(Although this is an article about art and writing, I’ll be talking about music a lot because it provides the best examples of what I am discussing in this article.)
I was randomly surfing the internet recently (when aren’t I?) and I found this amazing site called “The Iron Maiden Commentary” which contains a detailed list of pretty much every official and unofficial Iron Maiden record, CD and single ever produced – with reviews and commentary too.
In case you’ve never heard of them, Iron Maiden are a British heavy metal band which was formed in the late 1970s and are still going strong to this day.
Iron Maiden was one of the first “cool” bands that I ever discovered when I was a teenager (after listening to cheesy 1990s pop music for much of my childhood).
Discovering a band like Iron Maiden when you are a teenager is one of those rites of passage which I think that everyone should go through.
If you’ve never listened to their songs before, then you’re in for a treat – check out the official video for the first Maiden songs I ever heard (whilst playing “Carmageddon II” of all things..) – “Be Quick Or Be Dead” and “Aces High“.
Anyway, the part of the website which fascinated me were all of the rare things which were mentioned on there, such as obscure B-sides on singles released a couple of decades ago, The Soundhouse Tapes and countless old bootlegs from the 80s and 90s.
Of course, I’d heard many of the obscure B-sides and rare songs before on various CDs and any that I hadn’t heard could be quickly found on Youtube. Most of them are amazingly good and it’s almost like the band has a second, hidden discography. A second discography that is a hell of a lot more rare (especially when it comes to the original releases of most of these songs) and harder to find than their widely-released discography.
Anyway, after seeing and listening to something as cool as that, I had the same response that I normally do to cool things – namely “I want to make something like that“.
Now, having no musical talent and very little musical experience, I wondered how I could make something similar with my art, writing and/or comics. I thought about making a collection of obscure chapbooks (something like this one by Billy Martin/ PoppyZ. Brite) or a rare spin-off comic from one of my main comics or something like that. I wanted to make something rare and fascinating.
Then I realised that I couldn’t. Unless I went through the old-school channels of physical printing and publishing, I could never have a large rare second collection of my own work for people to geek out about and collect.
In fact, the closest thing I have to rare and obscure examples of my own work are three short stories (“The Widow”, “Cognition” and “Refinery Girls”) published in two small print run short story collections from 2009 and 2010. I think only 100-300 copies of each collection were ever produced and they were only ever sold in one small town. But, again, these are old-school offline printed books.
I’m sure that there have probably been whole dissertations written about this topic, but no creative work is rare these days. Or at least, no digital file is rare. Because digital files can be copied, sold, streamed and/or distributed an infinite number of times, nothing is rare on the internet.
But, is this a good thing?
As a member of the audience, the answer is an unequivocal “YES!” It’s made everything a lot more democratic and egalitarian – great obscure songs and live recordings are no longer just hidden in the dusty record collections of a few wealthy collectors, the shelves of people who know where to buy old-school bootleg CDs and the collections of people who were lucky enough to be around when some of these songs were officially released. Everyone gets a fair chance. Music is no longer elitist.
These days, both long-time fans and new generations of fans (who will almost certainly buy or already own the official albums too) can listen these hidden gems relatively easily on streaming sites like Youtube. If the record companies are smart, then they can get advertising revenues from ads placed before these songs rather than playing a losing game of whack-a-mole with millions of Youtube uploaders like some record companies have been known to do in the past.
For most of the fans (apart from more elitist fans who also have large collections of rare stuff), for the smart people in record/media companies and for famous creative people who want to keep and/or expand their fanbase, the fact that nothing is rare on the internet is a good thing. A very good thing.
But, if you’re a less famous creative person who can only really release things digitally, is it a good thing?
Is the fact that none of your work will ever become rare, obscure and sought-after a good thing?
In all practical terms, it sounds like it should be. After all, it provides more things for your fans to enjoy and geek out about. It also means that everyone has a fair chance to look at and enjoy your work too.
But, in emotional terms, my feelings about this topic are a bit more mixed. If something is rare or obscure, then it means that you have a lot more creative freedom since the only people reading or listening to it will probably be die-hard fans.
Going back to Iron Maiden, a fair number of their obscure B-sides (such as “The Sheriff Of Huddersfield”, “Roll Over Vic Vella”, “More Tea, Vicar” and Nicko’s version of “Age Of Innocence”) are a lot more light-hearted, bizarre and eccentric than anything on their albums. These songs show the band messing around and/or experimenting with different musical styles.
Now, if they’d originally put these songs on their albums alongside more serious songs about war, death, nightmares, history etc… then it would have reduced their albums to a confusing and jarring mess. But, since they had the outlet of releasing these songs as obscure and rare B-sides to people who were already fans, they had the creative freedom to mess around and try different things without worrying how they would be seen in the context of their wider body of work.
And, this, I guess is what I miss about the fact that nothing is rare in the digital age. I can’t imagine any “serious” modern band (apart from punk bands) doing something as light-hearted as this. Likewise, on the dark day when digital publishing eventually overtakes and eliminates physical publishing, some authors might be less likely to release short stories (which they might have sent to magazines or story collections in the past) which are very different from their main body of work. Artists may also be less likely to deviate from any more recognisable or famous art styles that they use.
In other words, if less people are looking at your work, then you have a lot more creative freedom. You can go crazy and try different things without worrying as much about what people will think. Having rare and obscure things still allows you to enjoy this freedom, even when you’re a lot more successful. And, let’s face it, almost every creative person dreams of being successful one day.
So, yes, if you’re a creative person, the fact that nothing is rare on the internet isn’t an entirely good thing. But, as I said earlier, it isn’t an entirely bad thing either.
Still, if you want to release anything obscure then there’s still good old-fashioned offline methods of publication, I guess. With all of their gatekeepers, printing costs, physical storage, logistics etc…
Anyway, I hope that this article was interesting 🙂