When I first got into music, in the moribund middle of the 1990s, not only was I living in a godforsaken postindustrial blackspot, but I was living there without the internet. The only place in my town which sold records was Woolworths, which sold the Top 20, on CD and cassette, and that was it. I once, as a thirteen year old Manicsfan, went into Woolworths and tried to preorder a copy of The Holy Bible. My enquiry was met with the same look of horror-struck uncertainty with which my mother, that same year, asked whether I’d been in a punch-up (I hadn’t; Rimmel’s ‘Gothic Miss’ eyeshadow palette and I were in our ill-advised experimental period, but the mistake is understandable). The nearest town whose emporia offered more cosmopolitan fare was an hour’s bus-ride away. In alternative cultural terms, the last one to leave my town had not only turned out the lights, but also painted the windows black and pissed on the stereo. Oh how I suffered.
What I did have, as previously mentioned, was the music press, which brimmed with breathless recommendations for current bands and retrospectives on the musical movements and moments in which, it seemed, one had to be well-versed in order to deserve to draw breath. I inhaled this stuff, learned it like I should have learned my times tables. I’d comb the column inches of the NME and Melody Maker for small-scale gigs or single reviews by bands that piqued my interest. Occasionally there’d be the odd shout-out or spin of them on the Evening Session, but apart from my contraband home-taping, physical product was hard to come by. If I liked the look and the sound of these bands, I had to send myself on quests to find their records. Nothing especially epic at first: I’d trek to Cardiff to HMV and the towering glass and chrome of Virgin, and, if out of luck there, to the dinky and antique Spillers Records. 7″ by 12″, I’d scratch the surface of blues, glam, disco, punk and hip-hop, patching together the back catalogue of artists now defunct but still alluringly lauded (Robert Johnson, Patti Smith, the Kinks, the Clash, the Specials), or tracking down the newly-minted work of artists brand-new and fiercely if sometimes bafflingly championed (Super Furry Animals, Tricky, Kenickie, lashings of riot grrl and a tsunami of best-forgotten New Wave of New Wave).
It would be naïve to claim that these bands weren’t being sold to me, just as much as the unappealingly immediate wastes of boybandom, chart-friendly techno and, later, Britpop were being marketed to everyone else at school. I spent the 90s in slavish devotion to the opinions of music journalists – not all of them, in fact I studiously avoided anything for which Ben Stud had time – but Messrs Price, Parkes, Kulkarni and Wells have a lot of my time, money and lack of peer-group credibility to account for. What set apart the music to which they introduced me, though, and what sharpened the edge of its intrigue, was the effort I had to put into finding it. I spent whole months of Saturdays and all my pocket-money in pursuit of music, and sometimes I’d eschew school in favour of going to record fairs, mine being a particularly nerdy brand of juvenile delinquency. Somewhere between spy and safari hunter, I stalked music like big game and doing so did feel, to me, like something taking place in the margins of the mainstream, outside of commercial imperatives. If I bought this album, that single, it was because it had intrigued me, not because there was a chart placing riding on it – either, in the case of most bands, there hadn’t been for decades, or, in the case of the Manics, the band simply hadn’t a hope in hell. This indie detective work, scanning small ads and loitering at record fairs and music shops, occasionally unfolded into unexpected friendships: tipsy underage expeditions to gigs with other adventurers, the national and international criss-cross of fanzines that we had instead of social networking, and the samizdat trading of VHS’d promo videos and compilation tapes.
Roughly half, or maybe less, of the bands I chose to investigate like this have stayed with me ever since. Sometimes the bands were lifechanging, an introduction in themselves to a wholly new landscape of politics, history, sex and art. Sometimes, because you can’t win ’em all, the bands were Kingmaker, or Terris. The end result, my ultimate evaluation of the music, mattered less than the drawn-out, intricate process of getting your hands on something to evaluate. The challenge, the frustration, the delayed gratification. Effort paying off and work repaid. I liked the chase.
And then I got the internet, which makes everything easier. In terms of music, the place is awash with as much of the new as you could wish for, and even more of the old. Not only can the fan engage without leaving their bedroom, but so can the band. My discovery of the Libertines took place almost entirely online: the demos and sessions made available for download; the gigs arranged, announced, reported from live, and subsequently uploaded on messageboards; the forums full of atomised provincial chancers brought together over the wires. See also, for online engagement, Radiohead and Amanda Palmer. See especially, from a fan’s perspective, my resurgent love for Magazine, a band undeservedly but undeniably obscure: one solitary single in the Top 40 and a back catalogue left to languish for over twenty years. Even online, traces of Magazine’s elusiveness still cling: quite apart from the band’s name being impossible to Google without adding a qualifier, there is no official website and the nearest – very good – attempt at one can now only be stutteringly accessed in archive form. That said, since rediscovering the band last year I’ve been grateful for the gargantuan goodness of those who’ve made available mp3s and live performances which, in my days of record-fair trawling, would have taken an age to amass, if I could have managed to do so at all.
There’s good and bad in this, of course. I’m guiltily aware of how legal and illegal downloading has undercut not only the corporate players like Virgin and Tower but also the independent record shop. Many of the latter, encouragingly, are adapting by trading on their capacity for human interaction and inspired suggestion that helps the listener escape ‘a ghetto of the known or liked’. These days I spend less effort and far less money on acquiring music, though not much less time, and there’s proportionately less of the satisfaction engendered when your effort pays off, but I regard it as a more than acceptable trade-off. I do miss the thrill of the chase when indulging in the click of a button, but record shops and record fairs are still out there for times when what you want is a shadowy pursuit through twisted cityscapes, rather than a slide into a technicolour ballpit containing an unknown ratio of trash to unburied treasure.