Right now we seem to be living in the age of the reissue, the re-release, the deluxe edition, the box set. What do I mean when I say this you might ask? Well, I am referring to albums from years, and even decades gone by being re-packaged, re-mastered and ultimately re-released for our twenty-first consumption, often complete with fancy packaging, bonus tracks, and long-lost demos. But why is this happening? Is this a good thing? And what does this mean in terms of the music industry itself, and ultimately the artists themselves?
The year 2014 much like the last few years has witnessed a suave of reissues arrive both online and in stores, well when I mean stores that is those that still exist, which incidentally is not many. Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, the complete version, and Paul McCartney’s Wings at the Speed of Sound are just two recent examples. These reissues or re-releases are usually marketed to celebrate some historical milestone such as twenty years since this happened, or whatever, while people are encouraged to buy albums they already own by being promised much nicer, re-mastered versions of songs they have already heard, as well as somehow undiscovered b-sides and demo recordings which ultimately, on the most part are crap and poor quality. To use a horribly overused cliché at the end of the day these songs and demos remained unreleased for a reason, they were shit then, and time probably has not done them any favors either meaning I would not hold my breath for a remarkable career-defining moment amidst these particular “new” tracks.
Interestingly enough also, another phenomenon is emerging along with the reissues plague, and that is classic bands using the album format to promote a handful of supposedly new material and making fans fork out money for a full album just so they can hear three new songs. Queen are guilty of this and are about to release an album of largely old material to promote three new songs, while Pink Floyd has used the idea of a “new” album, as well as declaring it their last to promote what is actually old leftover material from their 1994 Division Bell sessions on there to be released “The Endless River”, with their really only being one “new” song “Louder than Words” on it. Incidentally, early reviews of this album have been mixed.
So what does this all mean? Well, there are a probably a number reasons why such exercises to take place. Firstly, the music labels themselves seemingly drive this, forcing bands and artists to release material as part of long-standing record contracts, even if it involves reissuing old material. So essentially a last cash cow from music dinosaurs within a dying industry. It can also be put down to the artists themselves, many of whom are striving for relevance and in need of making a quick buck before the well truly goes dry. Album releases are getting more and more gimmicky, even for actual “new” material, and it is fair to say that U2’s decision to release their “new” album for free on iTunes was an unmitigated PR disaster, with the group gaining criticism from within and outside the industry.
Whatever the reasoning, the question remains is this a good thing? Well, I would say overall yes, to a certain degree. If there is meaning given to such releases whether it be historical in terms of canonization, or creativity then such re-issues and re-releases have a place. But if it is all just about milking the cash cow like we have seen somewhat unfortunately with dead musicians, in particular, Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix come to mind immediately, then I remain skeptical and cynical. I think it also comes back to quality. Are fans getting value for money in paying for a re-issue of an album they already own? Are the demos, and bonus tracks of varying quality worth it? Some of the time it is. The Beatles re-mastered albums were truly spectacular and superior sound-wise anyway to the original horrible 80s CDs, while 2013’s bootleg re-release of Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait” sessions was full of quality unreleased tracks and demo versions of old material, so in the end, it can be done well.
This situation also raises some interesting thoughts around the future of music distribution, and especially when you consider more and more shall I say “older” artists are going to pass-on, and/or retire. With physical music sales in decline, and other formats such as streaming and digital radio taking off, without such re-issues, will music from the past go out of print, and heaven forbid subscribe many artists to the dustbins of history. In time, re-issues and re-releases of old material from the past might yet serve a purpose given the changing times of the music industry and music distribution in keeping music from the past alive and help to introduce subsequent generations to that music. I guess we can only wait and see, trusting that the powers that make the decisions around such things are making them for the right reasons and for historical preservation. However, given the nature of the music industry, I do have my doubts as to whether this is the case.