joy that comes from starting to grasp the big picture. But they are trade-offs. It's foolish to pretend there isn't a price to pay for what we're getting. I'm not even saying we wouldn't pay the price willingly if it was stated up-front, but it's kind of unsettling that we're only dimly aware of the price, and that only long after it's been exacted.

*Okay, I admit I have no basis on which to make that suggestion, since I clearly have no interest in the contemporary music scene.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I feel almost exactly the same way, right down to still mostly preferring CDs, and physical books for that matter.

On the one hand I'm very grateful that I can now find ultra-rare books online in PDF format and read them at my leisure, or download pre-war shakuhachi 78s (for example) and listen to them in the park. It's even great that if I want an old out-of-print book I can probably get it on Amazon or Kosho without too much hassle.

On the other hand if I am honest with myself too often I find myself treating digitized information as something to be processed rather than experienced, if that makes sense. The wide/deep distinction is one of the results. Personally I interpret this as a manifestation of the well-known "people don't value what they get for free" phenomenon, except where "free" stands for both monetary cost AND hassle cost of acquisition. This is the reason I still love physical books, especially old ones, even when I could read the content more easily and more cheaply on my iPhone. I also find myself more and more interested in producing music than listening to it -- I mean I always felt that way in theory, but now I really _feel_ the difference (in my _soul_, man). I think having signed up with a tradition that emphasizes physical performance rather than recordings etc. is a part of this though.

David Marx (chief editor at NeoJaponisme) has written a lot about how the whole Shibuya-kei scene was reliant on a certain group of people having privileged access to extremely cool rarities from outside Japan, and his analysis makes sense to me. So as you say, when everything is available there is a price: we can never have a movement like Shibuya-kei again. In some ways this reminds me of a transition from (idealized) monarchy/aristocracy to broad democracy... it's natural to feel uneasy about all that gloria mundi you loved transiting sic, even if you also aren't opposed to the democratization of fun.