Scott Davies has learned a lot on the job. Once toiling in the business of IT, music fans now know him as the singular creative force behind Rubellan Remasters - the sole curator, engineer, designer and distributor of a handful of CDs covering respected catalogues by New Wave/alternative acts including Visage, Missing Persons, Divinyls and most recently Oingo Boingo, the alt-rock band led in the '80s and '90s by future film composer Danny Elfman.
From 2021 to the present Rubellan remastered and expanded every studio entry in Boingo's I.R.S./MCA discography between 1981 and 1990 - the most recent batch now available for pre-order, hot on the heels of Elfman taking his celebrated Coachella set (covering Boingo, film scores and material from his 2021 solo album Big Mess) to the Hollywood Bowl. Diving deep into the Boingo catalogue meant learning even more - particularly about a few albums he'd written off at the time.
"The whole later half of the catalog is something I really discovered by doing the reissues," Davies recently told The Second Disc. "I was one of those people that kind of stopped around Dead Man's Party - but so many people kept bombarding me: 'Are you going further into the catalog?' So I did!...I tried Dark At the End of the Tunnel back in the '90s, and it was too much of a shock. I just couldn't get into it. But I was young and ignorant and in my 20s."
On the occasion of rescuing a seminal band (and TSD favorite) from the doldrums of physical music, we took the opportunity to chat with Davies about his process as a one-man music label. As readers of The Second Disc might have noticed, Rubellan gets more positive commentary on the label's work than most third-party licensors we cover...and as followers of the label on social media might know, Davies is bracingly, almost shockingly up front about what it's like to license these titles, in a way that many labels simply aren't. You'll be happy to know that candor is on display in our chat (lightly condensed and edited for clarity).
How did you get started with Rubellan?
I was doing occasional freelance remastering going back to 2006. I did some stuff for Cherry Red and Edsel, then I started working with Futurismo. I've always wanted to do remasters and reissues, but I never knew how to do it. I would ask these labels I was doing audio work for, and nobody wanted to share any information. It was very territorial, and I got that early on. I kind of understand it now, because I'm the same way.
Eventually I hired a service that gave me a name of somebody within Sony. This was in 2017. That's how I got my initial foot in the door there. Then I got a contact with Warner through a posting at the Steve Hoffman forum. I can't even remember exactly how the Universal contact came around, but somebody knew somebody who knew somebody, and the message got forwarded until I finally got to the right person. That opened that door, and it turned out that Universal, despite being the hardest nut to crack, is really the only one I work with at this point.
Is there a reason behind that?
There's very specific reasons. Sony cut off third-party licensing a few years back. They recently reopened it; however, there's this big, huge roadblock: they will not do a third party reissue until you get every member of the band to sign an authorization form saying that they back it. Good luck with that!
Warner - they're open to the idea, to a degree. Anything that requires foreign office clearance will not be considered - which means most everything I would be interested in! They're very strict. There's very few things for my tastes that would be available. And if they are, you're lucky if it's going to be a straight LP reissue - you start wanting to get into bonus tracks and stuff, they're like "Nah, we're not gonna be able to do that."
What is it about New Wave/alternative music that speaks to you, as far as what you reissue?
I've been into the music since it was new. I was right there when The Knack hit with "My Sharona" in '79 at nine years old, then Devo's "Whip It" when I was 10. We got MTV in '82, and I just discovered all these bands I fell in love with. And I'm a loyal person. I don't fall out of love with the music that attracts me. So when it came time to try to do reissues, of course I wanted to go after albums that were neglected or could use a bit of rediscovery.
There was definitely some trial and error at the beginning. I was under this mindset that if it had never been on CD before, it would probably have this great demand, whereas other things that had been reissued in the past, I thought "what's the point?" It turned out to be exactly the opposite: the things I've issued that have never been on CD before were my lowest sellers, and the things I've issued as new remasters became explosive hits.
Yes, I think about your work on the Missing Persons catalog, which had come out before, but it seems like the response to those was really good?
I'm on my fifth pressing of Spring Session M - that is my biggest selling album. What surprised me is Missing Persons was a gold seller in its day, whereas Berlin's Pleasure Victim was platinum. I'm just now finishing my third pressing of Pleasure Victim, and that's gonna be it. So that's 3000, whereas Spring Session M is at 4500.
Rubellan is a one-man operation: you remaster, design packages and distribute each title on your own. What are the benefits and challenges of doing it all yourself?
I'm very protective of it. I will say it: I would have control issues turning any aspect over to anyone else. I cultivated it, I battled through everything to get to where I am. I get e-mails from people saying "Hey, I've done graphic arts," or "I do publicity." I appreciate the offers, but I just feel like it's my baby, and I'm an overprotective parent. I'm more than happy to do everything with it - if there's a mistake, then it's my mistake.
The only time I ever thought about partnering was the idea of if there was someone in the U.K. - if I can't get approved for something here, because someone got their copyright back. Whereas in the U.K., they don't have copyright termination, and it would still be available to them. But there's never been an actual avenue where I've looked into it or discussed it. That's really the only thing I could see myself being willing to open up and work with someone else.
Fans really love your approach to remastering. Every time we post about one of your titles, that's what we hear. And I hear it too! What's your secret?
I still have good ears! I've always been an audiophile to a degree. I'm not one of those obsessive people who feels they have to have a $10,000 stereo. If you can get decent sound from more of a midline system, you can use that as a baseline. And you're going to appeal to both people who are and aren't audiophiles.
I do dynamic remastering. You're probably familiar with "brickwalling," where they over-amplify the music and squash out the original dynamics. That was one of my motivating factors. This has been happening since the mid-'90s - I'm so tired of buying reissues that sound like garbage. But people are mastering them that way because someone wants to hear them loud on an iPhone or their earbuds. I listen to stuff on my iPhone if I'm on a bike ride or what have you - but ultimately, I want it to sound punchy, detailed, and clear.
That is one of the main things that has bought me a huge amount of really passionate followers and fans. I get e-mails all the time from people who just rave. It's very sweet. I save a lot of them. People send me cards in the mail, people send me gifts - I got a big gift box from some guy in the U.K.! He was so enthusiastic about my releases. The people who've been with me have been with me for a long time. And I get new recruits with each release, and they all say how great it is that we do dynamic remastering. Sometimes I think I'm the only one who cares about that!
The hope is that the audience response provokes others to do the same.
You would think! I know there's a lot of people talking about streaming services putting in volume normalization, as if that's going to end brickwalling. It hasn't. I don't listen to too much new music, but when I do, one of the main things that goes through my head is "what a shame." I like Florence + The Machine - she does a lot of heavy drumming in her earlier stuff. I love the combination of drums and female vocals! I listen to these amazing songs that just sound like mush. And I think, "This would sound so breathtaking if it was dynamic, and you could hear the drums separated from everything else that's kind of mashed into this ball of noise." And you'll probably never get that option.
Maybe not until you reissue it!
Yeah! Maybe in 40 years. There are artists I'd love to reissue today, but so many are too popular, so they're off limits.
You've set yourself apart in the business by being extremely transparent about the licensing process. Has that been challenging to do so?
It's been a little scary, to be honest. I've always been an honest, pretty damn blunt person. With business, sometimes you've gotta really tiptoe. You don't want to make anybody angry. I go into this as, "This is the stuff I would like to know." I mean, if I would've heard of this stuff from other labels, I probably wouldn't have done it!
You hear things that reissues are hard. Well, why are they hard? No one's really explaining it. I say from the beginning of this that it's like I've been dropped in a foreign country, and I'm in the dark, feeling my way around, trying to figure it out. I share with people because I want them to understand this is certainly not a business for the shy and the timid. You're going to have some pretty unpleasant experiences, whether it's with a licensing label or with a band who are angry that you're reissuing their material. There's been a lot of "don't meet your hero" moments.
I try to carefully reveal stuff. There are some things I haven't come out and said, and there's been times I've said, "This is just the tip of the iceberg." I never know when is gonna be too far. And I do get concerned at times, wondering if this is too much or if this is gonna come back and haunt me. But the licenses keep coming, so I guess not?
What it really comes down to is the music business is not run by people who are all music lovers. For a lot of people, it's just their job. You've gotta navigate around that. There are some people that I've worked with who drive me absolutely insane, but you've got to keep a level of professionalism, even though you're typing your e-mail through gritted teeth. Luckily - and if it weren't for this one scenario, I would probably be out of business - my licensing contact at Universal is a good guy. He's very busy - you're not going to get responses to every question you ask, you're lucky if you get a response to one or two out of 10 - but when he does respond, he is helpful and friendly and tries to do what he can within his limited availability. Universal is the biggest label in the world, and you've got two people on the licensing side. I don't get it at all, and I do feel for them.
Rubellan has recently started pressing more vinyl in addition to CD - do you have a personal preference?
For sound quality I will always choose a good CD. It's a much more accurate representation of the master tape. When I do my remastering, I know when I get a sample disc, the final manufactured disc will sound the same. With vinyl, I can get the files sounding excellent, but you send them to the manufacturer - my previous manufacturer, that is - and they do their own little tweaks before they cut the master. There's been some times they made changes to the audio that I have not been happy with. They're not necessarily enough to say tear it up and start again, but some things I just don't want to play because it's not what I sent you.
I will be the first one to tell you this vinyl revival is grossly overrated. I still sell more CDs than vinyl. Oingo Boingo is my toe in the water with vinyl, and it kind of exploded. When I tried it with other bands - the first Missing Persons album, I sold 700 copies of that CD the first week it was available. When I put the vinyl out, I barely sold 200 copies before I put it into distribution. There's been a huge discrepancy between vinyl and CD, and it really depends on the band. Oingo Boingo is not a good benchmark of how well vinyl is gonna do. It's great that it's selling, and it's great I got licenses to do the rest of the catalog, because I'm confident it'll do well. But I'm also second guessing a bit.
I get excited about color variations - if I just did black vinyl I'd be really bored by it. When I get a color pressing in hand, I'm excited to tear it open and see how it looks. I like that aspect; there's a fun novelty to it, there's a nostalgia with vinyl for me. But if I want audiophile quality, I'm putting on a CD.
Oingo Boingo is an act who never really got their due in the early CD catalog era. What was important to you about Rubellan reissuing those records?
The irony is, the first time I requested to do the first album on vinyl - I went for vinyl first - I was denied. I thought maybe there was a conflict. I waited a few months, I put in requests again and I got approved. It turned out there was another label that had already received approvals for the first three albums, but they weren't confident in their sales potential, so they never moved forward with them. Lucky for me, they didn't move forward with them; they were the reason I could quit my IT job!
There's a wealth of previously released material from the group to use as bonuses. Did you find it difficult to leave things off, if you had to?
Since I come from an IT background, I have sort of this technical inclination. I can request to the archives at Universal, "Hey, can I have the master tape list for Oingo Boingo, covering the U.S. and U.K. vaults?" And they'll send this 150-page PDF of all the tapes. And I love it! I get so thrilled to sit for hours, go through this list and go "What's that song? I've never heard that!" Boingo are notorious for having loads of previously unreleased material. A ton of that is in the Universal archives, and my plan, doing the CD reissues, was to include those outtakes. A lot of contracts are very open to what you can include. With Boingo, since Elfman's a big name, Universal wanted to give him the professional courtesy of approving anything that was previously unreleased. So myself and Universal made multiple efforts to contact Danny and his management...we could not get a response no matter how hard we tried.
I tried to include everything I could that was available, but now that we're getting into the later catalog, you do have to make sacrifices. You're not gonna include six versions of "Out of Control," you're going to include two versions. Regardless, you're still gonna have somebody come out of the woodwork and ask why you didn't include all the versions.
Or why you didn't make a 2CD set. But costs on that can add up.
Yeah, I mean, you gotta pay publishing on every version of a song.
Given that you primarily license from Universal, it's a comfort that you're able to get tapes on so many things, considering the unfortunate recent history of their tapes. Was less destroyed than previously thought?
Let's put it this way: they'll never say that. I have run into situations where masters are not available, and a lot of times I can get things from the U.K. While I don't necessarily point it out, there's been a couple of bonus tracks here and there that had to come from vinyl sources.
There were a lot of losses. The main thing I'd notice were singles - if I needed 12" mixes or B-sides, sometimes they weren't there.
Did reissuing these Boingo records give you any new perspective on their catalog? Any favorite songs, albums or bonus tracks?
I still love the early catalog the best. I love the frantic energy that Elfman put forward - he was a nutcase! He definitely toned down around So-Lo and further, but there's still great stuff to appreciate. I'm listening to Dark At the End of the Tunnel, and I hear a song called "Run Away (The Escape Song)" - that is probably now in my top 10 Boingo songs. Very catchy. And then two songs later, another song called "Is This" - very slow and melodic. That's very attractive. And I love it. It's so different to that early stuff.
There are a lot of people who've made comments like "I'm not so sure about that latter half of the catalog." I hope that they open their mind. I know a lot of people who buy my CDs, they don't necessarily know who [the artist is]. They collect you like trading cards, I suppose. They'll just buy everything and say "I've never heard of this band, Slow Children, but I love it!"
Despite your lack of progress with other labels to license, have you considered going all the way and reissuing Boingo, the band's final album from 1994?
I haven't even asked Warner about it at this point, just because I haven't gotten anywhere with them in some years. People are constantly asking me about that last Boingo record. I'm indifferent - I'm not sure of the sales potential. I want to see how this batch does. There's a part of me that's a little leery - I knew the early stuff was going to sell, and now I've gone headlong into this catalog with vinyl and CD. I'm pretty confident it'll do what it needs to do, but I'm gonna be watching it very closely and hope it all comes back to me.
What's next for Rubellan?
That is always the unwritten story. You never know what clearances are gonna come through or be denied. I've got close to 40 sent in. After the beginning of the year, I'll inquire again; you don't want to be a nag, but you also don't want to be forgotten. It's careful persistence. But especially after this latest Boingo venture, they know I'm a serious client.
You got these out quick, though. It was just over a month from confirmation to release.
I don't want to piss around. That's my mentality. I won't rush to the point where I'm making shortcuts, but if you're waiting a year or two for a license and you finally get it? Alright, now let's get moving. I'm just devoted to it - it's a morning to night type of thing.
What would you like to see more of in catalog music? What would you like to see less of?
I'd like to see more labels take the time and utilize the necessary resources to make sure their CDs sound good. Don't just drop a needle on the record and send it to production because you don't want to pay for a master tape transfer. That's what I can't stand: when I buy a CD and I hear "crackle pop." I want to be confident that I'm getting a new remaster - I don't want to necessarily deal with someone taking a 30-year-old CD and putting it into a new package.
I could've easily done that with any of these Boingo CDs, but I wanted that original ½" master, transferred in high resolution and sent to me flat. They didn't have a problem with that: it's not a challenge, and the truth is most of the time, the fees are part of your licensing. You're not paying extra. There are some occasions where they have to send something offsite, you do have to pay - but it's not like you have to remortgage your house.
Anything you'd like to add?
Really the main thing is the gratitude I have towards my fan base. Every time I put out a release, I see so many of the same names. They're devoted and they're dedicated and they're enthusiastic. When I've had periods in the past where I thought maybe this is the end of the run for me, you'd get these people like "No! You can't!" It's nice to see that kind of enthusiasm. Hopefully it'll be enough to continue to sustain this as an actual somewhat profitable business venture.