When I was an undergraduate student, I often read the Chart Beat columns by former Billboard writer Fred Bronson. Included in his commentary of chart hits was his lament that all too often radio stations only thought about the here and now when it came to songs and not those songs which would long endure as well-regarded and quality material. As a student of pop music history (as I am), he was deeply concerned that the music that was most popular was music made for the moment, and not music that was made with deeper musical excellence or enduring value. That is a concern that one can have about all walks of culture. Are our creations simply devoted to matters at hand, or do they have a deeper importance that will make them worthwhile for generations to come? That is a hard question to answer, since not all work needs to be pretentious in order to be worthwhile, and some works that are quite simple and unappreciated or disrespected in their own time end up being of lasting value despite their simplicity, for reasons that original audiences did not understand at all.
As a blogwriter who is at least moderately obsessed with statistics, I ponder the catalog value of the posts that I make. In looking at my most popular posts, I find it a bit puzzling how consistently the same few collections of posts are viewed over and over again, some of them posts I dashed off without having much time to write them, while other posts I labored over for a long time and researched heavily languish with very few views. It is hard to know what sort of works will be popular with any audience among the many and quirky subjects I take an interest in. It is intriguing as well to note those subjects that have a good catalog value, especially because posts (like music) seems to work according to the Matthew principle–those posts that have more views (or songs that have greater popularity) tend to get even more views and popularity, while those things that do not catch on may never last long enough to receive the credit that they may deserve.
What does it take for a song, or a blog entry (or other writing) to have good catalog value? Some bands’ whole catalogs take on a dramatic importance despite the absence of their contemporary popularity (Big Star and the Velvet Underground come to mind, as does Gram Parsons and his efforts with the early Flying Burrito Brothers), because their work is so seminal that it shapes those who end up becoming far more famous on the shoulders of giants who were unrecognized at the time. Sometimes those who are great are too far afield to appeal to others at the time, except for those few who really get it and who follow in their footsteps. At other times, it is hard to distinguish between the great and the merely good at the time such works are created, until history gives a verdict by honoring the great with lasting acclaim, while the good languish in relative obscurity to be studied only by those specifically interested in period studies. For example, Shakespeare has endured to be endlessly adapted into contemporary films as well as revival plays for more than four centuries, while the very good dramatists Christopher Marlowe and Lope De Vega are far less well known (though Lope De Vega at least has a good excuse for his relative obscurity–he was so prolific a writer that it is hard to even get a grasp of how impressive his body of work was as a whole, and his work was originally written and published in Spanish and not frequently translated, making it more difficult to appreciate for English and American audiences). Jane Austen, at the time she wrote, was an anonymous spinster whose works barely netted her 500 pounds over the course of her entire life, and they even went out of print between 1818 and the 1830’s, until a later generation saw how great her novels were and have kept them in print and with a constant stream of adaptations since then, a testament to how a work can have modest popularity initially, but lasting well regard from discerning fans, every generation reinterpreting her work according to their own time and finding it of lasting worth.
So, what allows something to be of good catalog value, based on those examples? For one, the works of Jane Austen are easier to appreciate because she only wrote seven complete novels (if one includes the lesser work Lady Susan in addition to her six better known works). Shakespeare wrote around 40 plays (scholars debate exactly which works are genuine and which, like Henry VIII or Cardenio or the Two Noble Kinsmen, may not have been), while Lope De Vega wrote around a thousand or so (and Christopher Marlowe wrote only a half dozen). It is easier for someone to appreciate the quality of a dozen great plays among 40, to just toss out example, than to find the best play among a thousand, which may be akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. It is far easier to appreciate the genius of the Beatles than the Rolling Stones because the Beatles had consistently well-regarded works in a short time, while the Rolling Stones have hurt their lasting regard to some extent by continuing to make new music that does not meet the standard of their peak, and like many artists, having endless greatest hits albums that dilute the value of a catalog by focusing the attention of people on a the same few hits, neglecting possibly hidden gems among a large body of work. What we can gather from this is that it is better for one’s catalog value to have few works than too many that dilute the quality of one’s body of work as a whole, or make it impossible to appreciate the whole span of one’s body of work simply because there is not enough time to appreciate it. It is also better that one’s work be great rather than simply good, even if it takes time to discern between the two categories as one’s work is subject to longitudinal studies of influence and enduring virtue.
I hope that my brief examination of the subject of catalog value has not been too tiresome or tedious for those who have made it thus far. Like many people, I suppose, I desire to have some sort of lasting reputation and honor by virtue of excellent deeds that may be appreciated and respected long after I depart this mortal coil. To a great extent our reputation depends not only on the excellence of our words and deeds, but also the way that they continue to move and inspire others afterward. The influence that we have is often indirect, in others being inspired and changed as a result of an encounter with greatness. And yet this greatness often lingers in obscurity until it is felt over time, as that influence spreads, through others who have been touched by greatness and inspired to reach out to attain that greatness (or something close to it) in their own work that may then move many millions. May we be so fortunate as to leave something worth appreciating long after we are gone. And then we might not have merely fifteen minutes of fleeting fame, but lasting and worthy catalog value that may be appreciated for generations yet unborn.