If you're an avid follower of the music business at large, you know the common narrative that defines the industry: once, record labels signed great talents and earned lots of money and influence off the back of that art. Gradually, that art became secondary to business and excess, and as labels became absorbed into bigger corporations and followed trends instead of setting them, music fans got increasingly put off by the product. By the time rapid technological advances changed the way we listened to music - first peer-to-peer networks, than organized downloading in the form of iTunes - the labels found it difficult to keep up, and now many wonder how and when the entire bloated industry will come crashing down.
In the world of catalogue projects, however, the narrative is a bit different. In fact, if you keep up with some of the most recent stories in the field, you may realize there really is no proper narrative.
In the past week, a lot of odd reissue-oriented news has come my way. The New York Times published an interesting story about the many upcoming works from Jimi Hendrix's catalogue. About a week prior, Siouxsie and The Banshees' ongoing reissue campaign from Universal Music Group was canned with four albums to go; Banshees bassist Steven Severin said Universal's decision was based on the fact that "the final four albums don't have enough extras to warrant the double disc 'deluxe' treatment." And on Monday, Varese Sarabande licensed the complete score to The Goonies - one of the most-requested contemporary soundtracks that has remained relatively unreleased over the past 25 years.
Now at first blush, these stories have nothing to do with each other. After all, they concern a guitar god, an influential alt-rock outfit and one of the silliest movies of the 1980s. But, in their own way, the three stories each illuminate the catalogue industry as it has, does and will continue to function within the flagging music industry.
In the pre-Internet days of catalogue music, things were pretty simple: guaranteed best-sellers would get reissued by major labels with any handful of bonus tracks to entice more copies to leave store shelves. Lesser known music had a chance at getting out there too, perhaps on a Rhino box set or something. Those releases would be duly covered by mainstream publications and purchased by the fans, although there wasn't much of a method to attract the catalogue buyer's opinion until the Internet really started to take.
By the time the dot-com bubble burst, the major labels had enough sense to have their own catalogue divisions. And now, since the catalogue niche has the power to speak their minds through Amazon reviews or message boards, some of the majors are taking the risks and putting out some really intriguing titles.
As great as those advances were, though, it hasn't always been perfect. The budget crunches that affected not only the music industry but all industries meant that reissues might get shortchanged, delayed or deleted altogether. The biggest blow yet may have been last year's massive layoffs at Rhino; though the label's not dead, it does lack some of the vigor that it once had (depending who you ask).
So now here we are, buying reissues and other titles distributed by labels trying their best to cater to what can frankly be considered a niche audience. That may seem wasteful to some, but that's paradoxically one of the best things to come out of the industry's current state. Things that would never have gotten a proper release in the days of hulking, pre-Internet corporations are now readily available. (As I've said before, the biggest example of this is the indie soundtrack labels out there; in three months, two labels managed to license then-unreleased scores from Back to the Future and The Goonies, two of the most commercially successful films of the 1980s. That would not have happened without the Internet.)
What's the takeaway from all this? Simple. Fans: keep doing what you're doing. Read up on what reissues are out there, support them as best you can, offer constructive criticism wherever possible. Don't give up hope. Eventually that forgotten title you want may rise from obscurity and get a proper release. There is no title too small these days.
And labels: keep up the pace. Keep the good product coming. People who already have a particular album they love will buy it again if properly motivated. Reason with the higher-ups that nothing is too esoteric to release these days. Don't hide behind bottom lines and ledger lines when delaying or cancelling releases (seriously, Universal's justification for canning the Siouxsie remasters was beyond weak). Match or surpass the passion of your consumers, and it will pay off deeply.
I'm not trying to get all sunshine and flowers on the subject. Even I can be cantankerous when a title gets delayed or comes out without all the spit and polish it deserves. But I will say it's still an exciting time to be a catalogue fan, and maintaining that excitement is going to lead to nothing but good things.