Repackage, revitalise, resell…

In the beginning there was the wax cylinder. Then the 78RPM disc ushered in the “record”. Then records slowed down, so more could fit on. Some went at 45, some at 33. And the, the cassette tape allowed us to listen to our choice of music in the car and then portably. The CD came along, but apart from giving us an “indestructible” (yeah, right) format and crystal-clear reproduction, it was pretty much business as usual.

However, the CD sowed seeds in the marketing brains of the music industry…. the idea of selling the same music to people that already had it was born. The premise was that you had the vinyl or tape, but, well, CD was digital! It was better! Buy it again.

Repackage, revitalise, resell…

But this gave the music industry a bit of an “extended” idea… if it could be resold once, why not time and time again? After a while, we started to see “remastered” albums. The idea was that newer technology allowed better, cleaner, clearer versions of old classics to be released. So, a third time to buy the music then. All well and good. We even saw Super Audio CD, DVD-Audio and other formats launched to get in on the act (Mini Disc, anyone? DAT??).

Then pesky MP3 arrived. This brought the music industry money-milking juggernaut to somewhat of a halt. Bugger. Not only couldn’t you resell the same music to the same (and new) people again and again, but now the buggers could get it for free. What to do? This was a proper quandary.

Right…. We can’t actually sell the music anymore, that’s the business plan out of the window…. Now, what else can we actually do? Got it! Actually make an effort on the packaging of the product! This was a bit of an about-turn. Formats had been gradually getting worse since the 1960s, the halcyon days of beautiful thick, loud vinyl in lovely laminated, sturdy sleeves. I recall seeing vinyl LPs in the early 90s that were so thin that you could almost see through them and they could have been used by dear old Rolf Harris for one of his “wobble boards”. They were also made of such poor vinyl that the came with clicks and pops from the start and the slightest surface scratch would be audible. Not to worry, thought the music industry, they’ll still buy them, or, hopefully, graduate to CD where we can make more money out of them!

But then the fun stopped. With MP3, the music industry suddenly realised that if people could get hold of music quickly, easily and anonymously for free, they stopped buying it. They bleated, they moaned, they panicked. The party had stopped. No more fleecing of fans. But, what about the biggest fans…. The ones that bought the vinyl, CD, remastered CD, De-Luxe CD, Super-Audio CD, DVD-Audio…. OF THE SAME ALBUM!!! Imagine if you could get, say, £200 out of one super-fan? That’s better than flogging the CD to 20 other not-so-big fans!

The upshot of this is that the music industry is now quick to release music in lavish packaging with lots of additional stuff –Limited edition vinyl pressings in heavy sleeves on beautiful thick vinyl once more and the ultimate offering to the super-fan – the “everything we could possibly think of” box set. This beast doesn’t merely include the CD, but often posters, books, badges, vinyl and CD, etc, etc, etc… and, if we can produce a super-deluxe boxset for the well-heeled fan, why not a slightly stripped-down version for the slightly less well-at-heel fan? As well as a single CD, double CD, CD with magazine (and exclusive tack), download on iTunes (with different exclusive track), version for HMV (with different artwork), version for German release (with yet another different bonus track)…. You get the picture.

This trend has coincided with music fans realising that something is missing – merely having the music of their favourite band isn’t sometimes enough. They miss artwork. They miss the ritual of going to buy something and then studying it and “owning” it (come on, who really “feels” they own a digital file? Do me a favour…). They miss remembering when they put a joint on the LP cover and it left a mark. They miss the whole experience.

So the music industry, never one to miss a trick to fleece the fans, is responding.

Repackage, revitalise, resell…

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Everything, Everywhere, All The Time

Now that music can be squashed into zeros and ones and stored as a “virtual” resource on ever more tiny storage solutions, have we seen the end of the deletion?

Pre-digital days, when you had to have your music on a physical format, such as CD, vinyl or tape, most music was only available for a period of time. This was particularly true for singles. The vast majority of record companies only pressed a certain number of a single and maybe added a couple more runs of the single if it was particularly popular. But, apart from a couple of labels the come to mind (Factory and Virgin), after a couple of months, the 7″ and 12″ single were “deleted” from the catalogue. This meant that some record became particularly collectable. It also lead to the follow-on phenomenon, the “re-issue” – i.e. if a record had become popular again after a period of time, the record company could re-issue it, sometimes in a format that was very similar to the original release, sometimes very different. Some tracks took two, three or even four issues before becoming hits. One that springs to mind was “Take on me” by A-Ha, which was finally a hit on the third issue – the first issue became massively collectable. Some albums were also deleted, although this was much rarer than for the single. Sometimes, vinyl that wasn’t sold was returned to the record company to be melted down to be used again.

But are these days “virtually” gone? Obviously physical product  is still deleted, but due to online digital formats, won’t all music eventually be available all the time? The obvious reasons for deletions of physical product is in the nature of the beast – physical products cost money to produce, money to distribute, money (and space) to store. And as the digital world continues to gather pace, the idea of losing space to something that can be stored on a tiny piece of memory questions why physical formats should exist at all. There is still a hell of a lot of music that has been deleted and never reissued or is currently unavailable – but eventually, as things are “rediscovered”, we will reach a point that music will be available for evermore in a digital format?

And this “everything, everywhere, all the time” state of affairs doesn’t just extend to music. Images, information, literature, ideology, fashion, philosophy, trends etc are going to be constantly around us. But is this such a good thing? In the past, even great and massively popular phenomena eventually died down due to the unavailability of the source, or just that it was a bit tricky “tapping into” that source. I think that this was healthy – it let the next thing come along as the thing it replaced quietly shuffled off to be rediscovered in 20 years time by the next generation with new eyes. Now we can find/listen/see/experience so much via PC, laptop and increasing smartphone. The latter is making access anytime, anywhere more viable than ever.

Won’t this culture of everything being available confuse things a bit? Can something go through a “revival”  if it was always there? Will things be able to disappear only to be rediscovered and deemed cool by the next generation? Or will we all become magpies, constantly picking the best bits of music, art, literature, culture etc and mashing it together?

It’s certainly going to be interesting. Maybe pop (and everything else) is finally eating itself after all.

Teenage Fanclub – Shadows

Shadows is the new album from jangglists-supreme Teenage Fanclub. And based on the couple of plays I’ve given it so far (thanks Spotify, my CD is in the post) it is a real return to form for a band I have loved all the way back to “Bandwagonesque”.

The fannies now release a new album about every five years, so it is an event to cherish. I found Man Made (2005) a little “tired” and it just didn’t have that essential x-factor that they become known for, particularly on such fab albums as Grand Prix (1995) and Songs from Northern Britain (1997). Apparently they recorded that album on borrowed amps etc. For this new effort they have dug out a load of their own old gear and really gone for it. And it shows in spades. It is jangly, lush, warm and majestic.

I had already heard “Baby Lee” a while ago. It is sunny, melodic, hummable, memorable. Typical Teenage Fanclub fare. I saw one review of it that criticised it as “Teenage Fanclub by numbers”. Well, that’s how I like it. You can wait for their experimantal kazoo album, I’ll keep the fannies as they are – all Big Star and Byrdsy with an undercurrent of that particular “Scottish soul” that their fellow Scots Camera Obscura and Belle and Sebastian are also infused with. It seems to be in the Scottish DNA. You can trace it back to Orange Juice and it is the cherry on top of a beautiful sound.

The album kicks off with “Sometimes I Don’t Need To Believe In Anything”, all swagger and slight Motown infusions (if motown was based in Scotland). Second in is “Baby Lee” (which is my single of the year so far).  I’ve also been swayed by the sweet melancholy of “The Past” and “Dark Clouds”. “When I Still Have Thee” is uplifting, expansive and just like honey – A “Sparky’s Dream” for the 10’s. It explains that “The rolling Stones wrote a song for me, it’s a minor song in a major key” – see??? The album moves into more woozy, longing territory on “Sweet Days Waiting” and album-closer “Today never Ends”, both of which are sonically three pints in with just enough sun on your face for that nicely glowing feeling.

And that’s all on two plays. I get the feeling that I will end up loving every track on this album for different reasons after living with it for a while.

Regular readers know that I don’t review loads of music on the site – it really isn’t for that purpose. I think making a judgement on why you like an album is a bit like saying why you fancy a girl – and others may not fancy her. Fools. Well, if this album was a girl, I would tell a few gags, buy it a drink and throw some shapes.

It’s that good.

How Mobile Music Became the Norm

With the advent of smart(er) phones and tiny mp3 players, there is ample opportunity to listen to music when you are away from home, wherever you are. In fact, we are quickly approaching a time when everyone will have access to “music on the move” whether they choose to listen or not. If you get a new phone these days, unless you make a concerted effort, it will more than likely come with a media player. You can then add tunes from your PC (so-called side loading), download mp3’s you can purchase or stream music to the device. And the chances are that you didn’t even get the phone with music in mind.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this – I remember a time when deciding to take your music “on the road” with you was a bit of a chore and made you stand out as a bit “different”.

I got my first Walkman (great branding that – it wasn’t a Sony Walkman of course, they were far too expensive for me, it was a clone) when I was about 13. For younger readers, it may seem a bit weird now, but these were essentially portable tape players. They became pretty small in to the early 1990’s, but fundamentally couldn’t get any smaller than the media you played on them, i.e. cassette tapes. Still, they were small enough to put in a coat pocket. They came with headphones. Yes, “head” phones. In-ear? not invented. These headphones consisted of two rather large foam-covered speakers held together with a piece of aluminium that, erm, went over your head. This made you stand out a bit. Another limitation was that you had to carry around the tapes you wanted to play. Not your 40,000 songs on your iPod – an album per tape was the norm, unless you made up a compilation (which, to add a bit of variety, almost everyone did). Then the device had to be powered. Charged via the mains? Nope – with batteries that didn’t last more than a couple of weeks of pretty light playing.

So, you see, there were obstacles to mobile music back then – but to us it still seemed revolutionary. It didn’t matter that the music was bathed in “hiss” (if you had Dolby B or C “noise reduction” or chrome or metal tapes (I’m not making this up!) the hiss was reduced a bit.) Or that the tape could get eaten up and mangled by the player at any time. Or that you couldn’t skip tracks (that hadn’t been invented either). Or that if you left the tape in the sun, or in a car, or actually anywhere where it could get hot, you ruined the music. Or that if you actually walked with a “Walkman” the music used to “judder” due to the unit being moved. Or that the headphones usually stopped working after about three months of use. Oh no, this was amazing stuff. If you were lucky or rich, your Walkman (clone) would have mysterious switches – Dolby B and C as mentioned above and one to choose the type of tape you were playing – metal, chrome or “normal” (imagine a marketing exec ALLOWING a version of a product to be labelled “normal” these days). Some, even had graphic equalisers, which were sort of a nerd’s revenge – fundamentally sliders that altered the bass and treble of the music that were labelled with unbelievably complex “frequency information” that no one understood.

The Walkman evolved, of course – it was superseded by the Discman – the same concept, but with Compact Discs. This was a little like taking the wheel and making it 50p shaped. carrying tapes around was annoying. Carrying CDs? Well, I didn’t see many with Discmans….

I would love to know how many people listen to music on the go now and how many had Walkmans back in the day. I assume that the benefits of the iPod and like have enticed millions that never would have put up with all the kerfuffle of owning a Walkman. And, as mentioned at the start of this post, smartphones have made music on the go just another add-on.

Still, the  enjoyment of listening to some crap 80’s music on a Walkman did give you a sense of achievement – even if you did stand out.

Your five seconds are up

Staring at my shelves of CDs and vinyl (recently culled – It was vicious and I do feel a bit reborn, thanks for asking) I was wondering if the shiny new world of always available, always on, always there and almost always free music that has been unleashed in recent times via illegal (file sharing) and legal (Spotify) means has fundamentally changed they way we get “into” music. I was looking at certain CDs and picked out a couple that I hadn’t heard in a while (probably a number of years) and got an urge to give them a spin (the albums, incidentally, were REM’s Reveal and New Order’s Technique).

Nothing strange in this, but it set of a chain of thought that reminded me of a term that I haven’t heard of for a while – “it’s a grower”. This term was given to albums that might take a bit of time to get under your skin and become an essential part of your collection. I think this new landscape has changed this concept forever.

I guess it is all down to a couple of things – what we invest in music (i.e. our money) and the mindset to repeat play something. The former has certainly reduced for the vast majority of people as access to new music has exploded – no longer do you need to wait for a track that your mate has raved about to advantageously appear on the radio or (naughty) be given to you on a cassette or by other means. You can pretty much find anything on the web for free now – Spotify and MySpace has made this the way ahead. But this mass availability may have eroded the latter of my points. In the old days, if you spent the equivalent of around £20 on an album/CD, you probably gave it a while to impress you. This is where tracks/albums/artists that were “growers” had a chance. If the album/CD in question really didn’t do it for you, it was off to Record and Tape Exchange to try to get some cash back for it.

But what of the new Warholesque world? Will time-poor people with almost immediate access to millions of songs give something a chance? I’m not so sure. I think that they will probably move on to the next thing. Maybe it fits with the modern world – I, for one, love the new landscape – I was never really an albums person and used to make loads of mix tapes. Today the best way of getting “in someone’s head” is more than likely to be included in an advertising campaign, be on MTV/radio loads and even aligned to a brand. Maybe it is a good thing; I personally have loads of albums that have maybe two or three good tracks and seven fillers – people going forward are just not going to put up with this. Will it push quality up? maybe, maybe not.

But the cream will always rise – it just might not grow in future.

Will this be The La’s time?

As discussed in a previous post, record companies have had to get a bit more savvy with how they present music these days. Back in the day, when vinyl/CD/tape was the only way you could get hold of music, sometimes the quality/thought behind how the music was packaged sometimes left a bit to be desired. Now we get remastered multi-disc sets, deluxe versions of regular releases, extravagant packaging and presentation that occasionally screams quality.

Of course, there is also the opportunity to repackage music and to dig up outtakes, live takes, weird edits, strange remixes…. anything that can be sold.

Which brings me to The La’s. I bloody love The La’s. I remember hearing There She Goes in 1988 and it just blew me away. You must remember at the time that 60’s-tinged melodic pop was about as fashionable as Italian House is now. I eagerly awaited the LP. And waited and waited…. until the end of 1990 – some gestation period. Anyhow, The La’s finally came out. The band disowned it. I actually wasn’t that impressed at the time, having heard a few alternative mixes on earlier singles and having a bootleg tape of other takes. But it has since become a bit of a classic. What next? I thought. Well, nothing. An enormously promising band just stopped. When Oasis came out in 1994, they proclaimed that they were finishing what The La’s started. No shit Sherlock.

So the story ended. Or did it? After 1990 There She Goes continued to get much airplay (rumour has it that it brought its writer Lee Mavers a pretty comfortable living and probably stopped him from doing anything else like actually making a follow-up.) Lee retired to bring up his family and the legend started to grow…. he was a smackhead…. he talked some sort of scouse psychobabble…… he had two heads – that sort of thing. There She Goes appeared on loads of films and adverts and even suffered a rubbish cover version (Sixpence None the Richer anyone?). And no new releases. There was a reunion tour in 2005 where they pretty much played the same set that they had been doing so since about 1988 and since then, nothing. Am I bitter? well, a bit. I know it is actually up to Lee Mavers if he can be arsed to make another album, but put it this way – if you saw Wayne Rooney play football when he was 16/17 and then he decided to retire, wouldn’t you feel a bit cheated?

Well, still no new releases, but the excavation teams at Universal (who inherited the Go! Discs catalogue) and Viper (run by an ex-La or two) started to bring out new albums…. some of you may remember the grumbles when CD came out in 1987. People complained that record companies were getting the consumer to buy albums they already own! Blimey, if only they could have seen into the future.

Currently I have five different releases of There She Goes and three of the album (original CD, remastered CD with extra tracks, Deluxe double CD). I know that no one twisted my arm to buy them, but I’m a fan!

Now we have a new 4-disc set – Callin’ All . It looks lavishly packaged (see picture above) and includes loads more unreleased stuff (fortunately The La’s recorded most of their catalogue multiple times. Well, fortunately for Universal). This is exactly the sort of package aimed at the fan who thinks that they have everything. It looks nice, you get 4 CDs crammed with live tracks, radio sessions and outtakes (92 in total) all for about £27. That’s bloody good value. Think about it – when CDs came out in the late 80’s, a 10 track album cost you the equivalent of about £22 in today’s money. Will I buy it? Damn right I will, even though I have a lot of the stuff on bootleg.

See? They’ve bloody won.

Now, when is that follow-up album coming out, eh Lee? That could be strung out for another 25 years….

Meet The Beetles – how counterfeiting hit the high street

I’m a bit of a Beatles fan. So how excited was I by the launch last year of the Mono and Stereo Remasters box sets? Just a little.

However, those that know me will also point out that I like a bargain. After delaying buying the Mono boxset until my mate tipped me off that Computer Exchange (eh?) had some brand spanking new ones in for £125 (rather than the MSRP of £220 or the £180 ish you could find them for online), I thought I’d better get hold of a copy of the Stereo boxset.

I had a voucher to spend at its online store from a very famous and very large high street supermarket given to me after it failed dismally to deliver a game in time for Christmas. I noticed that the same supermarket had the boxset for a keen price, which after cashing in my voucher made it the best deal by far – about £145. Before taking the plunge I had been looking on Ebay and noticed that there were a ton of them going for about £70 a piece. Erm, I’m guessing that the dealer price for the Stereo boxset is around £130 at the cheapest, so I immediately suspected that someone was churning out counterfeit copies. Pretty much a no-brainer; biggest band ever brings out multi-disc boxset for premium price that is going to sell a sack-full – of course the counterfeiters are going to cash-in. But, from the reputable high street monolith, I’d be sure to get the legitimate thing, wouldn’t I?

So, the order was placed, the box set turned up, happy happy joy joy. I unpacked it – all sealed up nicely in cellophane…. to me, this unveiling is the equivalent of an Apple-freak unpacking that first iPhone, but probably a little bit more so. Off came the cellophane, to unveil the boxset. And I was immediately struck that something wasn’t quite right. I am just a little bit into how music is presented and having worked in various music emporiums over the years I am pretty familiar of the quality of product from major record labels. Well, this was a wrong’un. The green Apple on the black outer box wasn’t right. Then I removed the box from the outer sleeve….. Hmmmmm…. creases in the cover….. a general feeling of “cheap”. And then I opened it up. It took me about five seconds to realise that I had received a counterfeit boxset – right about the time I came across the Please Please Me disc. The Yellow print on the front was “washy”. I then took some of the discs out of their sleeves. They were in crumpled, cheap poly-liners. Really cheap. By now I was convinced. The same friend that had tipped me off about the Mono boxset in Computer Exchange had mentioned that apparently the counterfeit boxsets had been made in China and that some of the text on the back of the Revolver sleeve was comical. So, I had a quick look…..

OK. Apparently the band included Paul MCCARIRMY, Ringo START and George HARRISUN. I did a little more digging about this. It seems that the Chinese counterfeiters colour photocopied what they could, but the text on the back of Revolver was just too small. So they had a go and got it wrong.

Anyhow, my next question was how the hell this counterfeit copy had got into the hands of the very large supermarket that sold it to me. So I contacted them. And I must say that they were very accommodating and understanding. And not a little embarrassed. Well, it was a potentially highly embarrassing situation for a massive brand. I have contacts with a few national press and one was interested in writing a story about the situation after seeing one of my tweets about it.

The whole issue got me thinking (think of the chances – sending a bootleg to a massive Beatles fan that writes about music formats and is a bit of a format geek!). I think the most obvious way this got into the system was thus: Beatle fan doesn’t fancy buying a full-priced copy. Fan goes on to Ebay and buys hooky copy for £70 ish. Fan also buys copy from very large supermarket for proper price. Fan then sends back hooky version to very large supermarket asking for a refund (which is in his rights I believe). Fan has legitimate copy for £70 ish.

So, a simple ruse, eh? And potentially a HUGE can of worms for retailers. I actually discussed this with the very large supermarket. But what can they do? Number each physical product they send out? Otherwise, everyone could pull the same stunt, couldn’t they?

The very large supermarket did mention that EMI was thinking of putting a press release out about it. I didn’t see it, but I may have missed it.

And what of these counterfeit boxsets? Surely they aren’t freely available…. well, have a look on alibaba.com, home of global trading. Do a search on the obvious terms (say, “Beatles Boxset”) and see what you find.

Hmmm.