Lester Bangs' Basement
What it means to have all music instantly available.
That's one way in which new online developments are creating previously unimaginable tsunamis of media. Another is more insular: Invitation-only archives, the private tracker sites, that share content, often with a thematic bent. These are basically no-trespassing media sandboxes in which members swap films and torrents (or just pass around cyberlocker links). They have sophisticated setups that reward you for uploading new product—and punish you if you're just grabbing stuff and not bringing anything to the table. They often have well-defined spheres of interest. One called Cinemageddon, for example, says it specializes in "the finest (ahem) rare, obscure and of course trashy horror, martial arts, gore, exploitation and action flicks."
The company Big Champagne has found an ever-more-influential niche tracking modern media usage on the Internet. (It's sort of like the Billboard charts of the dark side of media consumption.) John Robinson is a Senior Media Analyst at the company; he watches the flood of media professionally from his office in Atlanta. "Scarcity doesn't exist in the way it used to," he agreed, when I asked him about my interest. "There's still scarcity of a version of it, that is, a product a consumer would want to own in the physical world. But there's generally a way to find something."
I asked Robinson whether he had noticed previously unobtainable nuggets coming to the surface. "Visconti adapted The Stranger, starring Marcello Mastroianni," he responded. "If you hear about it in film school it's, 'Forget about it, you're never going to see this film. He hates it, his wife hates it, everyone hates it. It's completely buried. Forget about it.' " Citing online discussions, he said the film emerged in 1999 at a meeting of a group of cinematographers. One showed the film on VHS, and a copy eventually made its way to a private tracker site.
Robinson said some fans take a stab at restoration by running poor copies through programs to better their quality. "You can read whole threads going down about correcting the timing of the subtitles or running [the movie] through Avidemux," he said. "It gets incredibly technical." (Avidemux is an open-source video processing program.) Others annotate the files and create synopses. "All of this technical and academic-level stuff is happening totally behind a wall," he said. "You can't Google it, but it exists." But fans can't keep their digital creations behind a wall any more than the movie studios can. Luchino Visconti's The Stranger is now easily findable on any of the open-torrent networks.
The tracker sites' memberships self-select for obsessiveness and an interest in the unusual, so it's not surprising that they are at the forefront of this de-rarefication process. Poke around, and you can see some serious movie fans getting their geek on, keening for foreign obscurities, cult titles from the 1960s or '70s, C- and D-grade U.S. releases, ancient soft-porn films, and elaborate combinations thereof, like The Sinful Dwarf, a Danish adult-horror drugs 'n' sexploitation flick made in 1973. One site works at collective subtitling of foreign films that haven't seen an English release.
Given smaller file sizes and a decade's head start into digitization, the music world, by contrast, has seen an enormous percentage of its product made available. Genre is a consideration; jazz fans, I assume, aren't as Internet-minded as rock fans, so there's a lot of things that aren't online. On the other hand, perhaps because fans in that world are more likely than emo-loving college kids to pay for their music, a lot of material is available through legitimate channels. I don't know if this is representative, but I've noticed that the iTunes Store has the entire discography of one of my faves, the nutty Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo, while he's virtually nonexistent on the public file-sharing sites.
You can see the holes, slowly, being filled in the holdings of the legitimate online music services. I've always liked the ersatz novelty number "Fowl Owl on the Prowl," from the soundtrack to In the Heat of the Night. I used to troll the Internet for a copy of it, but always unsuccessfully. Now the Quincy Jones soundtrack album, complete with "Fowl Owl" and the soulful title track by Ray Charles, is in the iTunes Store. Similarly, I collect versions of certain songs—"Walk Away Renee," "Wichita Lineman," "Stardust," "Don't Fear the Reaper," "Ain't Misbehavin'," etc.—and have always had many more than the iTunes Store has traditionally offered. Now its selection is pretty good, and I occasionally can find versions I wasn't aware of.
But once in a while I still stumble across something that, to me at least, still qualifies as rare. I've always collected live albums, but I've never been able to find a digital copy Rod Stewart and the Faces' 1974 live effort, Coast to Coast: Overture and Beginners, for example. It was a fairly noted album at the time, as major-act live sets often were in the '70s, and was apparently released on CD out of Japan at some point, but interest in it seems to be absent on the file-sharing networks. It's available on CD or LP on eBay, for a price. I asked Capt. Willard if he'd ever seen it; he told me I just hadn't been searching for it correctly, and pointed to a cyberlocker site that had it.
So the Internet today is very much like Lester Bangs' basement. In its vastness, cacophony, and inaccuracy, it's also very reminiscent of Borges' Library of Babel. Just as that library contained books made up of every possible combination of letters, in the corners of the Internet I'm concerned with here you can find similar chaos: The song "Let It Be" by the Beatles, sure, but also mislabeled as by the Stones, by the Kinks, by the Hollies, by the "Battles" … and also with, of course, those same labels attached to entirely different songs (like "Let It Bleed").
Anyway, is it enough?
For some, the enjoyment of art or culture has fetishistic aspects. To them, being a fan is about something more than just experiencing the art. There will always be collectors, fixating on the physical objects, like the great LP jackets from the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1990s, in the underground and alternative-rock worlds, labels like Sub Pop, exploiting their brand, played to this side of their fans' nature with innovations like the singles club, convincing people to shell out serious money for nonalbum Nirvana and Mudhoney 45s. (Their descendants today are coughing up for old-fashioned LPs of hep new releases.) And there will always be people who can't be happy unless they have something regular fans don't. Indeed, a friend of Bangs', long after he died, said to me that the unspoken corollary in Bangs' mind to his fantasy was that no one else would have access to it.