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Miscellaneous - The Reissues Market

  by Jon Rogers

published: 24 / 9 / 2009

Miscellaneous - The Reissues Market


In the first double instalment of his new column, 'Hitting the Right Note', Jon Rogers looks at the record industry's increasing reliance on reissuing and remarketing classic albums and other albums from the past...

Despite all its platitudes of investing and nurturing new music the record industry really is overly reliant on the “classic” hits of the past and finding new ways of selling something we already own back to us. That’s not to say that record labels don’t search out and promote new artists. They are, after all, the life blood of the industry. The industry – and the listener – need a constant supply of new acts coming through to give energy and vitality to what would otherwise be a very dull and lifeless market where it would just be the hits of yesteryear. Any market needs new innovation and new ‘product’ coming along or otherwise it will just stagnate. But the industry in the UK has become overly reliant on flogging the hits of the past and selling the listener songs they already have. The great way of doing that is to reissue some “classic” (and in some cases the definition of that is getting very thin) album in some “collector’s” or “anniversary” edition. Which basically means the reissued album (possibly “remastered” if you’re lucky) with some discarded studio outtakes or live versions of the songs on the original album tacked on at the end. And it will all come with a flimsy booklet with new pictures and a bit of blurb written by some journalist telling you why the album is a “classic”. It does make economic sense though. Why bother investing large sums of money into a new act that may or may not take off and become a hit? The profit margins on finding the next Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue or Take That are huge and highly lucrative but for every hit there are a truck load of misses which the record company never see a return on their investment. So why not remove that uncertainty and risk? Stick to what you know the public like and re-release that album. There’s no great investment needed either. The label is likely to own the rights so no legal problems to overcome, no need to pay for hours and hours of expensive studio time – although perhaps some time is needed to digitalise old analogue recordings. And no need to commission any artwork. Just trawl through the original recordings pick out some suitable outtakes or alternate versions et voila! A repackaged reissue. And there is not anything, necessarily, wrong with that. I love hearing some “long lost” or obscure version of some classic hit where you often get to hear the song as it grew from a mere idea in the artist’s head. That sort of “bonus material” can put an album in context and bring new insight into the album and/or musician. But the record industry can’t stop there. It has to flog a dead horse. Take Echo and the Bunnymen’s highly acclaimed album ‘Ocean Rain’ which was originally released in 1984. It was a prized album in my youth with Ian McCulloch on fine form on songs like ‘Crystal Days’, the title track and the wonderful ‘The Killing Moon’. And if memory serves correctly, adverts for the record modestly called it “the greatest album ever made”. It was, arguably the band’s finest hour (well 40-odd minutes to be accurate). Certainly an album worthy of getting the “reissue” treatment. But just how many versions of the album does anyone need? One version of the CD reissue has the remastered album and the usual “bonus tracks” featuring ‘Angels and Devils’ plus the “Life at Brian’s” sessions plus a couple of live tracks from the band’s ‘A Crystal Day’ gig in May 1984. Then there’s the “25th anniversary collector’s edition” too. Along with the remastered album (I’m assuming it’s the same remaster, not a new one) there are the “bonus tracks”. ‘Angels and Devils’ pops up again plus a new version of ‘Silver’ and a long version of ‘The Killing Moon’. But then comes the real money-spinner. Over on the second disc there’s a recording of the band’s high water mark – the gig at the Royal Albert Hall. This release even has largely the same (if slightly rewritten and expanded) liner notes by Max Bell. If that wasn’t enough there were reports earlier this year that yet another edition of the album was coming out, this time with a live disc of a gig from Liverpool Arena where the band played the album in its entirety. Just how many versions of (admittedly great) songs like ‘My Kingdom’ and ‘Nocturnal Me’ does anyone need? And don’t forget that some fans will also have the original vinyl version too. And I’m sure Echo and the Bunnymen and their record label Warner Music are not the only culprits. The fan is fleeced of their hard-earned cash buying yet another reissue so they can hear that rare little gem. The record company gets to keep a nice healthy profit margin by selling something with remarkably low costs at a premium and the band – invariably long since dispanded or reliving past glories on some nostalgia tour – get to top up their pensions for little or no effort. No doubt representatives of the music industry would argue that it is the reissue market that keeps record company profits above water and so able to provide finance to invest in new acts coming through. Imagine if those profits dried up, where would the money come from to be able to invest in newer pop acts? And it’s a valid point but the industry survived perfectly well in the 1960s and 1970s before the invention of CDs and downloading ever existed – both largely helped fuel the reissue market. So why is that market so important now? Is it perhaps because the record industry isn’t quite as cutting edge and inventive as it would like you to believe? It feels more comfortable resting on a more reactionary model that relies on the past than looking to the future – and it keeps their shareholders happy.

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