Monday, 2 June 2014

Hibernation in the digital age

In 2001, I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. Mrs Robster and I (and the two Sprogsters) left behind everything we had ever known, upped sticks and moved to Wales. It was mainly because I had recently been made redundant and jobs in North Devon were scarce. I found myself jobless (save a couple evenings a week teaching at the local college) with a young family to support - TheMadster wasn't quite four yet, while TheDoopster (the youngest of the Robster clan) was just 16 months. I was at a low. I had uploaded my CV to several jobsearch sites, but there was clearly nowt in my local vicinity.

So on my 30th birthday, when I got a call asking if I would consider a post in South Wales, I had to say yes. I went for the interview the very next day and started work the following Monday. The salary was too good to turn down so it was a no-brainer - we were moving. It took a couple of months, during which time I commuted from Mrs Robster's mum's place an hour or so away.

Just before we moved, I did something I had done once before and vowed never to do again - I sold a huge amount of my vinyl collection. It was the sort of mature decision that grown-ups are forced to make; we clearly couldn't take all those records with us, there were hundreds of the damn things. Mrs Robster was insistent and as loathed as I was to admit it at the time, she was right. I took them to Matt the Hat's second-hand record shop in Barnstaple, was paid a fraction of what they were worth and wept. I didn't get rid of everything - I still have a few boxes of records in the cupboard - but Matt's stock was significantly increased following that transaction, I can tell you.

A new life was starting for us. Ironically though, moving from the backwaters of North Devon to the doorstep of the Land Of Song's capital city, the decade that followed proved to be very quiet in my journey of musical exploration, or at least it would be a very different form of exploration.

My new job saw me travelling the country which you would think would have given me ample opportunities to attend gigs, but no. In two years of regular trips to London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, hardly anything I was interested in coincided with when I was in town, and when it did, it had either already sold out, or I was skint. Even living so close to Cardiff, gigs were a rare event. The kids were young, we didn't know (or trust) anyone enough to ask them to babysit, our family and friends weren't local. On top of that, nights out cost money, something we didn't have much of.

So it was that between 2001 and 2011, you could count the number of gigs I went to on your fingers. We had to choose who we would go and see with care. Fortunately we did make some great decisions and some of the most memorable shows I've seen came in this fallow period. Instead of relentless gigging, I got my kicks through the increasingly evolving  and useful digital spectrum. The Internet was my saviour. I discovered the joys of MP3s having avoided them for so long. These little delights took no physical space, and if you knew where to look, you could get them for free too! Don't get me wrong, I still bought CDs, but I could not afford to buy something on a whim anymore. If I wanted to hear something new, I sought it out online. The first iPods had been released in 2001; within the next few years generation MP3 was beginning to blossom. Bear in mind the music industry still frowned on digital music files so it wasn't always easy to track stuff down. It would take them years before they realised they couldn't ignore it anymore, and it'll be years until they finally catch up with what us consumers actually want.

The Internet has proved to be the single greatest invention a hard-up music fan could ever have wished for. If live music was unaffordable, recorded music in a digital format was perfect. I discovered an unfathomable amount of amazing music in this time; Arcade Fire, Laura Marling, Cold War Kids, Broken Social Scene and Emmy The Great to name just five. There are countless others. This new way of discovering music kept my spirit alive. It still does in fact. 

l-r: Laura Marling, Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Cold War Kids, Emmy The Great

Yeah, yeah, go on. Tell me how soulless MP3s are; how much more romantic and warm vinyl is. Tell me that at least with CDs you get artwork and sleevenotes which all add to the enjoyment and overall experience of listening to music. Yeah, yeah, I know all that. But you know what? Strip away all the aesthetics and if the music still excites you, you know it's great music. That's the one thing you can say about MP3s, there's nowhere to hide. You can't polish a turd. A turd with nice artwork and a lyric booklet is still a turd, right? Did Robert Johnson become so revered and influential because of his record sleeves? Of course not. It's weird, in a way we've almost come full circle in 100 years.

My partly self-imposed hibernation period during the 21st Century's first decade is now at an end. I'm pleased with myself that I didn't lapse into 'completely lost interest in music' mode like so many of my peers when they had kids. I'm also happy that in keeping my own interests alive, my little darlings have grown up with good, inspiring music n their blood. Neither of them have ever been fans of boy bands or teen heartthrobs. I remember them rocking out to the White Stripes in the backseat of the car. Only the other week TheMadster quoted an XTC lyric to me. How many 16-year-old girls in 2014 have done that? It made me realise what fucking amazing parents we are!

Both Sprogsters are now teenagers (which itself is terrifying). This means they can look after themselves for a few hours if Mrs Robster and I fancy a trip to see Drenge in Cardiff (like this very week, in fact). I am, to a certain extent at least, free again.



  1. "Did Robert Johnson become so revered and influential because of his record sleeves?" No, but I'd wager that Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and a host of other acts benefited more than they would have had they been available in MP3 format only. I'm reminded of a line from Spinal Ta(r)p, where Fran Dresher is arguing with their manager and says, and I am paraphrasing, "I don't think an albums artwork has anything to do with how well an album does. The White Album? There was nothing on that goddamn cover!" , to which Ian replies, "If a label is behind an album they can shove it right down the public's throat.", to which Fran replies, "Money talks and bullshit walks".

    ...hmmm...what was I saying. Oh, yes, great post. I'm mid 40's now and can totally sympathize with having to sell off a beloved vinyl collection, but kids come first, eh? I'll still buy CD's, but I am at the point where I am pretty content with the mass amount of music I have collected over the years, and aside from the odd "can't miss" deluxe reissue (Led Zep, etc), or the odd new one, I don't feel the need to buy nearly as much as I used to. Plus, I am at the point where I figure even if I dedicated 2 full hours per day, everyday, to listening to my collection it'd take me 8.2 years to listen to every song I have. I've plenty to keep me busy.

  2. Interesting post, and I also thought your comment re Robert Johnson and lack of covers and coming full circle was interesting and not something I had considered before. I also have found mp3s incredibly valuable in letting me listen to and own more music, however I still somehow don't feel they are the real deal. Inevitably for albums that I like that I only have on mp3, I will generally go and buy the 'real' version on vinyl or CD. Although sadly my wife and I couldn't have children, it does mean I have a reasonable disposable income for such pleasures!