Apr 10, 2013

Manufacturing Scarcity

You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you might find
You get what you need

The musician Prince recently found short videos clips from the Twitter-owned video sharing service Vine to be offending because they contained clips from his music:
A representative of NPG Records wrote to Twitter to say eight video clips hosted on Vine contained “unauthorized recordings” and “unauthorized synchronizations” and asked the company to remove them immediately - The Next Web
Here is one of the clips in question.

This is not the first time Prince has gone on this crusade: "Prince, of course, has earned a somewhat unflattering reputation for his tireless efforts to hunt down unauthorized fan recordings across the web and have them obliterated."

In all likelihood, this is simply a case of a control freak "optimizing for control" (says @anildash). Not realizing the passion of his fans who want to share their experiences listening to his music.

But what if this is something more than that, something maybe ingenious that may not only be inoffensive to his fans, but also may enhance aspects of their fandom that were otherwise lost in the digital era. What if Prince is trying to manufacture scarcity where it no longer exists.

Back in the pre-Internet day, buying a record took some work. You had to find out about it (radio, fanzine), scrounge up some cash, get yourself to a record store (Tower Records on Broadway, for one), buy the platter, get back home, and listen. Then get a cassette, record some tracks, give the tape to a friend. A lot of friction, sure. But also a process that, because of the scarcity of getting a new record, had its own rhythms of fandom. Being the first to have something mattered in a different way. Not a better way, but a different way. I remember the first time my friend Steve played us Husker Du - he was the guide, we were his followers. We felt inside the process of discovery.

Which is why I always struggle when something, some content, is described as "quality." For isn't a degree of excellence purely subjective? Which is not to say that content does not have value, it's just that maybe it has less inherent value than we previously thought. My idea is that, prior to the Internet becoming a mass distribution platform, the value of a piece of content was more related to its scarcity of distribution than it was to any measure of its value. In equation form, we could think that traditionally Value (V) = Scarcity (S) * Quality (Q). Q of course, being largely subjective, is hard to measure. But S is not. I believe that S then acted as a multiplier of value. Seinfeld was a good show, surely; but it was only available at 9pm on Thursdays. Tuesdays were the exciting days when new records were released. And we didn't have even near to the number of alternative choices to occupy our time as we do now. Thus a massive S, and thus a massive V.

Maybe it follows then that, because there is so little scarcity of distribution anymore, the whole value chain has been disrupted, maybe even inverted. We need new forms of finding and exchanging value. Live performances. Kickstarter campaigns. 15 episodes of a new show all released at once.

Or, you can try to create scarcity, or at least the appearance of such. The feeling of scarcity.

What if this is exactly what Prince is doing. Regardless of whether he cares or not about his rights or control, what if, by policing or attempting to police Internet distribution about himself, he is making it feel as if Prince music is scarce? Manufacturing scarcity. You can't get it everywhere. You can't user-generate content about it. You can't bootleg it. He would be wrong, of course; there is no way to stop this sharing of digital content. But by issuing take down requests of random 8 second clips, he sure is ensuring that everyone is talking about . . . Prince.

This also does more than simply keep him top of mind though; for it then spawns a subculture of people who want to share and trade Prince content. But they have to use obfuscatory techniques. Like posting videos of live recordings that don't use "Prince" in their title. By pushing it underground, it then becomes cool again. Hardcore fans know how to find it, what to call it to ensure it remains hidden. You can't simply use Google to find it. You have to know the passwords, the secret handshakes. You have to work to find it. And then real personal points are scored when you do, and you pass it along.

By aggressively trying to prevent sharing, maybe he has engendered a richer culture of sharing itself. Maybe he has somehow increased S, and given people the feeling of an increase in V.

And therefore - maybe - Prince has created an environment where the perceived value of his art, his content, has increased. He has manufactured the elements of scarcity. Perhaps the information age technology which has basically eliminated this scarcity has also created new, different methods of value.

I'm sure all the above are the ravings of someone with too much on his hands to think about conspiracy theories. And to be clear, I don't necessarily believe that withholding in this way is the best long term value creator. See, e.g., this.

But what if.

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