Any daytime visitor to Camden sees the guys hawking CDs in flimsy plastic packaging, just outside the station. 15 years ago, this made sense. CDs were still one of the most popular ways of consuming music. Nowadays, it's all about MP3s and streaming, or perhaps a vinyl revival. Even cassettes are cool these days. Anything except CDs. So why is there a small but dedicated bunch of people still trying to sell them on the street?
I make eye contact and head towards the first guy I find offering CDs. He walks up to me, looking jovial, draws me in for the half-handshake half-body bump greeting and next thing I know he asks me if I want weed. Promoting his music career clearly isn't his main business. I look up and his mate's there too, with an open grinder with the stinky green leaves. Awkwardly, I explain that I genuinely just wanted to talk to him about the stack of CDs in his hand, not grass. Suddenly he loses all interest, tells me he sells the mixtapes on donation. I give him a quid, and he looks at it with disgust before handing over the disc and heading back to his mate.
It's strange that any sort of front is needed for dealing around here. Camden is possibly the only area in London where it's tacitly acceptable to angrily whisper "do you smoke weed?" at passersby. Still, buying Vsgodchild's All or Not is officially one of the few things you can do in London for a quid. So that's something.
I start to feel a bit naïve as I go looking for more budding artists. Is this all that remains of the mixtape culture? Fortunately, my next encounter proves otherwise.
James — who makes music under the moniker Timipiri — has been doing this for the past three years.
It's the only way to break into the music industry. Getting a deal is so much harder.
This isn't just a hobby for him either, "it's what I do for a living." He sells his CDs at a sky-high fiver a pop, which means that on a good day he can make up to £150. It's like his lyrics say on the opening track of his mixtape:
Hustle hard not to end up in the bin.
He laughs when he hears about my prior run-in. He doesn't mind about them — they're not affecting his business. "Out here everyone is focused on themselves. There can be 1000 people out here, it doesn't matter, you got to believe in yourself and speak to people one on one to be successful."
James is passionate about his music. A lot of the money he makes goes towards studio time to record more. He plays his music for me through his chunky headphones, blasting it out a bit too loud for my eardrums to handle. "It's kinda afrobeat and house influenced as that's the vibes these days." I take a CD in a plain plastic wallet — James is desperately disappointed he can't find one with artwork — and head off.
As I leave, I see him chat to a group of kids who look about 12. I'm surprised they actually know what a CD is. James says that in a few years he might move onto putting music onto USB sticks so he can keep at this. Whatever works so he can keep making money. Because, as he raps on CD:
It's all about the money, man.
James advises me to check out his 'breh' also selling CDs, just outside Electric Ballroom. So I meet the rapper/spoken word artist Scarshots, who's handing out his mixtapes to anyone who'll chat to him. He's not quite the veteran that James is, having only been here for a year. Nor is he as capitalistic as James, asking for a donation for one of his mixtapes rather than a fixed price.
"It's hard. I've learned the key to making it work out here is being out longer hours." He sometimes pulls 13 hour days selling his music, and at the end of a good day that means about £60. He bluntly says: "no one's ever paid a mortgage selling CDs." So why does he do it? He doesn't see it as a choice:
How else am I gonna get my music out there?
Like Timipiri, his music is also online, but no one finds it there. On the internet they're both single voices in a massive crowd. Out here, they can meet people. "I've learned to sell my music based on my character."
Before I'd got there, he'd been chatting to a few people in line for a metal gig at Electric Ballroom. It doesn't matter what tribe these people are from, many of them are still receptive to talking to Scarshots about his music. "Camden is a musician's paradise," he quips.
Still, he's not confident that it will stay a paradise for much longer. "There's less people and less vibes now."
I'm not so sure about the less people comment, having battled my way through the throng of tourists on the high street just an hour earlier, but his vibes comment might be right. He bemoans the privatisation of Camden Market, particularly as the root cause for this change.
Scarshots is pretty negative about the future of selling mixtapes on the street. "I don't think there will be people doing this in two years' time." Not that he wants to go on as a romantic practising a dying art. "No one that sells CDs on the street wants to be doing this." He's planning a way to transition out of here and into the big time.
I give him a fiver for his CD, when suddenly my old friend the dealer pops up. He's incredulous. "Why d'you give him a fiver, when you only gave me a quid?". I tell him it's because he just tried to sell me weed, and wasn't very interested in my idea of a music-led interview. He now seems up for an interview and divulges that it's not even his own music he's selling. Scarshots jumps in at this point and laughs his competitor off.
Once he's cleared off, Scarshots says: "See, there's no money in selling CDs. So people turn to other ways to make money." I get home and listen to his CD. It's muffled and incoherent. It's another reminder of how brittle CDs are, one small scratch and it's all for nothing. For now however, there are still people outside Camden Market, selling them to whomever will listen.