Bill Wyman wrote a worthwhile piece a few months ago about the universal availability of art:

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. If you have a decent Internet connection and a slight cast of amorality in your character, there’s very little out there you might want that you can’t find. Does the end of rarity change in any fundamental way, our understanding of, attraction to, or enjoyment of pop culture and high art?

The notion that “the Internet changes everything” is touted too often. But this is really an astonishing development. Many years ago, I was a Batman fan that bought a somewhat disappointing one-shot called Batman: Vengeance of Bane, which introduced an interesting but (within the story) inconsequential villain. When Bane went on to utterly defeat the Batman, the comic book that I had purchased for a couple bucks – that they didn’t even bother an embossed or triple-released cover, was suddenly worth $40. Unlike a lot of valuable comics at the time, this didn’t become valuable because it had an embossed cover or something like that. It was valuable because people wanted to read the story and they couldn’t unless they bought it (when they released a second print, the value dropped back down to $10). These days, they could have just downloaded it on the Internet, illegally for free or for a few bucks from DC Comics itself.

There’s no scarcity anymore, except that which is imposed by the producers to price certain people out. Any book released today will likely be available, in perpetuity, forevermore. Due to the virtual abolition of the public domain, it may never be free. But it’ll be available. As someone that once ached to find copies of CDs out of production or comic books that had a single run years ago, this is a pretty amazing development. Once, I purchased an entire set of 60 comics just so that I could finally get my hands on the four that I didn’t have and that were hard to get. It would, of course, be nicer if I could get it for free, but it’s pretty amazing that I will likely be able to get ahold of – one way or another – anything that came out since around 2005.

This is great for me. And in some sense it’s good for the producers to the extent that they can continue to make money off old things without firing up the printing presses again, though at the prices they will sell them at and the availability of the stuff for free online, I’m not sure how much money they’re actually going to make. Not only is it free from Bit Torrent, but you never have to worry about any DRM glitches. So there’s the argument that, if they want to sell these things, they should make them so cheap that it’s not worth taking any sort of risk on Bit Torrent, and that they should make it available. Sure, maybe a lot of people won’t pay for it, but they’ll make more money in the end than they do if they put together a package at a price and with restrictions that people won’t abide by.

From a practical standpoint, I think this is wrong for two reasons. First, people who aren’t geeks really don’t seem to care all that much about DRM. Kindle and its offspring have demonstrated that people are willing to pay what are really outrageous prices when the delivery system is sound. Even before music downloading went from AAC to MP3, Apple was sitting pretty.

Second, I am becoming increasingly convinced that people internalize price. That art, when sold cheaply, becomes cheap. Someone that pays $15 for a CD is likely to have an investment in that artist. Someone that pays a couple bucks for the three songs off the CD that they want will likely forget about the artist. They won’t have an attachment. They won’t – for lack of other things to listen to – listen and relisten to the CD until they find out that there are actually four other songs that they come to like. So while from a fan’s standpoint – to the extent that fans are willing to concede that the record labels, artists, and the like should be compensated for their trouble, which isn’t always the case – it shouldn’t matter to the record labels whether they make $1000 selling a copy to 100 people or the same amount selling to 400 since the marginal costs are so low, there’s an argument to be made that making their product cheap actually does do them harm, by making the services they provide seem less valuable. And from an artist’s standpoint, by making their music more disposable.

More on this to come.


Category: Market, Theater

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

9 Responses to Everpresent Art

  1. Abel says:

    . . . there’s an argument to be made that making their product cheap actually does do them harm, by making the services they provide seem less valuable. And from an artist’s standpoint, by making their music more disposable.

    This model does more harm to record companies and book publishers than it does actual artists. Kindles, for example, may make books more disposable and cheaper but it’s a great way for writers to grow their fan base and write for fans rather than an editor or agent.

    Oh, and did I mention I turned down my latest publishing contract? Details coming next week.

  2. trumwill says:

    I look forward to it. As I mentally start moving more towards writing publishable things, I am going to have to make that decision at some point.

  3. Mike Hunt says:

    The notion that “the Internet changes everything” is touted too often.

    But it does.

    Once upon a time you could buy a set of box scores for a particular baseball season through classified ads. They cost $100, but it saved you the time of having to go to the library and using the microfilm machine. Now, it is all online, free of charge.

    If I wanted to watch Wierd Al lose on Jeopardy!, I better hope MTV was in the mood to play the video. Now, thanks to YouTube, I can literally watch it until I am sick of Don Pardo and Art Fleming.

    The Internet changes EVERYTHING. It can’t be understated.

  4. web says:

    I’m not willing to agree with the notion that the internet means “Any book released today will likely be available, in perpetuity, forevermore” (you could replace “book” with the words game, comic, movie, etc). certainly, there are cult-favorites that have been saved by the tendency of certain people on the internet to be archivists. I’ve found some old video game classics that would be available no other way from the DOS days, simply because almost all retail floppies have succumbed to bit-rot.

    However, there ARE plenty of items that are lost to time. And the prevalence of DRM and, more to the point, constantly evolving/changing operational environments, kills some things as well. For instance, any original Xbox game that had downloadable content (Halo 2 is a great example) is now “incomplete” unless you have an original Xbox on which the DLC was downloaded before Microsoft shuttered their original Live servers. “Backups” of the content are only available and usable if your original Xbox has been modified. In 10 years’ time, the number of original Xboxes left in playable condition will be very small. Even with emulation programs, there exists a good chance that the DLC portion will simply be lost – maybe not for Halo 2, which was an immensely popular, but for less popular titles (Outlaw Volleyball, for example) there’s a good chance it will simply vanish.

  5. web says:

    They won’t – for lack of other things to listen to – listen and relisten to the CD until they find out that there are actually four other songs that they come to like.

    Actually, this is an argument to change (or restore?) the way radio play and other musical venues work.

    If you go see an artist in concert, you get a full set. Maybe not precisely the CD setlist, especially for those who’ve been around a decade or more, but enough to be relatively representative of their body of work.

    If you listen to an artist on the radio, you get… one of their songs. Played over and over and freaking OVER again, because just about the only formats left on the radio are “top 40 in genre x” or “top 40 from 1/2/3 decades ago for old people seeking a nostalgia kick” formats.

    When I was growing up, we had stations in my hometown with DJ’s who would actually spin an entire album from new groups, so that people could really decide whether they liked the group or not. Not the case today. In fact, I sympathize with those people who have stated they only “pirate” music to find out whether they like the album enough to buy it or not. If you don’t like it, you’re unlikely to keep listening to it, but if your only option is to pay $15-20 for an album and you find out after the fact that you only like the 1-2 songs that got radio play, you’re likely to feel ripped off. The artists and labels both got into a VERY bad habit of making this a regular thing, an auditory bait-and-switch scam that did a lot of damage to the “brand” that is music in general.

    As regards value, there’s one other key factor: sure, you can put the album at $15-20 (and they still do!) but most other forms of entertainment are far less expensive. A movie ticket, even in 3D, will run you generally $10 or less. To get most movies on DVD is in the $5-10 range. Blu-Ray movies are usually still $15 or more, but with those you get a ton of extra content.

    What do you get with a music CD? Generally you don’t even get liner notes any more. Lyric sheets? Forget it. You get a piece of plastic with a cheaply printed photo of the band on it (sometimes not even that, some of them are a single-color blap with the name of the band and the album name in a single other color), you get a clear plastic shell, and you get a roughly 8″x4″ piece of paper folded in half with the CD image on one side and a bunch of copyright boilerplate and credits list (band members, agent, recording studio and studio staff, etc) on the other. And that’s it.

    I’ve applauded the few artists who do it differently. Weird Al, last time he put his out, made it a dual-sided disc that had the music videos for a good portion of the album on the other side (everything but White and Nerdy which was freely available just about everywhere anyways). He still includes lyric sheets on every album. When you buy one of his albums, you don’t feel ripped off. Not the case for most other bands.

  6. Brandon Berg says:

    Thanks, Will. That excerpt from Wyman’s piece was just the lead-in I needed for an excuse to plug the inaugural post of my new blog about classic Japanese popular music.

  7. trumwill says:

    Web,

    As you point out later, though, you still have access to these games. Perhaps not legitimate access because they closed off legitimate channels. But they’re out there. The same goes most media. Perhaps I should have stopped short of stating (or heavily suggesting, at any rate) that all works will be available. But it will be the rule to which there are periodic exceptions. Particularly once people get into the habit of cracking their Kindles, stripping the DRM, and uploading it to BitTorrent.

    Legal or no, the fact that it is a possibility means the end of artistic scarcity. Where there is a will, there will be a way. This is a very substantial thing and DRM cannot prevent it from happening. It’s not entirely a good thing, but huge all the same.

  8. trumwill says:

    Actually, this is an argument to change (or restore?) the way radio play and other musical venues work.

    Why would the radio stations do this? They thrive on familiarity. They’re at cross-purposes here. The radio stations have no reason to care if people listen to the totality of an artist’s catalog.

    As regards value, there’s one other key factor: sure, you can put the album at $15-20 (and they still do!) but most other forms of entertainment are far less expensive. A movie ticket, even in 3D, will run you generally $10 or less. To get most movies on DVD is in the $5-10 range. Blu-Ray movies are usually still $15 or more, but with those you get a ton of extra content.

    I’m less the entirely clear whether you’re referring to the physical medium or the purchasing of music itself. As far as the physical disc is concerned, I agree. I don’t know that I will ever by a physical CD again.

    But music, even at $15 for a set or 10 or 12 or so, is actually not bad if the content is good. I get more out of paying $10 or $15 for a great set of songs (even if there’s 2 or 3 or 4 that I won’t like) than I do paying $10 to go see a great movie or $15-20 for a Blu-Ray disc of a really good movie.

  9. trumwill says:

    Mike, the Internet changes a lot, but not everything. Once upon a time, people thought it obviated the need for revenue, a business plan, and so on. Oops. More close to the point, a lot of people thought that the Internet meant that content producers were all going to *have* to give away their stuff for free, full-stop. Instead, they continue to charge money and people continue to pay for it. Even if, as you point out, they don’t have to if they are flexible with their content needs.

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