Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Never Mind The Box Sets

by George Bate

OMG. Are those brand new sleevenotes?!!!
For those of you who regular read any of the plethora of contemporary music blogs out there (or simply those of you who read the reviews section of the Sunday papers), the recent slew of deluxe reissues of historic and canonical albums cannot have escaped your attention. The latest objects of desire to be unleashed upon an assortment of salivating collectors and obsessives are the 20th anniversary edition of Nirvana’s Nevermind and an extensive deluxe box set reissue of the entirety of the Pink Floyd discography. With similar sets available in the coming months covering material from U2 and The Smiths amongst others, this trend shows no signs of abating. But do these super-lush, super-detailed reissues improve the listener’s enjoyment of such albums, or are they merely expensive curiosities or status symbols for the “true fan”? Good for one listen perhaps, but ultimately consigned to collect dust, forgotten on some shelf or in some cupboard?

I must confess myself to owning a couple of these behemoth editions (the tenth anniversary set of Manic Street Preacher’s The Holy Bible and Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain LA’s Desert Origins Edition spring most quickly to mind), and the desire for some of the latest deluxe reissues has not bypassed me entirely. After all, everyone likes to own nice things. However, when I look back upon my purchases I somehow wonder what it was that led me to believe that I would find both the time and the will to watch the Manics perform their 1994 song Faster in four different settings. Whatever flawed logic it was, I suspect it was the very same which made me purchase both Later… with Jools Holland Louder and Later… with Jools Holland Even Louder on DVD. Have I ever watched them? Perhaps once, though it has to be said that despite its excellent showcasing ability, the “Later” format isn’t exactly one that draws inspired performances week in, week out.

So what is it exactly that makes us want to purchase the new 6-disc edition of Dark Side of the Moon or to own every version of Lithium or Polly ever recorded?* The motivation from the perspective of the record companies is clear; they have been losing revenue ever since the advent of the MP3 and online piracy, so making the packaging and presentation of a record itself the object of desire is an obvious way to restore sales and increase slimming profits. Some record companies have based their entire business model on it. Rhino Records, for example, has spent the best part of the last thirty years issuing excellent reprints of historic albums, often critically acclaimed cult records which were out of print and absolutely hankering for a new digital version and a few bonus tracks.

In essence, however, the record companies are now trying to reverse a downhill slide that they helped cause, primarily by introducing the cassette and the CD as standard formats. Before this, the artwork for an LP was of almost as much importance as the actual content itself. Rewind your C90s (or cue back your compact discs) to the mid 70s and there are countless stories of buyers purchasing records for the artwork alone, without ever having heard a note of the band’s music. Have you ever seen the inside of Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, for example? The dude may have been blind but he certainly had a few mates who knew a fuckton about illustration. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band had it’s own set of pop out figures. Dark Side of the Moon’s inside cover belongs in a gallery. I recently bought a copy of New Order’s Blue Monday/The Beach even though I knew the record it contained was too scratched to play. And these were all standard editions. Who has ever heard of a gatefold jewel case anyway?

It also brings into question the whole notion of the value of music; with millions and millions of songs and countless variety available at the click of a mouse for free, who, whether right or wrong, wants to actually buy music? Perhaps the trend in the release of beautiful new editions has something to do with this. Is it a manifestation of our subconscious desire to return value to music? The idealist in me wants to believe so.

Honestly though, what do I believe? Personally I think that it’s our generation’s equivalent of “the best silver”; a status symbol for those of us of a musical bent. Anyway, I’m going back to staring at my 25-disc vinyl box set of the sounds of John and Yoko’s primal scream sessions. Just kidding, this doesn’t exist. Yet.

*(Courtney Love must really be scraping the barrel by now so I’m pretty sure that the next Nirvana re-release will contain a swab of Kurt Cobain’s congealed blood).