How the music industry makes you buy the same album twice
Music Critic John Meagher explains the big money found in the 'reissue' and 'special edition' market
Published 11/08/2010 | 05:00
Morrissey has never had much regard for the record industry and he made his feelings abundantly clear on one of the last songs his seminal band, The Smiths, recorded.
'Paint A Vulgar Picture' details a meeting of record- company executives who are planning to re-release the complete works of a dead star. "Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!" he sings. "Re-evaluate the songs/ Double-pack with a photograph/ Extra track and a tacky badge."
His lyrics drip with disdain for the way the business attempts to get fans to shell out for slightly different versions of what they may already own.
The song was released on the Strangeways Here We Come album in 1987 when the reissues business was in its infancy. It's safe to assume that if he were tempted to revisit the subject in song today, Morrissey would be even more scathing.
With physical sales plummeting and legal downloads in the ha'penny place compared to illegal music grabbing, the music industry is relying more and more on repackaging the catalogue of its bigger names.
Barely a week goes by without a so-called classic album being dusted down and given the legacy/deluxe/special/limited edition -- the wording varies -- treatment.
And this has been a bumper year. In March, Sony re-released a trio of Jimi Hendrix albums to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the great guitarist's death, while The Rolling Stones' bank balance grew even bigger with the re-issue of one of their most acclaimed albums, 1971's Exile on Main Street.
Next month sees a glut of issues by the likes of The Kinks, Queen and Frank Sinatra. And in October, EMI will be releasing re-mastered versions of John Lennon's entire solo catalogue, each of the albums available individually as well as in a box-set format. This is to mark what would have been his 70th birthday .
EMI are no strangers to the art of the box set, having released all of the Beatles' albums in both mono and stereo formats last year. Each cost a cool €240 with the band's more trainspotterish fans snapping up both. The remastered catalogue was one of 2009's biggest music stories -- not bad for a group who split acrimoniously in 1970.
And, in the 13 months since the untimely death of Michael Jackson, the self-styled King of Pop has also been reissued and repackaged remorselessly. There was huge demand for any previously unheard material -- Jackson spent much of 2009 posthumously topping the album charts worldwide.
"The artists' catalogue is the lifeblood of the industry," says Charlie Stanford, the London-based marketing director at Sony. "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.
"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."
Stanford and his team employ a system called "artist DNA" to find out what makes a musician 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."
Timing is also critical. Reissues are at their most lucrative when released to coincide with an anniversary.
Consequently, U2 chose 2007 -- the 20th anniversary of the release of their best-selling album, The Joshua Tree -- to bring out a lavish box set.
They have also repackaged their first four albums, Boy, October, War and The Unforgettable Fire, and next year will see the U2 motherlode cranking up with a 20th anniversary edition of Achtung Baby, arguably their greatest album.
Their mega-selling contemporaries, REM, have also been at it. A new album from Michael Stipe and co is not expected until next year, but in the past month avid fans will have been sated somewhat with the "deluxe" re-issue of their third album, 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction. A double-disc set, it contains a remastered version of the original album plus a bonus CD of live cuts.
It is the third year in a row that a 25th anniversary edition of an REM album has been released, following special editions of Murmur and Reckoning.
And next month, David Bowie aficionados will be able to get their hands on a five-disc version of the 1976 album, Station to Station. The original record contained just six songs, although it is considered one of the groundbreaking releases of the decade.
Recent years have also seen the rise of the "deluxe edition" -- a brazen attempt by both 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. Among those who have tried this routine are Florence and the Machine, Amy Winehouse and Glasvegas.
Occasionally, artists will release "limited edition" versions of albums on the day the "original" is released. Liverpool's The Coral released their fourth album, Butterfly House, last month. It has 12 tracks. But if you spend about €5 extra, you get the Limited Edition version, with five additional tracks.
U2's latest album, No Line On The Horizon, was available to purchase in five different formats -- although that didn't stimulate the sort of interest they had expected. The album remains one of their weakest sellers -- at three million.
And last month, Arcade Fire's latest album, The Suburbs, was released with a choice of eight different covers, even if the 16 songs remained exactly the same.