I was 13 when Blur and Oasis went head-to-head in the Great Britpop War of 1995. Like the rest of the nation’s teens (and too many people old enough to know better) I had to pick a side. The real test of allegiance, however, wasn’t that war-torn August but rather the autumn that followed. That was when the albums came out – Blur’s TheGreat Escape and Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?. At £12.99 each (at least), there was no way this 13-year old could afford both albums.
Fast forward 18 years, and I no longer have those financial constraints. Yes, I now earn significantly more than I did from my teenage paper-round, but there’s more to it than that. In 2013, people who willingly pay over a tenner for an album are heading the same way as blacksmiths – you’ll find them, but they’re a rare and dying breed. With Spotify leading the way in online streaming and free and illegal downloads always just a few clicks away, the need to pay for music is weaker than ever.
So what becomes of the physical CD albums that our digital world has made redundant? Well, they’re still out there and being sold for as little as a penny online. Just look for any album more than about four years-old on Amazon and the chances are you’ll see “Available new and used from £0.01” next to it.
Last year, with a group of like-minded friends, I set up the 1p Album Club. Using the word ‘club’ in the loosest sense of the word, we’re friends who buy each other albums for a penny and review our purchases online. Why do we bother? Well, in a small way it highlights that cost and value are very different things. It’s easy to assume that if an album is sold for a penny then it must be crap. Not so.
The past year has seen us review almost 100 albums and recruit new friends and strangers to take part via Twitter. These are people who, like me, hate to see music they’ve previously invested in being undersold and undervalued so brazenly. They’re also people who enjoy the fact that this underselling makes discovering previously overlooked gems so affordable.
To give an idea of what’s out there, here’s what a few pence will add to your CD collection:
The modern classics…
We’ve reviewed Blondie’s seminal Parallel Lines – an album so full of awesome tunes that it sounds like a ‘greatest hits’. It’s an album that should be on every shelf, alongside other modern classics like Jeff Buckley’s Grace, Michael Jackson’sBad and Pulp’s Different Class. These are albums that many would argue should be taught in schools, not sold for less than a Mars bar.
The bluffer’s guide…
Don’t know the first thing about jazz? Want to be able to wax lyrical about one of the first ever folk protest singers? Don’t go to night-school, just invest in Miles Davis’ jazz classic, Kind of Blue and folk legend Woody Guthrie’s The Very Best of Woody Guthrie. If you want an intro to a new genre, chances are there’s a classic gateway album for just a few pence.
The back catalogue…
Never mind just The Great Escape, you can get the whole Blur back catalogue for less than the price of a stamp. Pulp, Oasis, Manic Street Preachers; if they were big in the CD’s glory days (I’d argue 1994 – 2004) you’ll be picking them up for pence now.
The overlooked and forgotten gems…
It’s easy to look back at the big bands but there’s a whole host of smaller bands with great albums that risk being forgotten in the digital age. El Nino did one short UK tour, released one great album Galaxy Class and then seemingly disappeared. Let’s not forget Longpigs’ The Sun is Often Out and McAlmont and Butler’s The Sound of…. These are just some of the gems out there.
So what does this all mean? Are 1p albums a sign that we value music less than ever? Like Blur v Oasis, I’m torn to pick a side. Music is something that people love passionately regardless of the financials - if a song clicks with a listener and they love it, it doesn't matter what they paid to listen to it or if they streamed it free on Spotify. That said, people's attitudes towards anything free are completely different to their paid-for equivalents. Technology has made snap judgements and flippant dismissals of music much more the norm because the sheer quantity of music available is incredible. It devalues music in the sense that people's expectations are lower. It's a bit like an all-you-can-eat buffet; you don't always care if the quality's not great because the choice is what you're after. That mentality means people value it less, which is a shame.
Is there a future for physical music? Yes. I'm quite comfortable with the fact that everything's heading towards digital as the norm, because I'm confident physical will live on, even if it’s not in the mass market standard way it once was. There are plenty of small labels doing interesting releases and people still want them. 2013 AIM Award-winning Alcopop! have released compilations as maps, menus and singles on frisbees and pizza boxes, for example. It comes down to the fact that people like owning things and no one can deny the correlation between ‘music lover’ and ‘obsessive hoarder’ - just look at the hunched crowds bent over racks of records in your local record shop.
1p Album Club is just by-product of a music industry that didn’t see digital technology as the threat it was. It’s not a sign that music is on its way out, but rather just a group of music fans using this unique glut of products as a way to explore music. Get on Amazon while you can and see what you can pick up.
To get involved in swapping, go here