Nothing is Rare On the Internet

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 - 02:28 PM

Let me tell you a story about how the internet fundamentally changed my relationship to objects.

I am a record collector. Or I was. Or I am still, when I happen upon a yard sale. But if someone were to do a scatter graph of the release dates of the records I have, they would taper off sharply after about 2003. Because the internet eliminated scarcity and, in some ways, the thrill of the hunt. 

In high school, I was a huge fan of the band Shellac. It's not easy to be a fan of a band like Shellac, because their output is sporadic and their touring schedule even more so. In the 20 years they've been around, they've put out four albums, a couple of 7" records, and a smattering of compilation appearances. 

In 1997, three years after Shellac released their first (and at that point only) album, there were rumors they were going to release a new album called The Futurist. The only problem was that the band decided to press only 700 copies, print the names of the recipients on the cover and then circle the recipient's name, ostensibly to keep them from selling the album back to record stores. It was a release for their friends. Not for their fans. Not for me.

As such, it was a hot commodity. I had friends who claimed to have heard it - to have gotten a copy of a copy of a cassette recording of it. But I resigned myself to the idea that I would never hear it.

Fast forward to the fall of 2001. I had just started my second semester in college, and the dorms had been wired for internet. It was my first opportunity to avail myself of a fat chunk of bandwidth, and a computer with a 20 GB hard drive!

Napster had already been shut down earlier that year, but a million substitutes had popped up in its place. When I booted up my computer and plugged it into this seemingly unlimited stream of new music, I had one album in mind. The Futurist.

And, of course, there it was. It was one of a million apples hanging from the P2P tree. Possessing it was thrilling, for a minute. But with almost everything I ever wanted to listen to laid out before me, suddenly all of these albums I would have spent years looking for looked less valuable to me.

In the pre-internet world, it was sometimes a challenge to even hear a song. I remember the satisfaction of seeing titles I'd only heard about. I remember hearing Sparks for the first time when a friend played a bootleg VHS of an appearance on Top of the Pops. Recorded music was ephemeral and finite, and fidelity was questionable, but getting ahold of it was undeniably exciting.

As music became easier to get, I became less interested in going out and finding it. I could press a button and have 60 James Brown albums, or 20 Beach Boys sessions, or Parliament's entire discography. The challenge was gone.

And now, when it comes to things - not just music, but movies, tv shows, video games, pretty much any media - I just grow impatient if what I'm looking for is more than a few button presses away. I don't know if there's a corollary media experience out there anymore. Something rare and delightful that remains difficult to procure. But that feeling of satisfaction has grown ever more elusive. Nothing is rare anymore. Still, I'll always have The Futurist.

(this article was inspired by this article on Medium by Rex Sorgatz)


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Comments [3]


The one instance of digital rarity I can recall is Flappy Bird - and people pretty much lost their minds over that.

On an unrelated note, there's a theory about Shellac that I've always enjoyed: All of their albums were recorded at the same time and were only staggered in release.

Jun. 11 2014 10:43 AM
Michael from NYC

I have a kind of different take on this...

In college in the early to mid-80s, I had almost no spending money for records, either new or used. Sure, I could listen to the radio, but I had no budget to purchase music I was interested in. So, the fact was, I simply didn't hear lots of music I was curious to hear. Music was rare to me, back then, because I couldn't afford most of it!

I have more spending money today, but I think it's great that I can call up online almost any music I want to hear, and then sit back, listen, and explore. Now, music is about as accessible as a book is.

I've never been a collector of records (or other formats), so maybe that makes all the difference. I get the appeal of collecting, but back then the music was (to me) most of the time trapped in a physical object that I couldn't attain, anyway, whether I could locate the specific object that held the music, or not.

Jun. 10 2014 09:39 PM

I know it's not a media experience, but when i read this, "Something rare and delightful that remains difficult to procure," i thought, sex with a lady.

Jun. 10 2014 03:37 PM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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