Occasionally, you see major finds appear and then vanish. One of these for me was Hard Rain, an hour-long Rolling Thunder-era Bob Dylan concert broadcast on NBC in 1976. Like the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, it was broadcast only once in the pre-VCR era and never released commercially in any form. A couple of versions, one from Japanese TV, appear on the torrent networks intermittently—as does Dylan's other important TV appearance of that era, a 1975 PBS special on the work of producer John Hammond, released on VHS but long out of print. (That's a great example of the way fans' abilities to see their icons has changed as well: Through the bulk of the 1970s, Bob Dylan appeared on TV in any substantive way twice.)
You've heard of the Concert for Bangladesh, certainly, and maybe The Last Waltz; what about the San Francisco all-star benefit concert called S.N.A.C.K., which featured, among others things, a rockin' Bob Dylan/Neil Young set? The audio from that, drawn from a contemporary live broadcast, is easy to find. You can hear a powerful audio track from it, "Helpless," on YouTube. You a Stanley Kubrick fan? His early films— The Seafarers, Flying Padre, and The Day of the Fight—are a few clicks away.
And let's remember that on a level below the finished artistic works we're talking about here are untold thousands of pieces of creative endeavor, of interest to scholars and fans, of a different sort: Outtakes, demos, and rehearsals from the sacred and the profane, the high and the low. Eighties-arena-rock scholars take note: After I told a friend about this article, he volunteered that an acquaintance of his had given him a large set of rehearsal tapes from …. Van Halen's 1984 album.
The singularity isn't quite here: Over on Jeffrey Wells' Hollywood Elsewhere blog, the left column features a list of films never released on DVD. I found many of these just with cursory checks of the major torrent sites—just about all you could want of Peter Greenaway's penetrating film work, Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love, and the evanescent '70s cause célèbre Looking For Mr. Goodbar—but there were a few I couldn't as well. (Wells' position, incidentally: "If a film is not legally available, I don't want to know about it.")
And there are a couple of broad categories we might never see. The thousands of films and TV shows forever lost by careless storage or deliberate, if misguided, destruction—like most of Jack Paar's Tonight Show and the first 10 years of Johnny Carson's. And there are some films (and far fewer albums) made, but never released in any form and not yet seen, so to speak, in the wild. Jerry Lewis' The Day the Clown Cried has famously never been released and is not to be found on the Internet (at least by me).
With exponential increases in storage space and even faster download speeds, the best way to find a lesser-known song or album is simply to torrent a discography of the artist in question. Interested in Frank Zappa? There's a 70-disc, 10-gigabyte collection—with about 250 seeds and peers participating on just one torrent site. By my crude estimation, you can probably fit whatever your definition of the pop music canon is on the 1 terabyte hard drive most desk computers come with these days—that's 1,000 gigabytes. Let's say that's the equivalent of some 15,000 albums, depending on the sampling rate of your MP3s, or the equivalent of an average of three releases a week over the last 50 years.
As a new generation of music fans comes of age unimpeded by moral or technological roadblocks to this form of collecting, even discographies will become too minuscule to play with. It will be increasingly easy for fans to share massive archives containing the complete works in given eras of music: the Complete British Invasion … Singer Songwriters from Dylan to Oberst … punk and post-punk—you get the idea.
Soon, we'll all have Lester Bangs' basement in our pockets. And it's just a matter of time that we'll be able to do something similar for film.
Torrenting and other file-sharing sites remain an ongoing nightmare for the large media companies. The vast majority of it involves current and popular movies and music, the illegal sharing of which unquestionably takes money out of the companies' pockets. Yet as technology evolves, the ways we share media—new and old, ubiquitous and "rare"—is changing in different and even paradoxical ways.
Consider that the industries are beginning to recognize that a danger greater than torrenting is represented by the so-called cyberlocker sites—places like Megaupload and Hotfile. (These sites conveniently don't leave the swappers legally exposed the way torrenting does.) Their growth is extreme even by Internet standards; according to the Alexa rankings, several of these are creeping up a list of the most popular sites on the Internet worldwide—a sobering indication of the amount of media being moved around. These sites allow users to put up anything—from a song to, say, a pristine HD version of a new movie—and tell their friends (or the world) that it's there for the downloading.
Personal websites, like the MP3 blogs, do the same thing. Here's one known as Never Get Out of the Boat. (The title's an Apocalypse Now reference.) NGOOTB Redux, as it's called now, after having been kicked out of its previous blogging home, specializes in uploads of and links to big collections of out-of-print and obscure rock and film nuggets, from unreleased early Stones blues material to an unreleased Jim Morrison-directed movie short to, um, a long unheard-of Hudson Bros. album.
The patron of the site goes by the name of (what else?) Capt. Willard. "Nothing's rare anymore," he responded flatly when I queried him. "If someone's got it, or done it, it's likely online somewhere." Willard has a mutual admiration society with the site And Your Bird Can Swing, which purveys the same sort of stuff, with an emphasis on fairly large archives of material, like this five-CD compendium of Peter Townsend's Who demos. A lot of these places allow immediate streaming as well. That creates a new, insanely broad game of Whac-a-Mole for the companies fighting illegal use of their intellectual property.