On weekends I like to drag my lazy butt to the semi-local flea market to see what I can see. On recent outings, I hit the jackpot with a handful of Everly Bros. singles in great condition in their original Warner Bros. picture sleeves. A nice find. I also came across a copy of Frank Zappa’s Overnite Sensation that had a little crud on the record itself but was easily remedied. This past Saturday…not much. Maybe a CD for a buck?
But there was that much at least. It got me thinking that, yes, 95% of what I find at this or any other flea market has no interest to me whatsoever, but that last 5% might be enough to pique my curiosity. A year or so ago I picked up a small stack of CDs I knew only by name in passing. All in, I might have spent three bucks for eight of them. A few of them went right back into the retail stream in Goodwill Store donations, but a couple of them were worthy investments.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one – especially from me because I’m prone to repeating myself – but these instances of tertiary market serendipity are going away. It’s inevitable that with the end of physical media as we know it – the ability to stumble over something you’d never give a thought to before but at the bargain price presented makes hard to pass up – opportunities to engage with older movies, television, music, and on will cease.
Before you counter with “Yeah, but the vinyl resurgence,” let me stop you right there. The best-selling new albums are reissues of old albums. Not with the entire marketplace, of course, but for the largest portion of it, it is not a new audience buying into the older material, but the older purchasers rebuying it, probably as penance for having trashed their records at the dawn of the CD.
Yes, pop star Lorde is releasing her latest record on streaming and on vinyl LP and that is it. Her label is by-passing even the most perfunctory CD release of it. I have doubts about whether the LP component of the sales cycle will be substantial. I also wonder if many retailers will carry Solar Power given that the cover amounts to an upskirt peep. By most measures, this is a digital-only release with a tiny promotional product quotient.
Here’s the larger issue. Think of all the shows on Netflix, Disney+, HBOMax, and so on. As we know from Netflix’s example, they take things down on a regular basis to maintain room for newer product. That means several shows the streamer created only a couple of years ago that were deemed failures are off the platform and can be found (legally) nowhere else. It’s the same with music streaming sites. While the Spotifys, Amazon Music, and Apples of our world probably won’t remove files soon, they will have to confront dwindling storage one day, and that will be the most logical choice – take down the losers. Add to that the aggressive algorithms that keep the top songs top, and the still-potent power of the labels to assure it stays that way, and you can see how a lot of these projects will be nullified in a new golden age of lost media.
Reruns, summer hiatus broadcasting blocks that aired out the TV pilots that didn’t get picked up, second-run movie theaters, and even lowly disc and tape based media held out the hopes for future rediscovery. You could argue that some of music’s most bizarre rediscoveries would not have happened without the physical artifact to draw attention to itself. Do all of these lost items deserve to be found? Objectively, no. Some were disregarded for a reason. But then a few would rise up from the junk piles to claim “cult” status.
There’s a famous example of an animated segment shown on the childrens’ television show Sesame Street. The segment was called “Cracks.” It was, for some kids, too scary and so the segment was pulled, yet some remembered it existing. The majority never saw it and thus those who insisted there was this intense cartoon about a monster made of plaster cracks sounded a little crazy. Where was the evidence of this strange cartoon? Eventually, it came to light that, yes, “Cracks” existed, but that revelation came down to a lot of investigation and one piece of physical media.
In the digital-only, stream-only landscape where content funders (if not the creators) have a vested interest in making things disappear without a trace, such resurrections seem completely impossible.
There’s an environmental cost to having a bunch of records and CDs out there being unused. The same can be said for the energy used to power the storage farms upon which mass digital files are stored for streamers. It’s the central argument for the art non-fungible-token (NFT) market. The code generated to assign digital ownership of crypto-art, and to sustain the blockchain recording the product, the initial transaction, and subsequent transactions are resource-intensive. What would seem to be a harmless one-time high-priced animated GIF comes at great infrastructure costs. The same goes for digital audio/video, both in the storage and transmission. It is not a “greener” solution.
What about the effect of lost media? Ask science fiction fans. In the early-’60s into the 1980s, the British Broadcasting Company erased many reels of videotape as a cost-savings measure, with no backups. It effectively blotted out large swathes of the BBC legacy, and while some of those shows may never be given a second thought, massive chunks of the series Dr. Who live only as scripts and in memory. Again, those other shows that hadn’t the benefit of becoming a cult classic never will because there’s no way to find them again, not by freak accident or tragedy, but by choice.
I don’t have an answer to this. My impression that the Thunderdome of getting attention and keeping attention will only intensify. There is a specific and very calculated reason why you will now see Lorde’s undercarriage on her album and it is not a rejection of prudishness or a celebration of the human form, or whatever will be said. The point is that we’re talking about the album, and that will help it survive in the digital marketplace and keep it from becoming trees that fall in forests that no one hears. In 2013, she released her debut Pure Heroine with the chart-topping “Royals.” There will be, one day, copies of the album on the tertiary market and, out of curiosity someone may find it and rediscover it. I think there is a value in that.