When I was a kid, getting hold of interesting new music was hard. Not least because I lived in what I believed to be the middle of nowhere (I have since moved to the actual middle of nowhere through choice, and have reappraised my youthful moaning as innate twattiness) and had no access to proper gigs. We went to see Wishbone Ash in Barnstaple in 1990, it was the first band that anyone had heard of to play there since Dumpys Rusty Nuts some time in the 80s. Admittedly, I had never heard of Wishbone Ash either, but my friend Ian had, so they must be good, right? (Spoiler, they were, but the support band who’s name I have forgotten were much better).
Getting hold of any music was hard in fact, I read about bands in magazines like Raw, Kerrang and Metal Hammer (because I was cool, not like those weirdos reading the NME and Melody Maker) but did not have the funds to go and buy records by them. I read about the bands that influenced awesome bands like Skid Row, Motley Crue and Poison, exotic, ancient bands like Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Black Sabbath and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and wondered what they sounded like, there was no radio station playing them, and the old grey whistle test had long gone. You now read about how people are influenced by their parents record collections, but the only worthwhile things in amongst all my parents Gilbert and Sullivan cast recordings were two Beatles records (not even the good later stuff) and a best of the Rolling Stones, and by the time I was thirteen I was sick of them.
None cooler than this – ever
Which brings me back to my friend Ian, the first in a long line of friends who had better record collections than I did (honorable later mentions go to Jim (lofty), Kev, and Top Hat Matt). He knew about Free and Lynyrd Skynyrd and Fleetwood Mac (the early good Peter Green stuff, not Tango in the bloody night) and I kept badgering him to sing their stuff to me on the school bus so I could decide whether or not to part with some of my hard earned pocket money to buy their tapes (or more often than not, to buy some TDK C-90 blank tapes and copy them from Ian). He wisely brought his walkman in and played them to me with one earphone each, rather then singing them, and so I spent all my pocket money on blank tapes.
I have not been good at supporting artists (though this argument didn’t used to come up quite so much about taping as it does now about downloading, probably because somebody had to pay for it at least once before anyone could copy it back then) over the years. If I wasn’t taping stuff (many a happy hour was spent wearing headphones and sitting in front of my Dad’s record player, which even now is more of a plant stand than a device for listening to music, praying that the needle wouldn’t skip and make me have to start again) then I was at Bideford Pannier market in the 50p boxes buying records that had pretty covers. This meant that I could get ten albums for the price of one new one, and also that I spent my teenage years listening to Roy Harper, Lindisfarne and Procul Harum rather than New Kids on the Block and Two Unlimited like the cool kids did. It also meant that not one penny of it went to the artist or the record company.
I have not changed one bit, most of my music collection still comes from second hand shops and car boot sales. And the same goes for books, which I buy in massive stacks from charity shops on my rare excursions into places that have actual shops, and then take them back the next time. Authors, song writers and creative types receive not one penny from me usually (unlike the charities which appease my occasionally guilty conscience). As somebody who still strives to try and make money from these kind of pursuits, irony is my constant mocking companion, laughing over my shoulder as I painstakingly craft amusing folk songs and agonise over plot twists that nobody will ever read. If I won’t pay for it, why the hell should anybody else right?
All this came to a head recently when I decided I wanted to read some books by Tom Cox (the man behind @mysadcaton twitter) and saw the heady price of six pounds for his first cat-related tome and balked at it, hoping to find it at a boot sale. This is a man verging on middle age, who lives on the edge of dartmoor, has a fondness for eccentric clothes and 70s prog rock and owns more cats than is good for him. We are essentially the same person, and I am begrudging him his means of making a living (possibly out of jealousy, or a strange manifestation of a sub-conscious self loathing I was unaware of) for the sake of less money than I spent on cider yesterday lunchtime when I took Rizla to the pub.
I am sad to say that when he announced it was on special offer at amazon for 1.99 on a kindle edition, I bought it. Despite amazon being the devil, and this meaning I only saved the price of a posh pint of cider on it. I began to re-evaluate my priorities as a consumer of culture and notorious skinflint. While I have always tried to save money by not buying thousands of records (unless they are Grateful Dead albums I do not yet own) or books, I have never not had the price of a pint in my pocket (excuse the double negative, it just sounds nicer). I have walked away from mint condition copies of Eskimo by the Residents for only ten pounds because I wouldn’t have had enough money for a drink afterwards (I do still regret that one) which implies that I am some kind of alcoholic. I’m not, true I do enjoy a drink, possibly more than most, but I proved last year that it is not a problem. I just prioritise things badly.
Since I gave up smoking two years ago, technically I have about thirty quid a month going begging. It seems to have been taken up by my Cider/Strange Food/Awesome hat budget, but theoretically it exists. I may be spending it on posh cat food for my elderly and notoriously fussy cat Duchamp, but he will learn to like the cheap stuff. I resolved this week to start buying books properly to support authors, and buy music from bandcamp and other artist owned places. I will then make myself slightly happier by spending a couple of afternoons a month reading and listening to my new-found spoils in my summerhouse, which is probably my favourite thing in the world to do (there I admitted it, I feel better now).
I have begun well, this month I ordered another Tom Cox book from the utterly brilliant Hive (perfect if you like local bookshops, but not going into towns) and something else by somebody I’ve never heard of that looked good, but then rather than support new artists and emerging talent I bought a wildly over-priced copy of Penguin Eggs by Nic Jones which I’ve been meaning to buy for years. I regret nothing, it is a great album, and Nic Jones deserves all the help he can get, I am a bit sad that I have been able to listen to it as many times as I like online now, rather than it being a hazy memory from a smoke filled room in the 90s, so it is unlikely to surprise me, but these are the times we live in. It did blow the budget somewhat though, so next month I will hit bandcamp, and probably buy some Gaz Brookfield stuff as I have been enjoying his work since he was on the same bill as Maz Totterdell a few years ago when I was still playing bass in her backing group.
With the amazing availability of music, books, art and whatever your heart desires on the internet these days, it is all too easy to overlook the fact that somebody had to pay for it in the first place. Not to mention the fact that the sheer amount of choice often leaves me just not bothering to buy anything and going back to things I already own (I wrote a thing about modern record collecting here on my old blog). I know from first hand experience that trying to write books and songs and be in bands while holding down a job that pays enough to fund all of this for free is exhausting, and takes its toll on my mental and physical health. While I say, along with many others, that I would continue to do it no matter what, I suspect that at the back of my mind, if I truly felt that there would never be any income derived from it I would give up and just sit in my summerhouse listening to other people’s music and reading their books.
Today we are on the verge of going back to throwing some money in the hat of the wandering story-tellers and minstrels. And this is actually no bad thing, as the digital hat provided now is infinitely big, while the group gathered round the metaphorical fire to listen can access any minstrel they like, and throw as much money in as they want without looking like showoffs. Now if I can only get some of them to throw a bit my way.