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.
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