Have you ever wondered why the choice of books and music, or even foodstuffs, is so limited at the biggest superstores? We know that the range of books, music and branded products is vast, in reality, but we never see that vast range, where most people shop. We only see quantity and uniformity.
I’ve noticed that even the biggest woodworking tool stores, the largest art supply stores or the most gigantic of guitar superstores have plenty of a very narrow range of things. You would expect that, if you wanted to find something unique, quirky or rare, you could find that in a superstore. They have the space. They ought to have the depth and breadth of stock, right? If you are talking guitars, it seems to be the case that the larger the store, the more Les Pauls, Strats and Teles there are on offer – incremental tweaks on a basic theme. For every “Wall of Pauls”, you’ll find only a few token, weirdo guitars that make unique sounds and look like they came from the far side of the dark side.
Go out to buy an art print. In every large gallery or print store, there are the same old Monet’s and Van Gogh’s we all know and love, but very few Rileys, Smarts, or other lesser known artists. The range is actually very narrow.
The fact is the majority of people don’t actually take their reading, music appreciation, gastronomy, art or guitar playing all that seriously. They’re hobbyists, at best. The world economy game, as it is currently played, doesn’t have a way of rewarding vast numbers of professional artists. Art pays slightly worse than crime. With so few able to follow their passions to the limit, they wind up being relatively uniform and unsophisticated in their tastes for tools and supplies. They need something workaday and dependable. They don’t have the spare money for things that are “out there”.
That means that if you do take your art seriously and you need to push the boundaries of that art by exploring the tools, techniques and tastes less travelled, you are in for a search. Forget about buying your stuff in a superstore. If you do, it’s a kind of miracle. Once you have three Les Pauls, three Strats and two Teles, you are going to have to shop online or seek out far-flung, obscure retailers at the ends of the earth, who may happen to have just what you want by sheer accident (or they may not – you often only find out after making the pilgrimage).
Why should this be? After all, it can’t cost very much more to make or stock a strange guitar or an obscure shape of palette knife, can it? Sure, there are economies of scale involved, but once you computer automate, making one shape or another makes little difference. Similarly, the supply of components for popular items attracts more competition, but ultimately the assemblers buy something for their component bins. It doesn’t change the quantities, so why should it change the prices of the components, especially if the manufacturing process makes the price of tooling for one component indistinguishable from tooling for another? Those things held for old-school manufacturing, but less so now.
The explanation is more prosaic. Because more of us buy with limited knowledge and experience, we make “safe bet” purchases. This means that stock turns of the more popular items are several times those of the weirder, more exotic, and more diverse products. When stock ties money up and money is usually borrowed, the longer the strange item stays on the shelf, the less the retailer makes when it is finally sold. You have to take out the interest payments. Meanwhile, the ludicrously over-priced and unsustainable, ready-to-burst, commercial property market makes every square foot of retail space hideously and unrealistically expensive. Unless that stock is sold, the cost of just occupying space with it rises with every month’s rent.
Diverse products disappear from the shelves because the profit motive says that unless we buy a lot of stranger items, more frequently, there is more money to be made stocking homogeneous products that the undiscriminating will buy in quantity and often. I don’t mean to say that things like Les Pauls, Strats and Teles are bad products. They aren’t. They’re very good and the point is they’re good enough for the needs of the vast majority of artists that don’t take their guitar playing too seriously. Even those that do can get great results from these guitars. The same applies for all sorts of products. The reason we don’t buy more of the less popular products more frequently is that we don’t take our art seriously enough, in the main, because our livelihoods (as an entire population) do not depend on it. We’re all working in other day jobs, because art doesn’t pay (for enough of us). We have to buy a few reliable work horses and forego the thrill of being different because our tools and ingredients are different.
This limiting of diversity is a dangerous thing, where books and music are involved, because it means we absorb, as a population, far fewer cultural influences. This limiting of diversity of ideas narrows the range of thought and art that can be produced in future. It limits the range of future expression. It’s dumbing-down. It’s a downward spiral.
Eventually, we become cattle, farmed for profit, so that the profiteers maximise their monetary returns on a tiny range of uniform, uninteresting and metaphorically beige products. Ironically, even the profiteers become dumbed-down cattle. We end up making profit for no humanly worthwhile purpose. We consume meaningless, indistinguishable products and ideas, in vast quantity, for no good reason whatsoever. Neither gets any satisfaction.
Thus, the profit motive drives out diversity. In the end, there will be only three types of guitar, ten authors writing about the same, trite subject matter, five bands releasing one album a year of indistinguishable pop, one or two brands of artist’s paint in only two dozen colours and not much else. Go to any superstore today and that is the inevitable conclusion you will come to believe. That, to me, is a definition of hell.