Imagine no new artists, just endless re-releases

As revenues crash, record labels are opting to repackage classics by Lennon, Hendrix, and others, rather than invest in new artists. Fiona Sturges wonders where it will all end

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:37

The old ones are the best, or so the saying goes. This, clearly, is what the record business would have us believe: barely a week goes by without a so-called classic album being dusted off and given the legacy-edition treatment. And this has already been a bumper year. In March Sony re-released a trio of Jimi Hendrix albums in honour of the 40th anniversary of the guitarist's death while The Rolling Stones coffers were further plumped in May by the reappearance of their 1971 LP Exile on Main Street, which promptly went to No 1.

Next month brings an avalanche of reissues by the likes of Frank Sinatra, The Kinks and Queen. In October, marking what would be John Lennon's 70th birthday, EMI will be releasing remastered versions of the former Beatle's entire solo catalogue, each of them available individually as well as in a mammoth box-set format for maximum money-spinning potential.

So whatever happened to investing in new artists and breaking new musical ground? The answer, simply, is money, or the lack of it. It's hard to overstate the financial significance of a record company's back catalogue at a time when little, if any money is made from albums by new artists. By contrast, last year the Beatles broke multiple chart records with sales of their remastered catalogue, with a million albums shifted in the first five days (sales currently stand around the 13 million mark). It is estimated that since Michael Jackson's death, his estate has generated £135m through the sales of reissues alone.

"The artists' catalogue is the lifeblood of the industry," says Charlie Stanford, senior marketing director at Sony Music. "It's the engine room that drives the business. It's always there in the background, quietly working away and generating revenue though it's up to us to maintain it, get people excited about it and keep it fresh."

With the music business continuing in its downward spiral, financially crippled both by technological advances and its own ill-judged get-rich-quick signings, record executives are clearly desperate to find new ways to make money. Still, it's a mark of the industry's blinkered character that it has only recently woken up to the treasures in its own stockroom. Not long ago archive albums and reissues were considered a niche market, the preserve of music obsessives and nerds. Now it's a whole industry within an industry, and one with a guaranteed return.

But are these reissues of any artistic worth? That, of course, depends on how they're done, notably whether the album in question has anything new to offer the seasoned fan. Last year's remastered Beatles albums were made available for the first time both in stereo and mono, and critics were unanimous in their praise of the sound quality of both. You might call this a genius marketing ploy from EMI when you consider that Beatles completists, of which there are many, would want to buy both. But given that the box sets were retailing at £240 a pop, you might equally call it taking the fans for a ride. Last year also brought a remastered collector's edition of the Stone Roses' debut LP with a series of much-trumpeted extras including six art prints by John Squire and interviews with well-known fans including Noel Gallagher and Mark Ronson. All very nice, you might think, until you note the price – around £100. You could pick up the original for £4.99.

Morrissey didn't think much of the reissues game when he wrote The Smiths' "Paint a Vulgar Picture ("Reissue! Repackage! Repackage! Re-evaluate the songs/ Double pack with a photograph/ Extra track and a tacky badge"). Indeed Morrissey has spent much of his career resisting attempts to repackage both his solo work and The Smiths' back catalogue, and not always successfully. Radiohead are known to take a similarly dim view of reissues, though this didn't stop their old record company from releasing their first few albums as double-disc special editions last year. Other artists have tended to look at the practice more favourably, viewing it not only as a chance to revisit past glories and pay off their overdraft but, on remastered versions, to right the wrongs of the original recording experience.

Nowadays there's more to managing an artist's catalogue than a spot of digital hoovering. Reissues have to come with the requisite bells and whistles, from attached documentaries and unseen promotional videos to bonus live tracks, demos, rarities, cover versions and lengthy booklets.

Recent years have seen the rise of the "deluxe edition", also known as the collector's edition, a brazen attempt both by artists and record companies to extend the shelf life of a relatively new album by re-releasing it, usually in the run-up to Christmas, with flashy new packaging and a handful of bonus tracks. Perpetrators include Amy Winehouse with her Back to Black album, Leona Lewis with Spirit and Keane with Hopes and Fears. It's a practice that has left many fans feeling short-changed.

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At least when it comes to older albums being given the collector's-edition treatment, the benefits are clear. Not only does it give long-standing fans the chance to remember in the genius of a long-neglected LP but the album in question can act as a historical artefact for the younger generation.

Even so, it's up to the record company in question to make the new package worthy of their money and attention. According to Stanford: "It's by no means an exact science, though we do a lot of research into the perception the consumer has of certain artists and how we can make them more relevant. Often you're dealing with an educated consumer so you have to add content, whether it's a bonus disc of rarities or a beautiful book, which they haven't experienced before. There was a time when you could whack on a couple of B-sides and just put it out there but now you have to go the full nine yards."

Thus, Stanford and his team employ a system called "artist DNA" to find out what makes an artist appealing. "We use our own assumptions about what people want and take them to focus groups to see if they are correct," he says. "For instance, lately we discovered that Elvis in his jumpsuit is far less appealing to people than Fifties-era Elvis. That kind of knowledge is crucial in how the product is presented and the artwork we might use."

Timing is also key. Reissues are at their most lucrative when released to coincide with an anniversary, when there is likely to be greater publicity around the artist in question. Consider the column inches and radio and television time already devoted to John Lennon this year and there's no doubting that EMI will enjoy brisk business with its reissues this autumn. A television advert that utilises a particular song can also cause a surge in catalogue sales, such as the recent one experienced by the late country singer Jim Reeves after Thomas Cook used "Welcome To My World".

Clearly, some artists lend themselves better to the reissue treatment than others. Elvis, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash are all, as Stanford puts it, "the hardy perennials of the catalogue market," a result of their status as undisputed music legends. It also helps when you have an endless stock of new material. Stanford cites Dylan as an example of an artist who has shrewdly managed his back catalogue with a series of bootleg albums that each draw upon unheard material from different eras. "There aren't many artists as prolific as Dylan and who have access to such a vast amount of unreleased songs," says Stanford. "It's a brilliant way to utilise old material and keep the fans happy."

And keeping the fans happy, while relieving them of their cash, is ultimately what it's all about. And are they happy with re-packaged, digitally dusted-down versions of music they already own? Thirteen million sales of Beatles reissues would suggest that they are, even with the hefty price tag.

What is apparent, given the recent success of the Beatles, the Stones et al, is that the reissues market taps into our collective sense of nostalgia as well as a creative medium that has, since the rise of Britpop in the mid-Nineties, looked defiantly backwards for inspiration. The success of heritage rock magazines such as Mojo and Uncut would certainly suggest a sizeable consumer base more interested in the past that the present.

And the record companies? There's no doubting that re-issuing old albums is, essentially, money for old rope, and certainly a safer financial bet than ploughing millions into a young and untested newbie. But it's not enough to re-release the same old songs every 10 years in a pretty new case and with a bonus track. Artist back catalogues are part of our cultural heritage, something to be cherished and preserved, not degraded and exploited. Reissues should honour both the artist and their fans, both artistically and financially. If they don't, then perhaps they would be better off left in the vault.

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