EDITORIAL COMMENT: Incomplete (or rambling thoughts on collecting from an obsessive music fan)

Right up to the 1980s, things were fairly simple as a music fan.  Your favourite bands released singles and albums and, as a loyal fan, you bought them knowing you’d kept to your end of the bargain.  Sometimes singles weren’t part of albums and in that case you got something extra.   Things started to change in the 1980s when the picture disc started to make regular appearances, thus meaning an occasional extra purchase.  Labels like ZTT (run by business-minded Trevor Horn and Paul Morley) were quick to capitalise on marketing strategies – with bands like Frankie Goes To Hollywood, they made sure that different formats had different mixes and different edits.  In the case of the fledgling cassette single, they even went an extra step by including unreleased bits and pieces from the cutting room floor, often to fans’ bemusement and eventual delight.

Not everyone was as keen to play the game.  Towards the end of the decade, Morrissey – in a spiteful lyrical snide against his then record company’s repackaging of Smiths material – gave us the lyrical legend “reissue, reissue, repackage…re-evaluate the songs, extra track and a tacky badge”. Some bands stuck rigidly to the old model of single release followed by album…and then a couple more singles (often with something extra on the b-side, sure; but once that was done, you knew that was it, at least until the next outpouring of new material in a couple of years).

By the mid-90s, albums would occasionally appear as special editions.  This usually involved a bonus disc containing a handful of extra songs (or in the case of The Beautiful South’s excellent ‘Carry On Up the Charts’ anthology, a whole disc of hard to find b-sides) or live material.  Another easy choice for the consumer: you chose to buy either the standard release or fork out a few extra quid for that bonus disc – job done, everybody happy.  Bon Jovi’s ‘Keep The Faith’ was among the first to mark a shifting tide towards fan-testing, record company greed when the special edition appeared months after the original album’s release.  This staggered release ensured almost everyone had purchased ‘Keep The Faith’ already…but would they buy it again?  Of course they would – if not everyone, then at least a good proportion of the die-hards would want that extra material.  Why wouldn’t they?  The floodgates were open.

In 2001, Universal launched their “deluxe edition” range – at first, an excellent series that reissued classic albums with a second disc of unheard material.  Their earliest releases set a high standard – a reissue of the Blind Faith album coupled with session material including lengthy unreleased jams was greeted with enthusiasm, before quickly disappearing off-catalogue, never to be repressed.  Three Bob Marley titles each made excellent unreleased live shows available.  As the years passed, the series continued – and continues apace – with what sometimes feels like inferior releases by comparison; in some cases, it’s become somewhat of a licence to print money.  It’s not all bad, of course, but you have to wonder what’s “deluxe” about some things…it’s almost a case of “does that have a bonus disc yet? Get it out there!”  By 2007, things were taken things a step farther with the boardroom creation the “super-deluxe” edition – multi-disc sets dedicated to one album. Although aimed at the fan who wants everything, at first it felt like such fan loyalties were being tested.  If the price-point was too high then surely nobody would buy them?  Clearly they did, since for some established bands, these releases became the norm.  This exercise in getting the most devoted to re-buy an album they’ve probably purchased at least twice before is a stroke of (rather cynical) marketing genius.  What we get here is a format that when done right (as with The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’) it absolutely glorious – pleasing to both the ear and the eye, but when done badly (Van Morrisson’s ‘Moondance’), fans are shafted with a package that falls apart when opened. Looking at the super deluxe market from the most negative angle, these editions created – and continue to keep – a huge divide between those who can afford them and those who can’t.  A potential for infinite sadness for the Smashing Pumpkins fan who just can’t find £100 for the best version of ‘Mellon Collie’ (still one of the finest prog albums by a band not considered prog).  While these sets could be seen as overpriced, possibly gimmicky and sometimes padded out unnecessarily, people buy them – those marketing guys knew they would.  Price issues aside, the collector inside us ensures we always will crave unreleased material and the shining-up of a musical past, otherwise various 5.1 mixes of old prog rock and Elton John albums wouldn’t be necessary and a twenty-four disc edition of King Crimson’s ‘Red’ certainly wouldn’t seem like a remotely bankable commodity.  The invention of the hugely expensive deluxe set meant that, essentially, those days of just buying albums by your favourite artists and knowing you’d done a good job as a fan were truly over.  Morrissey’s vulgar picture became more vibrant than ever.

With the widespread presence of the internet in most homes by the end of the twentieth century, the nature of collecting changed forever. There was a time when Record Collector magazine was your bible, but even then, they’d value some LPs at £30/£40 and you could find them at record fairs semi-regularly, while searching for those elusive alternate sleeves for Led Zeppelin’s ‘In Through The Out Door’.  Alternatively, they’d claim something was worth an easily affordable £10 – as was always the case for a red vinyl pressing of Judas Priest’s ‘Killing Machine’ – but somehow those £10 discs seemed even rarer. It was probably a case of being in the wrong part of the country and the rise of ebay rewrote the book in terms of any of these values.  It also killed the record fairs, you could now go looking for Motley Crue’s independent original press of ‘Too Fast For Love’ or Neil Young’s uber-rare ‘On The Beach’ without having some bloke sneer at you from behind his beard.  The ’net also gave bands the opportunity to release truckloads of stuff without record companies; the gloves were truly off in terms of consumerism vs. art and it no longer became possible to buy everything by bands you once would have stood by.  Some introduced “collectors clubs” – subscription based schemes where fans would receive unreleased material for a set fee.  While not the first to do so, Jack White’s Third Man Vault perhaps represents, perhaps, the best of these.  As part of his Vault, White issues various pieces of memorabilia each month – usually on vinyl – to the delight of the keen fan and collector.  Heavyweight vinyl LPs might contain a live show from any of White’s many projects, while bonus 7”s either reissue long out of print tunes and the like.  Live shows – as in the case of The White Stripes – occasionally appear on DVD, thus giving an extra reason to join.  The vinyl format and the monthly price is pitched more at the high earner, but they get a quality product in return – anyone who’s seen any of these Vault items up close would surely agree – and true to the collector’s nature of the scheme, none of the material has been reissued to date.  [Being a collector of Jack White material is fascinating, although one of those examples of an artist you’ll never own everything by…ever.  There are stories of exclusive 7” singles being launched by helium balloon and others being sewn into the lining of three piece suites.  Jack White is one of the last great entrepreneurs].

Although now defunct, Marillion’s Front Row Club remains another great subscription model, offering forty live albums from various eras, some of which were far superior to anything available off the shelf.  Some fans were very vocal about this scheme, claiming it launched a two-tier fan system, particularly due to the request of paying monies for the year upfront.  This, of course, helped get the discs pressed and, as such, was probably the only way to get the club off the ground in the first place.  For those who were able to afford the luxury, the Front Row Club was one of the most exciting things in Marillion fandom. The club eventually wound down, limping on for three download only shows, before the decision was made to release all future gigs digitally via marillion.com.   From then on, fans who already had huge collections of 7”s, 12”s, special edition albums, coloured vinyls etc would be left facing the fact that those long-hauled collections would forever remain incomplete with the introduction of a wealth of digial-only material.

Digital only: the bugbear of every true collector.  For those who love the touch and smell of physical records, of reading sleeve dedications and marvelling at little things hidden within 12×12 artwork, the computer file is empty and by no means any kind of replacement.   It’s not without its place – we can now hear AOR rarities that once commanded £40/£50 on ebay for a fraction of the price.  That’s got to be of some use to the collector, as opposed to being reliant on the fading memory of another fan who heard said releases years ago.  What the digital format isn’t is a permanent solution to scratching the itch.  With this in mind, there was only one option when subscribing Ash’s A-Z club – those 7” singles were a must.  Launched in October 2009, the plan was simple enough: Ash would give subscribers a new track every fortnight for 26 weeks.  In return for their investment, fans got a steady stream of mp3s (or for those with money to burn, mp3s plus each track on a 7” single).  It seemed to be made pretty clear from the beginning that if fans wanted a physical format for these songs (since Ash were no longer going to produce albums) then forking out the three figure sum for the 7”s was the only option.  Imagine the disgust of many when, after the first bunch of singles were released, these songs appeared on CD at a fraction of the price!  Complaints on the fan forum were greeted with a reply from one band member with the response “…my heart bleeds” – a sneering, greedy and uncaring remark aimed at those who spent so much on 7”s thinking that would be the only option.  Adding insult to injury, the two CD volumes of A-Z singles included bonus EXCLUSIVE tracks and a DVD.  Subscribers got another album’s worth of mp3s that weren’t made available to the wider public, but since some fans didn’t even receive a full compliment of those, it was really no reason to get excited.   This was – and remains – the best way NOT to run such a scheme.  Knowing you have fan loyalty for such things is good, but start taking advantage and those fans won’t come back.

In recent years, we’ve also seen the rise of crowd-sourced funding – a great way for low-income bands to ensure a decent product.  On the surface, this is fantastic; on the other hand, it’s the ultimate example of the fan tier system that some Marillion fans bleated about.  For those who’ve been living under a rock, crowdsourcing works like this: band asks for money for new project – the more you donate, the bigger (if not always better) item you get for your investment.  For example: £10 gets you the new album; £15 gets you a signed copy of the new album; £20 gets you a 2CD deluxe version of new album; £30 gets you a 2CD deluxe album + making of DVD, or somesuch.  It goes on and on.  On the one hand, it’s a great business model, but on the other – like the physical super deluxe edition, it’s another model that works against the mentality of the traditional collector. In this scenario, you’d be unlikely to have everything, even if you were really determined.  Ginger Wildheart (sometime of the Wildhearts), spotting a useful outlet for some of his many archived pieces/leftovers, launched a fan scheme in 2014 that, on paper, pulled the best ideas from the crowdfunding system and Ash’s singles club combined.  For a fee, the Ginger Associated Secret Society will send you digital files of unreleased tunes; for a bigger fee, you’ll get those plus some screen printed art; for an even bigger fee – aimed at the top tier of die-hard fans, you’ll get all that and more – including access to meet and greets.  There’s a school of thought that says you should never meet your heroes, so paying for the privilege (at least in a roundabout manner) seems a trifle odd…but if that’s what some fans want, then that’s fine. It’s a funny world.   The one bugbear here seems to be the lack of physical format on the most basic level – again depriving the old-fashioned collectors of something more tangible.  Given the obsessive nature of some Wildhearts fans and the prices their out of print stuff seems to command on occasion, it seems odd that Ginger wouldn’t go for Ash’s 7” method.  If nothing else, he’d certainly treat his devoted following more fairly.   As it stands, the completists could go for this – especially given the inclusion of screen printed art (Ginger’s talents make more sense on canvas than former bandmate Devin Townsend’s) but usually the completist nature looks for something more old-school.  Who knows, in the future he may do something vinyl based.

Almost taking the piss out of the collector mentality and collector’s clubs, beginning in 2012, Rancid’s Tim Armstrong (under the name Tim Timebomb) recorded four hundred cover versions.  With jpeg artwork drawn by Armstrong himself – pieces of punk brilliance that would look great as wall-framed art – here was the ultimate collection of 7”s aimed at the hardcore collector, at the geek who must have it all.  However, in the middle of a consumer driven society, Tim gave everyone the finger: after selling a few songs via iTunes and pressing a few on CD in limited numbers for sale at gigs, Armstrong GAVE THE REST AWAY on YouTube.  They came with a disclaimer; although the exact wording has now been forgotten, it amounted to “You can rip them if you know how”.  This was sharing music for the love of music – a fan/collector’s club anyone can join.  In a consumer driven society it was heartwarming to know this was all about the music and very little else.  While the majors were wringing their hands and selling off back-catalogue titles repackaged for the fifth, sixth, seventh time – a man in a pork-pie hat in California proved himself one of the world’s most philanthropic geniuses.   It didn’t necessary fit with the ethos of the collector inside the long-term record buyer, but it felt so good not to be charged for multiple computer files.  Some of us, of course, still live in hope that all 400 or so tracks appear on CD someday…

Tim’s generosity is rare.  For so many, the top dollar is what counts.  Even those who were once most vocal against catalogue milking and multiple reissues seem happy playing the industry’s game. By the middle of 2014, Morrissey had already reissued most of his albums solo with bonus materials; even his upcoming ‘World Peace Is None of Your Business’ was slated to appear in an expensive edition that – among other things – would include facsimiles of handwritten lyrics (surely the middle class equivalent of his tacky badge?).   It does seem to be the over-priced special edition from the trusted, plus recycling of archive material that’s keeping the majors afloat.  New bands get dropped like sacks of mouldy spuds if they don’t sell millions straight out; a reversal of the early seventies when bands were allowed time to grow and find themselves.  New bands are expected to bit a hit straight away, sometimes with minimal promotion while huge efforts get ploughed into Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd sets that only the highest earners can afford as a standard purchase.  Hopefully, one day, major record labels will find a fairer balance between the two camps, allowing the less established a fairer crack at a creative career.

While there are still lots of smaller and more established bands working on the old model of releasing an album and moving on, for so many it seems everything comes in a variety of packages for us to choose between.  For those making money (and especially those making money for the more minimal outlays that don’t even involve physical formats) – good luck to them; it can be frustrating for the completist, but the flooding the market with repackaged goods for the collector and digital curios for the hardcore fan seems here to stay.   It’s easy to bemoan this grand parade of re-packaging and special editions with three figure price points but, as with most things, we have a choice – it isn’t a necessity to buy and re-buy this stuff.  It’s just a saddening fact that the inner collector that lives within so many music fans will always be hard to silence…

July 2014