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.