Is Anything Rare Anymore?
When I was a fledgling 16-year-old music fanatic, I became obsessed with a record store a half-mile walk from my mother’s apartment in Levittown, PA. The shop, Positively Records, looked like a hot mess upon entering it. It looked like Lester Bangs, Chuck Klosterman, and that moody douche from High Fidelity had eaten a stack of old NMEs and thrown them up into stacked cardboard rows. However, after digging around the store, you realized its meticulously built chaos was perfect. Any band you wanted to find was easily discovered. The store was smal l– about the size of a two-car garage — but the immense amount of music packed into such a tiny space was more than enough for me to waste many adolescent afternoons there, walking home at dusk with a Kinks live album and something titillatingly called Guns N’ Roses: Unplugged shoved into my coat pockets. The ceiling and higher shelves were littered with old music memorabilia (strictly and regrettably not for sale): original Beatles figurines, autographed Kiss Alive vinyls, a tattered American flag with Jim Morrison lyrics scribbled across it (scribbles not done by the original author). It became impossible for me to enjoy much else as I needed to see every possible purchase. I wonder if they have any rare Soundgarden? I hear there were some Temple of the Dog reunions. What about The Flaming Lips? They have a huge bootleg circuit. It was a painful cycle of having way too many choices, a sense of overload I hated so much I went there every day I could.
I was transported back to Positively Records when I recently came across a Telegraph headline: “Rejected Beatles Audition Tape Discovered.” You have my goddamn attention. Ten tracks the Fab Four sent to Decca Records in 1962 (which is basically embryonic for Beatles fans) including three originals, on a demo tape with rumored crystal sound quality? The record Decca executive Dick Rowe heard and famously turned them down because “guitar groups are on their way out”? With Pete Fucking Best?!
When can I hear it? I want to be alone with these ten dumplings of musical beauty for hours straight. I want to know every time George or John lifts their fingers too slowly off the strings, giving the luscious little squeak from the instrument. I want to hear every improvised bass part. And I want to hear why the hell Pete Best was kicked out in favor of Ringo Starr, a man whom Paul McCartney once said “isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.”
However, here’s the joke: the moment this silver platter of tonal wonder is released to the public — and it will be; Yoko Ono’s bug-eye sunglasses don’t buy themselves — we can all have it, most of us without even buying it. It’ll be another Beatles record for old fogie Boomers and goateed aficionados to have, instead of what it is now: a mythical adventure of four-chord riffs on American rock n’ roll and John Lennon’s howling. It’ll be diced and sliced, churned out through the grinder of music criticism until Rolling Stone gives it 5 stars and Pitchfork gives it a 7.8 (presumably using words like “masturbatory” and “novelty”). But more importantly, there will be millions of copies in production and an infinite amount of downloads available, leaving the sole original to be disregarded into the glass of a rich collector’s trophy room with the mystery and exclusivity of its contents lost forever.
The same is now true of countless records. Freshman year of college, my nine-person suite was taking place in the ritualistic Ripping Of Everyone’s CD Collections when I came across a blank CD in a stoner’s binder. “Oh, throw that out,” he said. “I got it from my dad and it’s just a really bad quality recording of the Velvet Underground.” Intrigued, I uploaded it onto my computer and found the tracklisting to match that of the Norman Dolph acetate. The Norman Dolph acetate is a famed studio recording of The Velvet Underground and Nico recording seven of the 10 tracks on their famous album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. The album is extremely scratchy, and four of the seven songs are even the same take which made it onto the official album. The acetate was found by a record collector in Chelsea for 75 cents and sold on eBay for over $25,000. The actual album has found millions of fans (an old line of it sold 3,000 copies but created 3,000 bands) and yet this incredibly unique recording can be found on Youtube.
In 1983, French electronic composer Jean Michel Jarre recorded a commissioned music score for an art exhibition about supermarkets. The album, Music For Supermarkets, had one copy pressed. The plates and master recordings were destroyed after the art show, and one copy of the album has ever existed (its current owner is unknown). Aside from the art show, Music For Supermarkets was once played on French AM radio, with Jarre announcing the record by shouting “pirate me!” Pirate him they did, as you can now find the audio of this one-of-a-kind record on Youtube, ripped from that radio broadcast. So it’s no longer original. Hell, I’m listening to it right now. The internet has taken works like Supermarkets and the Dolph acetate and multiplied them over and over again unto infinity and it has the power to do this with all media.
But it’s unfair to blame “the internet” as if it’s some mindless, Lovecraftian horror stomping around the globe and devouring our souls to churn out Jimi Hendrix giving an impromptu performance of “Hound Dog” like it’s no big deal. We are responsible. Something within the human spirit has the need to not only own what is rare but make sure everyone else has it, too. While it would be great if this unlimited mindset felt the same about, say, food, we instead feed the masses on meager helpings of Phish and Bread.
There’s a great scene in the first Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear catches a commercial for himself on television. He immediately is filled with an overwhelming sense of existential perspective, that he is not a famed hero of infinity and beyond but a child’s plaything, one of a million manufactured, stocked, purchased, and imprisoned within the daily mundanity of an eternal smile and playing his role. It’s a familiar instinct; we all want to be special and unique, and more so do we want our things to be special and unique. But we replicate and replicate and repeat until the culture is a gelatinous grey goo, until everyone will own this Beatles recording, until everyone has seen the latest Youtube distraction a million times, until everyone tries to be different in the exact same way. We want our things to be special and unique because we define ourselves by them, and if we can show off that gold Legend of Zelda NES cartridge we bought at a flea market (decades after we or our parents sold it for a dollar) we can feel a simple and greedy pride; I have this and you don’t. But even with the power to recreate any piece of media, the instinct lives into its full potential of creating an endless pool of plenty where scarcity drowns to the bottom, possibly taking value with it.
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