I was driving home tonight listening to the 2002 album Two Guns Twin Arrows by Abilene. I have no idea how many people have even heard of the long-defunct Abilene but I’m guessing its 5,000 at the absolute max. There’s probably about 3,000 of these CD’s in circulation and because the label that issued it went out of business I have a feeling there’s boxes of these in a warehouse or, more likely, a closet somewhere.* But that doesn’t really matter because I own this record and it means a great deal to me whether there’s 10 or 10 million of them. Two Guns Twin Arrows is the kind of record that just dredges shit up in me. Its this raw mixture of guitar-driven screaming post-hardcore (in that guitarist Alex Dunham used to be in hardcore bands not that its weird or goofy) with some kind of jazz element due to the trumpet and quasi-dub underpinnings. All of which sounds horrid when put down to paper but its sounds like no other record I have heard. And it gets to me. I start thinking of big F situations—failure, frustration, my dead father. It just dredges shit up in me. I can’t point to what exactly does it (as if you ever can with a great record) but its not content-based as the lyrics are so cryptic as to border on meaningless (but just bordering). It has to be the emotional space of the music. It basically goes from raw, noisy and angry to melodic and melancholic. Its definitely not a record with “a little something for everybody.” I can’t listen to Abilene all the time. They produced 2 records, neither of which I will ever part with but I take them out in measured doses (and always this time of year incidentally). I think they’re some kind of therapy and so, for the next week or so, I’ll listen to them until I can’t handle it any longer and they’ll go back on the CD shelf for another 8 months or a year or whatever.
Abilene toured a little bit, they played shows and they sold CDs. And they probably never made a legitimate dime of profit off their efforts. Hopefully they made enough off of selling CDs and at the doors of clubs to get to the next city. They took time off of work to do the work of touring in a band but it was likely more of an expensive vacation. I doubt that they came home with more than a couple hundred dollars in each members pockets, if that. And while money is never the be all end all of creative endeavors it certainly helps to make things worth it. Abilene broke up sometime after Two Guns Twin Arrows and its no shocker. The members were in their 30’s, had been touring in different bands for 10 years plus and probably had to due the kind of “shit sorting out” that one needs to do in order to say, have kids or build a sustainable career. And while that’s sad, my point has nothing to do with the conundrum of aging work-horse punk musicians but with the value of their art. I have gotten something major emotionally out of Abilene’s music for 11 years. What are we really talking about? Two pieces of plastic that cost me a grand total of $25. How can something that bring so much value to my existence have cost me so little? What’s the real value of those discs? How much is it really worth to own something (or access it as the case may be) that can transport you to a wholly different emotional place; that can make you miss your father and cry in traffic? How did it come to be that the catalyst for that experience—a CD—cost me the price of lunch pro-rated 100 times across a decade?
Music industry 1.0—the making and selling of plastic objects—set the expectation that music was a commodity with no real differentiation between artists, hence every CD had (and has) to cost the same. The punk scene set the expectation that paying someone for their art was bullshit and hence CDs had to priced in such a way as to recoup the production costs and not much else (if the entire print-run sold out). Music Industry 2.0—the making and selling of bits—has continued this folly to its extreme. Music is now either free or $.99 a song. We’ve officially decided that a Snickers bar is worth more than a piece of music. What the fuck is wrong with us?
I don’t know how or if I can ever repay Abilene for what they’ve given me but I know its worth way more than the $12 I paid for a copy of Two Guns Twin Arrows and its definitely worth more than $2.28 that you can buy a new copy of it on Amazon.** On the one hand, its offensive to musicians that we find it reasonable that they’re creative output is worth less than a pizza but on the other hand, what is it that we’re constantly complaining about? The most compelling and affective art that we engage with in our daily lives is music. And we get it for nothing. We complained that CDs were pushing $20 a piece. Our complaint wasn’t that it was $20 and musicians were still getting screwed on royalties, no, we complained because we knew that it only cost $.95 to manufacture a CD (as if we really had a clue as to what it cost to manufacture anything) so therefore we were paying $19.05 too much.
I don’t have an answer as to what a download of a song should cost but I know this, we should feel royally fucking blessed that right now it only costs $.99. There would be a gaping void in my life if Two Guns Twin Arrows, Life.Love.Regret., It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Paul’s Boutique, and every other transformative record were to be erased from existence. What if every $15 I ever spent managed to bring me so much repeated enjoyment for years to come? I should be so lucky.
*Hopefully, I’m wrong about this and there’s 10,000 copies all of which have found a happy and loving home. **But, I see that you can buy a new copy for as little as $2.28 on Amazon so I think my instincts are correct on this one.