Duran Duran and Brad De Long on rivalry and excludability in culture



Roxy Music in their prime (source: Last FM)

Duran Duran bassist, John Taylor, has an excerpted speech at the BBC in which he explains the stunning impact of Roxy Music on his teenage musical taste. For the cultural economists out there, note how he explains so succintly the importance of the fact that Roxy Music’s single was excludable:

In September 1972, Roxy Music appeared on prime time TV in the UK. It was their first national TV exposure, a three-minute appearance performing their first single.

And the way they looked and sounded stunned me, and a generation of mes.

But we had no video recorders, and of course there was no YouTube. There was no way whatsoever that I could watch that appearance again, however badly I wanted to. And the power of that restriction was enormous.

The only way I could get close to that experience was to own the song. I lived in the suburbs, so I had to ride my bike for miles before I could find a store that sold music, let alone one that had the record in stock. It was a small trial of manhood and an adventure.

But once I had that song, I could play it whenever I chose. I had to go on a quest of sorts to get it, but my need was such that I did it.

The power of that single television appearance created such pressure, such magnetism, that I got sucked in and I had to respond as I know now previous generations had responded to Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show, or The Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix. I believe there’s immense power in restriction and holding back.

Meanwhile, over at his blog, Brad De Long makes a related point about the rivalry of cultural products:

I keep on thinking that there is something powerful and important to be written about Google’s success and the elective affinity between non-rival commodities and advertising. In order to charge people who buy things money, you have to make the commodity excludable. As long as the commodity is rival–as long as only one person can use it at a time–setting up technological or legal barriers that also make it excludable adds significantly to its value. You can be secure in your enjoyment in a way that you could not possibly be if the commodity were rival and yet non-excludable.

A bicycle with a lock is thus much more valuable than a bicycle without.

But once commodities become non-rival, making them excludable by legal or technological processes reduces their use value–as I am reminded every time something goes wrong with the FT’s automatic authentication system and it claims that I do not have a subscription.

Thus advertising is bound to be a second-best way of obtaining a revenue stream for rival commodities, and similarly likely to be a first-best way of obtaining a revenue stream for non-rival commodities.

In finishing, Taylor raises a fundamental and still bitterly contested point in the study of culture: whether excludability stimulates or inhibits demand (Walter Benjamin, remember, made essentially the same point about an artwork’s ‘aura’ in his famous essay about the artwork in the age of mechanical reproduction):

When artists today are asked to Twitter their every thought, their every action, to record on video their every breath, their every performance, I believe they’re diluting their creative powers, their creative potency and the durability of their work.

And in the long run I believe they’re also diluting the magical power and the magnetic attraction that they can or will ever have over their audience.

I wonder – if I’d had unlimited access to that first Roxy Music TV appearance, if I’d had unlimited access to knowledge of their personal quirks, if I’d been able to access film footage of every performance, every rehearsal, every interview they gave that year from around the world, then I believe the bubble of my obsession would have burst a long, long time ago and I’d have ceased being a fan a long time ago.

I think my answer to Taylor is “yes, you would be,” because what stimulated his desire for Roxy Music in 1972 was not its scarcity, but its intrinsic aesthetic qualities. After all, he’s still buying them all these years later.

One thought on “Duran Duran and Brad De Long on rivalry and excludability in culture

  1. Pingback: Illegal downloading in Australia « A Cultural Policy Blog

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