you can’t own music: some thoughts on not collecting

October 30, 2015 at 12:48 pm | Posted in musings | 16 Comments
Tags: , ,


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.



RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

  1. Great post.
    I’ve had a big clear out in the past. And now wonder why I own any music at all. I never listen to any at home these days. Mind you, I’ve always been a bit rubbish at even keeping copies of my own stuff… And a recent laptop failure provoked only a momentary twinge at the loss of several hours of music files ( again, mainly my own)

    • Cheers Clough – yeah, I have an external hard-drive with, amongst other things, 20,000 mp3 files on it. Gonna press delete on the lot the next time I plug it in! I think I still have at least one copy of everything I’ve been involved with though – vanity trumps sense most of the time… Love, Rob x

  2. Great piece Rob! during my art history degree we did an interesting course called “collections and collectors”. I was interested to learn that the two biggest groups of collectors were children aged between 8-13 and middle aged men. There was a comment about how having collections gave the individual total control over something which might not be the case in the rest of their life. Interesting thought.

    I don’t care for physical items much either. I sold the majority of my CD collection earlier this year. Happy for recorded music to come and go from my life. I definitely don’t think having the records proudly displayed makes a music fan. I often wonder if the collection, the possession, takes over from the act of listening in importance for some.

    Also DDDD – wish I had some of those! I remember reading Joinceys interview in one of them. They were scanned in online at some point I think…

    • Thank you Sof – I wholly agree and am unsurprised to learn about the motivations of collectors or the groups they largely belong to. Makes sense of my own experience. Regarding DDDD – various pages can be found reproduced here at RFM and I may have more in a box – can’t remember which zines survived the last purge – will have a look. In a typically perverse move Simon restarted DDDD once as a net-based zine but still hand-typed and collaged pages then just scanned them and stuck them up on wikispaces – the least convenient blog ever. Great stuff though! All deleted now, of course… With love, Rob x

  3. Very deep piece altogether. I cant deny the fact that I am still obsessed by music and music making get you in the rounds to have the anxiety to listen more, know more since there always has been an amazing world to discover after another. I have already an impossible list of all the cassettes I want to buy this year and downloads to buy… still am not able to get rid of my hunger, enthusiasm that keeps me alive. I really don’t collect to show off to others, but to me (in fact when people see my collection and don’t find nothing familiar, or “popular” or “classic” in metal standards, they just don’t care) I have discovered that I have a fear of an imaginary apocalypse where my music remains for a post zombie generation to discover the beauty of underground! je je je….
    My wife is completely the way you describe the music fan. She only has a 10-15 cassette collection with what she really NEEDS (be it the classics Zeppelin, Janis, Queen, Journey and few others like that ) and she once read me a paper she wrote for her class (she has a degree as sociologist) about how modern era makes us collectors, amassing things that we really DON’T need. To get more books that I can really read, to have more music that what I really hear. And how this makes us consuming slaves. How art itself is becoming more and more in tune with the consuming garbage game (overpriced 180 gr vinyl reissues of things that were originally released as cheap homemade cassettes or CDrs limited only for those fortunate enough to get them in a precious moment in time? Is it really necessary?).
    This piece gives insight and get me on a reflective state of what is really important in life. And music is a MASSIVE part of that. But in a worst case scenario I loose everything on a flood or fire…am I over? My love for music would be over? OF COURSE NOT!… I would just gather me around of what really is necessary in life. I think about all those people loosing everything in wars. Will I be running with my family crossing borders and dangerous troops carrying all my tape/ cdr/ lp / hard drives boxes? clearly that will not be the case….knowing me maybe I will be picking up certain basics…but more than that….is true…this is all about who you are, what music do for your life, not the object,,,music is with you…you don’t own it….

    • Cheers Miguel, thanks for taking the time to leave a lengthy and thoughtful comment. Maria has it right about unnecessary consumption, of course, and I have also thought about the ‘worst case scenario’ situations. If we were victims of a catastrophe would I be dragging CD-rs from the wreckage? No. If an electro-magnetic pulse destroyed every hard drive we’d have more to worry about than our deleted mp3 files… Does that make you or I less of a music fan? Of course not!

  4. Wonderful piece Rob and that’s a beautiful story about the guy who only owned Sugarshit Sharp – if I only had to own one LP then that’s as good as any!

    Very sorry indeed to hear about Pippa. We never met and I’ve long since lost touch with Simon but lost my friend and bandmate Laurence to this horrific illness a couple of years ago. knightsmove7AThotmailDOTcom is my email address Mr H – sorry I wasn’t there on the legendary occasion you showed up in Leeds.

    • Thanks Simon and I’ll make sure Simon H gets your email address if/when he gets in touch about this. I’ve written about/quoted him entirely without his knowledge or permission so I hope he doesn’t mind… I didn’t know about Laurence so I’m very sorry to hear about that. From what Simon has told me it does seem like him and Pippa made the best of a terrible situation and Simon is doing well now. With love to you and Kate – Rob x

  5. Brilliant post and excellent comments. I’ve never quite been able to rationalise my own obsession with hearing music opposed to my almost complete lack of interest in getting physical copies. Don’t get me wrong, I love ’em, but I’ve never been able to go the extra mile in achieving any coherence, and I’ve always balked at spending my hard earned on the things I really really want (ie those Sun Ra originals etc).and instead occasionally hoovering up cheap Elvis Costello represses on eBay.

    That said, I love talking about collecting and hearing about other people’s collections. I even wrote my Master’s dissertation on the information habits of record collectors, which enabled me to spend lots of lovely hours looking at shelves of records that I didn’t own. And, rather than being a frustrating experience, it was rather liberating – indulging in object fetishism without any way of buying it meant there was no debate about buy vs not buy – just gaze in adoration.

    Er, anyway, I suspect this post will be one to which I will return often.I think you’re right – RFM is a collection, of sorts (although you could possibly argue it is a catalogue of works, with some rather glorious metadata…)

    Thanks again for the shrewd insight. More power to your elbow. Onwards!

    • Cheers Paul, glad you enjoyed it and I would very much like to read your dissertation if you don’t mind. Yes, it took me a while to separate ‘want to hear/see/read’ from ‘want to own’ but since I did the latter has atrophied to pretty much fuck all whilst the former remains in rude health. Hope all is good with you and thanks again for the smart review of the Aqua Dentata album on We Need No Swords. Love, Rob x

      • Hi Rob, sorry, missed this reply (I think I might have switched something off in WordPress. Or something.) But, yes, cheers, unfortunately the dissertation isn’t as interesting as it might sound(!) but very happy to send it through (maybe DM me an email address or something). The research was a lot of fun though & really interesting. Onwards!

  6. And I loved that Simon Herbertson quote btw

  7. Like most other people on here I feel as if I’m in some constant battle with the amount of music I own and am at once trying to lessen the load whilst at the same time buying more. At times I’d feel as if I’d be happiest with a Roberts radio and a crossword and the next to have everything that John Coltrane ever recorded on vinyl and a ten grand hi-fi to play it on. Today I bought six albums at the Leeds Record Fair and will probably play them no more than once or twice. It seems to be madness and sanity all in one mystifying bundle. I have no way of stopping myself and feel as if this how I will will feel about music for the rest of my life. An excellent post Rob. One of your best.

    • Thank you Mark and, of course, I understand the experience you describe entirely. Once I realised I had finally put aside collecting behaviour (or at least had some choice in the matter at last) a part of me was actually saddened and disappointed. A small, perverse, crazy part of me but there you go. With regard to your kind words about my post, well, I said Simon was one of only two people whose writing I hastened to read – the other is you so your opinion means a lot to me. With love to you and Mandy, Rob x

  8. Hey Rob,

    As echoed above, this is a really thought-provoking piece that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed having a good couple of reads of…however much I can’t get my head around some of the points within!
    What I found interesting was the (seemingly) consistency of approach to experiencing music that came through your listed examples, a kind of ‘experience – digest – excrete’ relationship. That might be a little crass as an analogy, but y’know… Please correct me if that’s wrong, by the way! As an extreme. without a record collection or the masses of streamable material available online, such an approach doesn’t seem to really cater for repeated experiences of a record; each listening experience, perhaps straddling years, shifting with and filtered through the life experiences a person has picked up throughout that time.
    Also, what about the tactile and visual experience of a record? The art work and visual presentation of a record (which you know I hold in such high regard!)? Such experiences of a record develop and shift over time in the same way the audible parts do, for me… the waxy smell of the booklet, poring over the liner notes, soaking in the visuals, joining the dots between subjects and concepts. Maybe that’s veering into fetishistic territory there, but from my own experiences these experiences are valid parts of a whole aesthetic experience of a record.
    Plus, completely detached from any macho posturing of the size of your member, I mean, record collection in measurable square feet…a personally curated, unique to an individual, record collection is a fucking beautiful thing! An almost organic, living thing that grows entwined to your life. Not a dead archive of your past, a semi-abstracted diary of your life in collage form, but as a constellation of sounds to be continuously re-experienced in light of the newer records that have been included.
    Know what I mean?
    I’m still processing all of this myself and have spewed out my initial response with much less revision that I probably should. This article and what it throws up within me will stick around for a little longer methinks. Excellent work as ever, Rob.


    Andy x

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: