I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff

In late 1997, Brisbane band Regurgitator followed up their debut album Tu-Plang with Unit. Tu-Plang had won them two ARIA awards and a nice shiny platinum disc for their walls, but they’d pushed their sound somewhere a little different – a little more electropop – with Unit. Always among the most self-aware of bands – they not only called the album Unit, but the tour to support it was called UnitShifter – they dared their fans to dislike it by opening with a track called I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff.

Unit went triple platinum and won five ARIA awards. Plenty of people liked the new stuff.

In a recent edition of Rolling Stone, there’s a photo of Quan Yeomans and Ben Ely, the two remaining members from the original line-up, made up to look like old geezers. The article’s headed ‘Regurgitator’s Walk Down Memory Lane’. A year after the release of their seventh studio album, they’ve announced a tour which will feature them playing their first two albums in their entirety.

Stephen Cummings has also been touring. 666 ABC Canberra has podcast a wide-ranging interview done two weeks ago. On their website the blurb begins ‘Stephen Cummings is an Aussie musician best known for his time with The Sports and singles “Who Listens To The Radio” and “What Did The Detectives Say”.’

The Sports racked up several top 20 singles and albums from 1979 to their break-up in 1981. Since then, Stephen Cummings has released 21 solo albums and, as wikipedia succinctly puts it, ‘has met with critical acclaim but has had limited commercial success’. His 1988 album, Lovetown, made the top 40 in the 2010 book 100 Best Australian Albums. Nowhere near enough of us own it or have heard it.

The same might be said of Regurgitator’s recent albums, which didn’t go platinum.

Ten years ago, through a contractual obligation, they released a greatest hits compilation. They called the CD Jingles and the DVD of the videos Infomercials. As Rolling Stone says, ‘This is not a band that trades in nostalgia’. Maybe they feel differently now, or maybe nostalgia just came up and grabbed them. They’re a band with a finely honed sense of irony, so they won’t have missed the fact that they’re about to tour old music featuring I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff.

What’s happened to Regurgitator and to Stephen Cummings is something that happens to almost all of us when we set out to make a career out of what we create. With rare exceptions, you can only be hot for so long, even if you’re still good. Even if you’re better.

There’s something exciting about discovering a new artist whose work you love. There’s something comfortable about them still being around years later, still putting out albums, books, movies. The problem can be that ‘exciting’ makes us buy and ‘comfortable’ doesn’t. ‘Exciting’ has urgency and ‘comfortable’ doesn’t. ‘Exciting’ makes us buy right now, and ‘comfortable’ says we’ll get round to it eventually. And then we don’t. Other things come along and crowd out that small intention, push it into the background, lose it in noise. We’re fans, but we’re non-purchasing fans. We’re fans who can’t help liking your old stuff better than your new stuff because we meant to buy the new stuff but it never quite happened. Familiarity hasn’t bred contempt, but it’s sapped the urgency – it’s as if you and your stuff will always be around, so there’s no need to hurry. And let’s face it, if we’re not hurrying to buy something, we’re not buying it. Because dozens of other things will come along and clamour for us to buy them, and we answer to that clamour instead.

This threat of commercial obsolescence sneaks up, and no one to whom it happens can resist the urge to fight it – put out more product, tour harder, sometimes blame people who did an average job of pushing the product as though they’ve done far worse than that. You can forget the broken promises on the way up – you can’t forget them on the way down.

When you go from the platinum album to the triple-platinum album, it’s hard not to imagine the next will do better still. Maybe it does. But the time comes when one doesn’t, and nor does the next. You’re in the post-commercial phase of your career, and there are some adjustments to make. It’s not so much people liking your old stuff better than your new stuff, but liking it instead. They haven’t seen/heard/read your new stuff. Sometimes they haven’t even heard it’s around.

But, if you want to keep doing it, all you can do is continue to aim to put out your best work, whatever that happens to mean at the time. And to aim to work with people who believe in your future, rather than your past. And to remain gracious when people want to tell you they loved something from last century, and remind yourself you’re lucky they found it and loved it, regardless of how far back it’s filed in your brain.

Some old fans will drift away entirely by accident because you lost the element of surprise last century. Some will stick with you and inspire you to be a better fan more long-term yourself. If you’re doing something right, you’ll make at least a few new fans too.

If you’re freakishly lucky, you might score your own Carlos Santana moment, but you should never expect to. Santana had been big in the 70s, but by the 90s sales were right down and late in the decade he was off contract. I don’t know how many rolls of the dice he had left when he recorded Supernatural, but that album was one great roll. It gave him the last US #1 single of the century, another one in the next century, a #1 album, 15 million sales and 9 Grammies.

We’d all love that, but in the end you don’t need to sell 15 million of anything to keep doing it. You need to sell enough, and I can’t quantify enough. You need to be getting enough back. You need what you’re doing to connect with people, at least some people.

I can’t say how my new books – Welcome to Normal and the first in the Word Hunters trilogy – are selling, because I long ago decided to look away from the numbers. I’m told they’re tracking ahead of expectations, which means I’m now not asking what the expectations were either. It’s far preferable to them falling short though.

Sixteen books and twenty years into this career, I am genuinely appreciative of this sign that some people like the new stuff. So, thank you, if you’re among them. And if you liked the old stuff, thank you for that too. And if you’re going to be this month’s person telling me you’re a big fan and your favourite among my books is He Died With a Felafel in His Hand, be assured that John Birmingham is having the same conversation with someone else about Zigzag Street.

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18 Responses to I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff

  1. I loved The Sports, and Stephen Cummings’s album Spiritual Bum is still one of my favourites. I wonder what the stats are on who spends the most on cultural commodities: Perhaps bands and authors sell more when they’re young because their natural audiences are similarly young and have the time/money to spend on the products? (And perhaps they make their money when they and their audiences are older and the best-ofs and retrospectives start to come out … Justin Bieber’s “biography” aside.)

    • nickearls says:

      On top of that, the book industry and the music industry have both changed dramatically since the 90s, including changes to their product lines and how they measure sales. And we didn’t have to compete with apps, Play Station and frequent iPhone upgrades then. Ah, simple times, even though we didn’t know it. That may be where some of the youngster money goes. I know some movie industry people who have stopped targetting 18-30-year-olds simply because they go to far fewer movies than they did in the 80s (and those in the 80s, I’m pretty sure, went less than the young folk of the 50s). So, with Australia having 470,000 self-managed superfunds with an average balance close to a million, a few years from now I’ll be aiming to write Australia’s first rip-snortingly funny novel about self-funded retirees.

      • I’d say you’re right about 50s movie going, at least as far as it’s revered by many who talk of their formative cinema experiences of the day. Perhaps some of that can be put down to novelty, which also affects modern forms of media consumption such as video games, social media etc, albeit at a more aggressive pace. After the novelty of form wears out, the content becomes more important … but I make no predictions about whether it will “settle down” or if we’ll exhaust novel formats (what am I, Alvin Toffler?)

        You may be on to something with the super fund bonanza. I look forward to reading blockbusters such as “50 Shades of Blue Rinse”, “The Matlock Code”, and John Birmingham’s “He Died With A Sustagen In His Hand” (for which you will inevitably be credited.)

  2. Jenny says:

    Sometimes you don’t even need to get something back. My characters walk with me but there aren’t many other people in the world who paid real money to know about them. It doesn’t bother me. But then, if I gave up my day job… yeah, then I might start counting. I’d better go see what Nick Earls is writing now and buy it 😉

  3. Looking forward to reading Word Hunters and buying it for my nieces and nephews for Christmas. People should also feel free to keep getting excited by new authors on the scene, particularly those who are independently publishing… 😉

    • nickearls says:

      Well, yes, also a good point. Make sure you savour all the excitement that comes your way. And may there be plenty of it.

  4. geoff lemon says:

    Sometimes old stuff can mean a lot to people. I wrote a bit about your old stuff, which was new stuff when I read it, in the second half of this:

    http://heathenscripture.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/where-the-hell-did-that-heathen-scripture-guy-go/

    • nickearls says:

      It should take just one person to say the equivalent of that to Stephen Cummings for him to feel okay about the unjust neglect of more recent decades that he has at times endured. You might be surprised how good it feels to see that (or you might not). Either way, thank you.

      Interesting to see the National Young Writers thing featuring there too. I was there in ’98, when I think the cut-off was 35, a birthday I was facing a month or two later. I think that makes me the oldest person ever to appear there.

  5. jodie05 says:

    I have a handful of favourite authors (you being one of them Nick) and I eagerly look forward to buying (because I MUST have my own physical copy!) and reading every new book they write, no matter what age group it’s aimed at, but I do get terribly excited when I discover somebody “new” who already has a significant back catalogue because I know I have hours of blissful reading ahead of me to catch up! So far, I’ve enjoyed following each author where ever he or she has wanted to go so I’ve not given up on anybody yet. Sadly, the same cannot be said for my musical tastes, I tend to completely refresh my CD collection every few years. Triple J just keep finding wonderful new musicians to steal away my attention!! But the very next time I’m in JB HiFi I absolutely will follow up on some of my favourite 90s artists and see what they are doing now. I promise!

  6. PR says:

    Hi Nick,

    I don’t have a blog like the very eloquent Mr. Lemon, but I do have a Facebook profile, and you are one of the five faces that Mr. Zuckerberg allows me to display under my favorite books, because Zigzag Street is my very most favorite book, not only of the last century, but this one as well 🙂

    I live in Ecuador now (because I have little money but even less desire to work) and one of the few physical objects I’ve kept from my former life in Australia is a well-worn, much-read, and personally-signed copy of Zigzag Street. I remember being completely starstruck when I met you, but you were warm and generous and every bit as awesome as you’d hope one of your personal heroes would be. It may also be worth mentioning that that very copy is the only novel I’ve ever read out loud from start to finish (to a long-distance girlfriend, over many calls) and, if anything, it’s even better out loud.

    I was a DJ for a brief but glorious part of that former life, so I’ve always been a “song” guy rather than an “artist” guy (in fact, exactly one song from each of the artists in your post came rapidly to mind, namely “The Song Formerly Known As” (from Unit!) and “Hell”, which is not to suggest for a second that the rest of their songs are crap, just that those were the two that left an impression on me). And in the same way I guess I’m a “book” guy rather than an “author” guy. And you’re the author of the best book I ever read.

    Thanks! 🙂

    • nickearls says:

      I think you must the little Ecuador flag that pops up from time to time when I check my blog stats. I love the idea that you turned Zigzag Street into a DIY episodic audiobook, and that you’ve still got a copy with you. Your comment, and the eloquent Mr Lemon’s, make me realise people’s responses to non-recent work is nowhere near as straightforward as ‘I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your new Stuff’ (or vice versa). I get what you mean – sometimes a book or a song comes along and connects with me in a way that’s on a different plane to liking something. It’s a privilege in any century to hear that, for someone, you’ve written one of those books or songs. So, thank you.

  7. Joan says:

    I do like your old stuff – Zig Zag is still on my shelves along with seven other so yours. Just finished ‘Welcome to Normal’ prompted by your panels at Byron Festival.
    Also, ‘GREEN’ is still my favourite short story.
    Keep up the good work!
    Joan.

    • nickearls says:

      Thank you. It’s good to hear that about Green right now, since I have some new plans for it. In December in Australia (earlier in some other places) I’ll be putting together the Headgames Frank & Phil stories, the novel World of Chickens and one new story to bring them into 2012. The whole package will be called Green and it’ll come out as an ebook and print-on-demand paper book. So, it’s very nice to hear that the soon-to-be title story is a favourite.

  8. Penley says:

    I took two books with me when I left for London in 2005 for what I thought was going to be a couple of years (turned into 8, as these things do): Zigzag Street and The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco. This was a bigger deal than it sounds because I only had 20kgs worth of luggage space so books should not have been on the packing list. I’d read both of them so much (and really, way too much) that they’d become my own touchstone with Brisbane. You (and John Birmingham) really wrote the Brisbane I knew and know and I knew that in homesick moments that that these were the novels I would immerse myself in. It worked; in the worst times I had I would read a chapter or two of escape and would always feel better. So thank you.

    I lent the book to a male friend of mine, and when he finally got around to reading it (to which I never reciprocated with my promised read, ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, it’s still on the shelf taunting me) he said ‘you sound like him’, and then ‘no really, your voices are the same’. To this day I’m not sure whether it’s a Brisbane thing (or even more locally, an Indooroopilly / Taringa / Toowong / St Lucia thing) or whether it was just because I’d read that book waaaaaay too often.

    I’ve bought many of your novels over the years, but the 8 year absence means I’ve missed quite a few it seems. In terms of the ‘I Like Your Old Stuff’ thing, I’m glad you’re not writing the same stuff. We’ve all aged out – and apart from the younger stuff (not me sorry, I”m struggling through those awful Divergent novels and that’s enough for me for the next few years for YA) it’s fabulous to read an author who writes for their contemporaries. So, in light of your ‘liminal’ message in this post, I shall keep an eye out for your latest the next time I’m in a bookstore. It won’t be a chore, I’m sure 🙂

    Penley

    • nickearls says:

      I’m happy to agree we speak the same Brisbane inner west dialect. You do sound quite a bit like me when I read your post, and it’s probably better for both of us if we agree on the dialect option, rather than me carrying the burden of having accidentally over-written part of someone’s identity through sheer force of repetitive reading, and you and those close to you having to hate me for partially erasing the original you.

      Anyway, it means a lot to hear that the book played such a role in your time away, and I really appreciate you telling me.

      I’d also bet you’ve come out the experience still able to tell Birmo and me apart, which is more than a lot of people. We’re both so used to it now that we usually just go with it. He can now bluff his way through any conversation about the writing of Zigzag Street and I can do a passable job of being the author of Felafel or Tassie Babes (see? I even know JB’s shorthand names for them …).

      So, thanks both for your post and for knowing he and I aren’t completely interchangeable.

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