Going for a Song – Sprout on a Shoestring

Cheap.JPGThere’s a Guardian interview from just before the last Prefab Sprout tour in 2000, where Tom Cox points out to Paddy that it was possible to buy the back catalogue easily for less than a tenner and that Protest Songs could be had for as little as 10p. And how does he feel about that?

Dumb question really. How would you feel? Your life’s work consigned to the bargain bins at the back of dusty record and charity shops that smell of paraffin heaters and cigarette smoke from the back room, dog-eared, thumbed and rejected even by grubby record geeks in search of their cheap fix. Well Paddy makes a diplomatic answer about being glad he was still being paid to produce music, and then presciently suggests that maybe the band was at a low point in terms of the fanbase and that in 20 years it might all be collectible again. And as it happens, that’s pretty much what happened, a few years early.

It’s no secret that I collect very intensively, and I do spend a lot of cash on my hobby. However when I started in around 2010, it was very definitely a lot easier than it is now. There was essentially no competition, and although 10p would be pushing it, I did get the most marvelous things for pennies, and I was able to hoover up pretty much everything I wanted, probably to the relief of the sellers who had had these items on their hands for years in some cases.

It’s not like that now, and what seems to have happened is that there’s been a growing interest particularly leading up to and beyond “Crimson/Red” which has stoked demand. Also there’s a hipster element coming in looking for vinyl, so where people would routinely offload albums from the loft at a starting price of 99p and no takers, good quality items now are much more expensive.

Not unaffordably so, and certainly cheaper than the Mid-Life-Crisis-Heritage Bands like the Smiths, but it is going North. It’s a bit of a shame, not least because none of this added value actually accrues to the creators of the music, but also because it makes collecting more expensive.  So a little while ago I started a small side project to have a look at what could still be collected without breaking the bank, even if the bank was a Greek bank who had loaned to Spanish property developers on the back of Portuguese bonds.

I started with a charity shop challenge. The idea here was to scour charity shops, jumble sales and boot sales, avoiding any sort of specialist dealers, and just see what was out there. The first morning of this was in Brighton, where I met a philosophical rain sprite (long story), and where having walked up and down London Road, I triumphantly returned with “Jordan” on vinyl for £2.99 from the British Heart Foundation. This in itself taught a little collecting lesson: having located it I had carelessly left it at the front of one of the bins while I looked at the others. A classic lesser bearded hipster then moved in, all burlap clutch bag, round glasses, and dufflecoat, and nearly snaffled it, holding it up, examining it, reading the sleeve notes. But I guess he wasn’t sure quite how cool he’d look carrying it home so he left it. There’s a thin line between naff naff and naff chic, and I think  a subconscious recollection of the dancing hot dogs in the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” in the deep reptilian hipster brain stem tends to swing it to the naff naff in many cases.

But that, basically, was beginner’s luck. I’ve spent a long time now trying to find more material in that way, but nada. If I were to want to collect Jim Reeves, or Shirley Bassey, or 1980s one hit wonders King (“That’s, what my heart yearns for… L-l-love, love and pride, etc etc”), there would be little problem. But not Sprout. And definitely not Sprout singles – never had the merest sniff even of a scratchy “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” in all my searches. Plus, it’s hard on the knees. We’re none of us as young as we once were, and kneeling to flick through a cardboard box full of Liberace box sets looking for material, all the while jostling with the hipsters on either side, is neither comfortable nor dignified, and your fingers end up smelling of old peoples’ houses.

So the next step was to try a cheeky request on Freecycle Brighton. I really liked that idea. I was mentally prepared for a flood of offers, yet offers came there not, and I can only conclude a mismatch in demographic, or that people are hanging on to what they have, or that it’s already in landfill or was sold 15 years ago to people for 20p who then bragged about that to the artist.

Onwards and upwards, and to Ebay and Amazon. I alluded to this a few posts ago in one of my weekly postbag reports, because I bought a few very cheap items on Ebay to see what you got for your money in terms of quality of packaging etc – answer is it’s good generally, as described, and one item was held, refunded and tragically destroyed because it didn’t reach quality standards. And here there is a lot to go for: Zoverstocks run a sort of dutch auction on Amazon and systematically undercut other sellers, some of whom I think try to screw them back by listing non-available items very cheap, so it really is possible to get things very inexpensively – the cheapest I found being a “Life of Surprises” compilation, very worthwhile, for 1p (plus about £1.26 postage). Plenty there anyway.

And then Ebay, where a sort on lowest to highest price plus p&p and selection of “buy it now” presents lots of possibilities for cheap stuff, especially CD singles which are well worth having for the B sides. And also the auctions: very frequently someone will list a job lot of a number of singles at a lowish price, or there won’t be competition for commonly available material. Often worth a punt, but a word to the wise: do it very close to the end or someone will outbid you. For some reason a low price with one bid is more attractive to auction snipers than a low price with no bids.

The best thing on Ebay though was the marvelous but slightly obscure 2CD “Kings of Rock ‘n’ Roll” compilation, which has a couple of B Sides including “Donna Summer”, a very well put together track list in general, and was being remaindered in what seemed like a reasonable quantity (more than 10) for £1 plus £1.30 p&p, new and shrink wrapped. Total bargain and perfect for the car.

So it can be done, and it’s actually a lot of fun doing it. For me, most of what I look for is obscure and infrequent, and so having a different parameter on the collecting activity opens the door to the joy of looking and finding which is at the heart of the collecting bug. It’s fair to say that (at least before the rain sprite gave me some great and life changing advice, which I’ll share at some point) it’s actually genuinely depressing to turn up and search and not find anything in your sphere of interest day after day, week after week. So I really enjoyed this project, and indeed I’m not giving up on the Charity Shop Challenge part of it.

And also that there are little pockets where the hipsters tend not to lurk and where prices remain low. CDs basically are pretty easy to find. Cassettes are both easy to find and interesting, a lost format that was once utterly ubiquitous. Even 7″ singles aren’t too bad. Copies of NMEs with interviews can be quite inexpensive if you’re patient – of these the classic is the “Cabbage Patch” interview and photo shoot from 1984 which is just great. Posters and odd memorabilia. Rummage and ye shall find.

And that rain sprites KNOW. Listen to them. They’re easy to spot: they ride little scooters, and they carry with them a little bubble of hopeful optimism.






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