you can’t own music: some thoughts on not collectingOctober 30, 2015 at 12:48 pm | Posted in musings | 16 Comments
Tags: collecting, john toolan, simon aulman
On the 9th of October 2015, John Toolan – Leeds based radio show host, music obsessive and all-round egg of the highest order – posted the following tweet:
I’m really glad I got rid of the record collection I built up as a teenager …… said no one, ever
That John would express such a sentiment is no surprise. His Twitter account is a very entertaining mix of enthusiasm for recent musical discoveries, deluxe reissue fetishism, self-deprecating asides about how much he wants to spend on King Crimson merchandise and groan-inducing dad-jokes. This window into (what I presume is) his lifelong passion is never less than charming.
I wasn’t having it this time though. Something in me bristled at the idea and I found myself returning to the thought repeatedly. Before we get into anything (*ahem*) ‘philosophically’ interesting let’s spend a moment on the logistics…
Imagine, if you will, being a middle aged music fan: responsibilities, baggage, worrying gristly pellets developing under your skin in random places and so on – shouldn’t be much of a reach for some of you. Now imagine carting about an unthinned collection of objects, each one a physical token of some decision you made more than half your life ago. All that plastic and card bought because its contents were on the radio, or mentioned in Melody Maker, all the plastic and card picked up from second-hand shops on spec despite the card being torn, all the plastic and card you paid big money for at the record fair, all that plastic and card you unwrapped at Christmas or traded with your mates, or shoplifted whilst stoned, all the plastic, card and clacky little plastic boxes that you transferred the contents of the plastic and card you borrowed from friends and libraries into. All that surprisingly heavy plastic and card sliding over itself and cascading onto your bedroom floor. Now imagine having to drag all that with you forever. I’m not speaking metaphorically – you’ve moved house, you know what I mean – that stuff has to physically accompany you, occasionally demanding your attention, until THE END. Exhausting thought, eh?
Aw, come on Rob, you may be thinking – you are being disingenuous making it sound soulless and mechanical. What about the joy of discovery? The glorious awakenings? The increasingly confident relationship with musical history? The knowing looks exchanged between friends co-experiencing a life changing evening? The spontaneous tears the first time you heard [insert your equivalent of Spiderland here]? The unsurpassed moment of pure art, the pinnacle of human endeavour, that is Coltrane’s entrance on ‘A Love Supreme, Part II – Resolution’? I needn’t go on, we could each list dozens, hundreds of examples. Nor do I wish to deny it: this magic carpet ride is true and beautiful and important and life-affirming and soul-nourishing (or whatever the opposite is for you Black Metal/Harsh Noise weirdos).
However, my conjecture is this: all these great aspects of being a music fan can be enjoyed independent of, and are not necessarily connected to, owning and accruing the objects on which music is stored. Put simply: there is no need for a record collection. Yeah, yeah, you may already be thinking: ‘woah, the internet, YouTube, Bandcamp, awesome’ and all that. We’ve spent the last twenty years getting increasingly bored by comment pieces marvelling at the coming (but never arriving) death of the physical. However, that isn’t quite the tack I’m going to take. I’m interested in foregrounding ways of engaging with music that don’t involve measuring it in footage of shelving or gigabytes of storage. I’ll explain what I mean using three case studies: an old friend, a fleeting but influential acquaintance, and a reformed obsessive.
The old friend is Simon Herbertson, who will be known to many of you for his fanzines DDDD and New Ludddism, the it-would-never-load-properly-due-to-be-stuffed-with-bandcamp-and-youtube-links Pyongyang Plastics blog (now defunct) and for his own prolific musical endeavours under various names, most recently Simon Aulman. We became aware of each other when that scamp Neil Campbell sent him my first two CD-rs fifteen years ago. At the time Simon was vociferously anti-internet (‘new luddite’) and Neil knew that me only listing an email address by way of contact details would give him the hump. And so it played out on the pages of DDDD. I wrote back with my usual charm and we have shared an intermittent but heartfelt correspondence ever since. When he finally did ‘get’ the internet he jumped in with both feet and, if I remember correctly, was reprimanded by his service provider for bandwidth abuse. After various incarnations and reincarnations (Simon is prone to occasional grand gesture mega-deletions) his zines and blogs seem to have boiled down to the diary entry/comment pieces that accompany his frequent postings to Bandcamp. Simon’s writing is, it is fair to say, as unique as the world view it describes. I may profoundly disagree with him on various points but there is a shared history between us and a reason why he is one of only two writers whose work I hasten to read.
Earlier this year Simon cared for his wife Pippa at home during the final stages of motor neurone disease. In the months following her death he has dealt with the period of grief and recalibration in various ways, one of which is decluttering the house they shared. The text accompanying the album try to succeed to please (intensely repetitive series: 1), released via Bandcamp on 6th July, reads as follows:
Keeping busy has been a big help, and so has decluttering. My “record collection” now consists of about 40 CD(R)s. That’s it. That is the only physical manifestation of my love of music. Now that I’m trying to rebuild my life and make new friends and new lovers, the big worry is that people will want to see proof of my professed love of music. And there really is nothing.
I’ve never been much interested in the facts/stories around music, so it’s not as though I can make up for lack of physical objects by talking knowledgeably about music. All I have are these 40 5-inch placky albums. Around 15 of them are (very loosely) “classical” – Tippett, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Copland, Bartok, Finzi, Debussy, Howells …. oh & I’ve forgotten that little boxed set of all of Dowland’s works – so that’s up from about 15 to about 27.
The remaining 25-ish albums are all “”rock” – about 6 by Joni – Travelogue, Don Juan, Wild Things, Mingus, Hejira … about 4 by Prefab Sprout (Jordan plus several Best-Ofs), 2 by Wire (Pink Flag, 154), 2 by the Cocteau Twins (Victorialand, 4 Calendar Cafe), 2 by Richard Harris (Slides, Webb Sessions), 2 by Nick Drake (2nd & 3rd), and then odds/ends by e.g. John Martyn (Sapphire) & Roedelius (Selbstportrait 1) & David Sylvian (Beehive) … These are the albums that a lifetime loving music have distilled. Nothing that is remotely “experimental” – there just isn’t enough time left anymore. There is only one album that was made within the last quarter-century – White Denim’s Fits. There is no evidence that I ever listened to much music. I have no evidence that I ever did fanzines. There is no evidence that I ever owned a tape.
There is no evidence that I ever bought or owned an LP or 7″ single. There is no evidence that I ever bought a music mag/paper in my life. There is no evidence that I have ever been to a gig. There is no evidence of all the years (decades) that I spent blitzed out on whisky and cider and gin playing music over and over weeks at a time. There is no evidence that I ever really liked music at all. Can I be considered a music fan ? If not, then there is really no evidence that I ever even existed. Cos music was nearly everything. And now I’ve reduced it to nearly nothing. Even the stuff I make – nothing. And the closer it all gets to nothing, the more perfect too – it’s all becoming so small and quiet and repetitive and like someone has clicked on fade-out and is waiting for it to happen.
Apologies for quoting at such length but I find the implications of this piece fascinating. We could argue about our own ‘desert island’ choices of course, but to do so would be to miss the point. To pummel it home: Simon self-published hand-typed, punk collage, photocopied fanzines on a regular basis for *years* in which he championed plenty of what I now call the ‘no-audience underground’ as well as music of the type listed above, he scoured the boot sales, he ripped the internet onto his hard drive and waded through sparsely populated areas of Bandcamp and YouTube in order to present dozens and dozens of links with an unsinkable enthusiasm. Of course he can be considered a music fan – one of the greatest I have known – and that is what gives the thought he expresses here such power and heaviness: being a music fan is not about what you own, or even what you know, it is who you are. Many of us mistake the ownership of objects for the experience of their contents. Simon not only offers a way of decoupling the two in your head but actually carries the thought through into the world. Dude.
The fleeting but influential acquaintance was a guy my friend Chad knew at art college in the late 1980s. I spoke to him a few times and, infuriatingly, can’t remember his name (sadly, Chad is no longer with us and so cannot be asked). What I do remember is that he was crazy for music – he had few other topics of conversation, he listened to John Peel, he pored over the weekly music press, he was that guy, y’know, that is front-left of the stage at every show (possibly the reason why that is where I always seem to stand). His zeal was refreshing, never overbearing, and his evangelising made converts. I never visited his flat but imagined a shrine/cave stuffed with tape and vinyl. Nope. According to one incredulous visitor this lad owned, in total, one item of recorded music: a copy of “SuGarShit SharP” by Pussy Galore. A cracker, no doubt, but when asked where the rest of it was he just shrugged. He wasn’t interested in amassing a collection – music wasn’t what he owned, it was who he was. I was impressed, still am. Huh, you may have scoffed at Simon’s story above, easy to be a Zen master and chuck it all when any decision you make can be rectified with PayPal and Discogs – well here it was done in the pre-internet era.
The reformed obsessive is me. As the son of a librarian the urge to shelve was perhaps hardwired and from the age of about 10 through to my thirties I collected comics, books, films and music – most media that came in rectangular packages. For example, I once had every published word by Philip K. Dick including foreign language editions and pulps from the 1950s (I even had a Geocities site dedicated to the exercise), I once had every bleep by Aphex Twin (his recent Soundcloud splurge made me feel a bit queasy when I remembered the lengths I went to with Usenet tape trading), I once had every squawk I could find by Miles Davis lovingly archived on scores of tapes, I taught myself the history of Japanese cinema via DVDs bought from eBay and so on and so on…
But – there came a time in each obsession where I started to get uneasy and, usually following a tipping point like moving house that made me confront the objects, I would sell, dump or give away this previously precious collection only for it to be replaced by some new interest soon after. I didn’t understand this bulimic behaviour until I started to get a handle on my mental illness a few years back. I realized that whilst each obsession began with a genuine love of its subject matter it was eventually overtaken by an urge to control and simplify at least one aspect of a chaotic and complicated world – this urge is part of my illness and obsessive behaviour is how it is expressed. The desire to accrue these connected possessions became more important than the art they contained. And that’s just fucking perverse, right?
From then on the idea of collecting, or even the amassing of objects in general, has made me a little anxious – associated, as it is in me, with periods of feeling out of control. With one or two exceptions (Culver, natch) I’m now happy to take things as they come. Mr Toolan may despair at how little of my teenage collection I still have to hand but via the internet we all now bathe in a constant flow of mind-blowing brilliance and I have near-instant access to a thousand times more music than I could ever have dreamed of owning. More importantly, though, being a music fan is not necessarily connected to owning a collection of objects on which music is stored, nor is it even about having access to the internet’s ridiculous archive. You can be a lifelong obsessive like Simon and remain so even after thinning your belongings to near nothing, you can engage with music wholeheartedly in every other respect like my mysterious past acquaintance, or you could give up on the notion of collecting (almost) entirely, as I have tried to do for the sake of my health.
Let’s face it – you can’t own music can you?
Coda about this blog:
Throughout this difficult year, plagued by illness, I’ve had a strained relationship with RFM and with music. I have, of course, written brilliant reviews and scintillating think pieces that have earned gasps of appreciative amazement from loyal readers but I’ve also sent a lot of emails apologizing for delays and spent many hours feeling underwhelmed by the task at hand.
Then, a thought started to form as I sat on the cold floor of Wharf Chambers listening to Eddie Nuttall’s Aqua Dentata set a few weeks ago. I drifted, eyes half closed, my semi-meditative state only interrupted by the chafing of gristly pellets under my skin. Towards the end I realised I had fully, and without any provisos, enjoyed a piece of music. I hadn’t been thinking about what I was going to say/write, nor was I nervously looking at the ‘date received’ column on my ‘review pile list’ document (yes, such a thing exists).
As I started writing this piece I mulled over that experience and I suddenly saw the similarity between my uneasiness about collecting and my recent uneasiness about the business of RFM. Was RFM a collection?!? I thought back to my celebration of reaching 500 posts. Nnnngh! It IS, isn’t it? Or at least that is how it came to seem due to illness stopping me engage properly with the subject matter.
OK, now I’m feeling a lot better you’ll excuse me if I put my mp3 player on and go for a walk – never mind the rain – I better lose myself for a while.