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—

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

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

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.

boks

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?

—ooOoo—

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.

—ooOoo—

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