you still can’t own music: some thoughts on not collecting, part two

November 13, 2015 at 8:28 am | Posted in musings | 4 Comments
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more rekkids

The large volume and high quality of feedback I’ve received following my post ‘you can’t own music: some thoughts on not collecting‘ has been most gratifying. Always fun to learn I’m not just barking into the void. However, most substantial comments were in broad agreement with my position – that many of the 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. Some who left comments were prepared to admit to ambivalence, or perverse resignation:

It seems to be madness and sanity all in one mystifying bundle.

…wrote Mark Wharton of Idwal Fisher, for example, but where was the robust defense of the physical? It was left to Andrew Wild, known to all as Andy Crow of multimedia empire Crow Versus Crow, to pick up the gauntlet. Andy is in some ways the perfect foil – he runs a radio show and podcast, he is an immensely skilled visual artist and designer and his record label has a small catalogue of high quality releases packaged with a hand-tooled attention to detail that borders on the fetishistic. Here’s his own description of a CvC release by Caught In The Wake Forever:

Excommunicado’ comprises a 10.5 x 10.5 cm 16 page mini art book, containing black and white inkjet prints of Crow Versus Crow’s minimal ink and pencil drawings printed on matte white paper within a 170gsm recycled card cover; four instrumental tracks from Caught In The Wake Forever, on a white-faced 3″ CDr housed within an 8.5 x 8.5 cm 100 gsm recycled paper envelope; an insert sheet containing recording and production information; a 35 mm photographic negative; and a dried rose petal, all housed within a 12.5 x 12.5 cm 100 gsm recycled paper envelope, sealed with a full colour ‘Excommunicado’ sticker.

Blimey, eh? Well, this is what he said in reply to my post. I’m going to quote it in full, bury some numbers in it and respond accordingly with Stewart Lee style mega-footnotes

Hey Rob,

As echoed above, this is a really thought-provoking piece that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed having a good couple of reads of [1]… 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! [2] 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. [3]

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. [4]

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 [5], but as a constellation of sounds to be continuously re-experienced in light of the newer records that have been included. [6]

Know what I mean? [7]

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. [8]

All’t’best,

Andy x

Great stuff, right? He has a beautiful and persuasive turn of phrase. OK, let’s get on with it – I’ve got stories to tell.

[1] Cheers comrade, much obliged.

[2] Ah, nope – he ain’t wrong. Should we follow through (no pun intended) with the gastric analogy then, of course, experience-digest-excrete is the only healthy state of affairs and much preferable to constipation, obesity and the like. Freudians might have something to say about collecting too, using a similar analogy. However, moving away from the gut, I’d argue that it is possible to separate the experience from perpetual ownership of a physical token of that experience. For example…

[3] In 1987, aged 15, my love of music was re-focussed by my prematurely switched-on friend Tim and fueled over the next few years by reading Melody Maker. Everyone likes to think that the music produced whilst they were a teenager was special but, y’know, by any standard this was a notable era.

My corner of this exploding world was comprised mainly of the whole Blast First roster, Napalm Death and other thrash and skate punk, Nth generation psyche by Spacemen 3 and the like, po-faced, high camp electronic body music by Skinny Puppy etc., various head-spinning uncategorizables like The Young Gods and Butthole Surfers and a thousand other things with techno and Nurse With Wound waiting in the wings. Much of this was championed by a weekly music press that would routinely put bands from the fringes on their covers. Remarkable times.

When Sub Pop crossed the Atlantic it fit right in. We enjoyed the slurred, balls-out sound and, as skate punks, we already had the skinny jeans and Converse baseball boots. It was a cinch to grow our hair and add a lumberjack shirt.  Here’s me at the Reading Festival in 1989, aged 17:

1989

What a charming young man.

(Aside: I was once beaten up for having long hair, although admittedly I did start the fight. On the walk to school some kid shouted

GET YOUR HAIR CUT!

…which was a daily occurrence but I decided I wasn’t having it. I crossed the road, asked

Is that the best you can do?

…and punched him as hard as I could square in his stupid face. That was my major contribution to proceedings – my arse was then handed to me. I arrived late, and was greeted by a knowing silence. I cleaned up in a PE changing room then dripped blood from my nose onto the mock exam paper I sat that morning. What can I say? I’d been upset that day because I’d just heard Hüsker Dü had split up.)

The greatest band in that scene was – and is – Mudhoney but I also saw Nirvana at least three times (I have claimed five but I think that is an exaggeration – during their breakout Reading performance I was almost certainly in my tent too stoned and/or drunk to move) – once at Portsmouth Poly, third on the bill in a crowd of less than 200.

Now, I have been an insufferable prick about music a million times but something I have never done is grudge a favourite band massive popularity. I’ve always seen it as vindication of my exceptional taste. And so it was when Nirvana’s second album and major label debut Nevermind blew up. I remember walking around town the weekend after it came out and, gloriously, everywhere seemed to be playing it. The album’s ubiquity coincided with my first year at university and I remember abandoning drinks and spilling onto the sticky dance-floor of student bops whenever the intro to ‘…Teen Spirit’ or ‘Lithium’ cut through the fug. Tracks from that album remained part of the background radiation for years.

I was, of course, profoundly saddened, angered and confused by Cobain’s suicide in 1994. It might have been the first time I cried over a death unrelated to my family. It forever altered the way I looked at the work and, when I was diagnosed with depression for the first time in 1997 and had my own suicidal feelings to deal with, it was an event I would think about from time to time. Now, as a married, (fairly) responsible 43 year old I thought about it again in the wake of the birth of our boy and again when the recent documentary about Cobain came out (which I haven’t had the strength to watch).

So here we have an album I know pretty much off by heart, hearing tracks from which reminds me of happy times discovering myself through music (‘heh, remember when we had to sleep under a pier after seeing Killdozer ‘cos we missed the last train?’) and a scene that I LITERALLY SPILT BLOOD to be part of. My experience of it also has a sombre undercurrent due to tragedy and illness that has only deepened and got more complicated as the years have passed. If 6Music play ‘Come As You Are’ whilst I’m washing up I don’t know quite what state I’ll be in by the end of it. And yet…

I’ve never owned a copy.

[4] Hmm… I’m not entirely discounting this, just mostly. Harking back to my teenage years again I remember being shocked and impressed by the day-glo nihilism of Big Black’s Songs About Fucking cover (front and back), complementing the bone-dry humour/horror of the white on black liner notes/stories (Atomizer is even tougher – the album opens with a song about a town where the gang rape of children had been normalised, a true story, and the cover features a cartoon invitation for the listener to blow up the entire world. Who needs Whitehouse and their dinky little winky, eh?). I also remember picking up the Dead Kennedys compilation LP Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death and spending hours examining the giant newsprint insert featuring collage by artist Winston Smith. I kinda learned how to be punk from that album and to say it changed my life would not be an exaggeration.

These are rare exceptions, however, and of their time. In more recent years I’ve seen packaging as a necessary evil useful only in keeping delicate objects, themselves largely unnecessary, from being damaged and for helping distinguish one from another. I’m coming ’round to the idea that unless you have something truly special in mind – like No Basement Is Deep Enough – then discussing packaging is like discussing what font a poem is published in – of marginal-to-no interest and of little relevance to the content (I mean Andy, mate, ’nuff respect and all that but ‘170gsm recycled card’ – lolz you perv!). As for the appreciation of the aesthetic aspect ‘shifting and developing’ over time, well, the smell of a basement second hand record shop is intoxicating, but I don’t think Andy is talking about mildew. Most good album design has punch to it, sure, but even the best is sorely lacking as an object of truly sustained contemplation. I’d like to conclude that all standard vinyl discs, compact discs, cassettes, sleeves, cases, inserts, j-cards, merzcars etc. serve the same purposes and are thus, functionally at least, indistinguishable but that is some 36th level shit I haven’t quite reached yet. I’m not far off though.

[5] I respect Andy for dismissing the ‘it’s like a diary’ argument as I’ve always thought it was rubbish. The idea that we can be defined by the objects we own is profoundly depressing for many reasons. Hoarding is anti-life – Marx said that (well, something like it – I’m sure one of the erudite followers of this blog can point me at the real quote). Surely we are the sum of our circumstances and our decisions – like the decision I made to sell a bunch of records one afternoon so I could afford to go out that evening with someone I ended up having a years long relationship with. Can’t even remember what those records were now but I can remember the events of that night in unpublishable detail. Heh.

[6] An attractive notion but I’d be genuinely interested to hear from people as to how much this actually happens. When I was in the worst of my collecting phase I had mp3s of over 2000 releases (more than 20,000 individual files) plus maybe half that again as physical objects. Thus I’d have had to listen to (approximately) eight different releases every day just to hear each one once a year (or, say, two a day for four years) – and that is without repeating any, or accounting for any new acquisitions. A percentage of any collection, possibly more than you’d like to admit, is never revisited in any meaningful way – the activity of collecting can easily overtake the dictates of sense. Whenever I read on Twitter someone say ‘hey, dug this out for the first time in 20 years and it still sounds great’ I always think ‘you’ve carried that around for 20 years just on the off chance?!?’ and the inevitable inclusion of a YouTube link makes me bang my head on the table. I’m not immune to nostalgia – I’ve humancaterpillared chains of YouTube videos that have taken me from World Domination Enterprises to Joyce Sims – but I never think ‘damn, I wish I’d bought that/not given it away’. That the internet hive mind has found a place for it is more than enough and, whilst acknowledging the musical education I’ve picked up along the way, I judge music new to me against who I am now, not what I’ve acquired in the past. Onwards!

[7] Not only do I know what he means but the thoughts and experiences he describes governed my own relationship with music and its objects for many years. I’m not denying these pleasures, just embracing ways of thinking differently about it.

[8] Aww, shucks.

…and that is more than enough for now, I think. Anyway, now the house is empty the urge to listen to that thing that Graham Dunning sent me again is making it difficult to type…

more phil

—ooOoo—

4 Comments »

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  1. ‘discussing packaging is like discussing what font a poem is published in’ has to be one of your best and is a line that absolutely nails the OTT nature of certain labels excesses – the packaging should compliment a release not eclipse it.

    As for defining yourself through your record/CD/cassette/MP3/Youtube favourited collection, well, I do think there’s some mileage in that but it’s not something I adhere to myself. I dare say there are people out there of a very discerning nature whose record collections are of the finest nature. Like wealthy art collectors who specialise in certain periods or artists they have hand selected nothing but the very best in sonic entertainment for their delectation but lets face it, most of us are musical magpies picking up things that sparkle or amuse, things which are soon discarded in favour of whatever it is that’s catching our ear here and now. We amass far too much music for our own good and getting rid of some of it is a worthwhile and positive experience. I’m probably repeating myself here but less is definitely more.

    • Cheers Mark – much appreciated as ever. I was going to write a more substantial reply but instead I shall follow the advice contained in your final four words… Love, Rob x

  2. Hi Rob,
    The “a constellation of sounds to be continuously re-experienced” is an interesting point I reckon. Maybe two months ago I listened to Patti Smith “Horses” (that I bought 16 years ago, so has been lugged through a few house moves) and after enjoying it I did wonder, even without youtube (I’m sure it’s probably on there somewhere) if the CD stopped working would I ever feel the need to hunt it down again? I reckon the answer is no, so that’s an interesting dissonance – if it broke I wouldn’t replace it, but while it still works I can’t see myself getting rid of it! There are things I think I definitely would replace, but maybe it’s too easy to convince ourselves “but I can’t part with that, that’s a great record!” and not realise we would still survive it if it was gone… and instead find a whole bunch of new things to listen to.

  3. Cheers Gareth – yes, your example made me laugh – it reminds me of the hoarder’s lament: ‘but it might come in useful!’ they insist even as that pile of magazines makes the stairs impassable… On the rare occasion I have to reference my physical collection I’m often surprised as to what is there and what isn’t. Never seems to bother me though. Next time we move house I think I’m going to have a ‘boxing up’ party – anyone who comes to help clean, carry and sort shit out can take a bunch of tapes, CDs of records with them when they leave… With love, Rob x


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