Why Are We So Obsessed With Reissuing Old Records?

It's not just a fear of letting the past die, it's a fear of death itself.
November 25, 2015, 3:08pm
Photo by Suklaa

As the world crumbles around us, it becomes more important than ever, apparently, seemingly, to find comfort in culture. As the jets explode above our heads we turn to the easily consumable, the speedily swallowable, the perfectly palatable. Films, books, records, all these things act like surrogate friends, support systems that let us find some grounding in a time of distress and disruption. Not to sound like one of those blokes who plays boardgames and always looks like they've got bits of chewed up bread stuck between their teeth, but 'twas ever thus. Sort of.

Earlier this week, before the world started grinding towards its inevitable end, we were thrown one last morsel of relief, one final grain of sandy hope: an old balearic album was getting reissued!

It wasn't just any old balearic album I told myself between panicked stabs at my F5 key on news websites, this was Manuel Gottsching's legendary, seminal, incredible, amazing, superlative, sensational and sublime E2-E4, one of the best records ever made ever. And it wasn't getting just any old reissue, no. There was going to be a CD version with a booklet —an eight page booklet!— and a deluxe 180g vinyl version and a super limited edition CD and DVD dual pack that'd let me watch Manuel performing the album I'd just listened to! Christmas had well and truly come early! The record doesn't come out till the end of January but I'll make do with burning a copy onto a CDR and printing off the front cover at work. Between that, a satsuma and a novelty bald wig from Hawkin's Bazaar, a few Gogglebox repeats and a turkey sandwich slathered in salad cream, we're looking at the best Christmas since my pubes sprouted.

Read more: Jose Padilla's perfect balearic playlist

Until then, though, let's reflect on something terrible happening all around us. I'm talking here about the way the Mojo reading brown shoes and craft IPA crew have wormed their way into club culture and demanded that each and every single one of us bankrupts ourselves on reissues and represses. What's better than new music? Yep, it's old music that comes in a gatefold package or bundled with a replica gig ticket or a signed pair of the engineer's pants! Let's pretend that the present isn't happening and that the future's an impossibility! Let's spend our days and nights denying contemporary experience! Let's all go out and buy the deluxe version of Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance by Laraaji!

Now, there's nothing wrong with reissuing records per se. Obviously it's a good thing to let listeners into secrets obscured by the veils of the past and they're an easy paycheck for the artists themselves, but there's something…off about the whole thing. Club culture isn't rock history. If anything, the world we've built around records and DJs should be viewed as antithetical to the canon building exercises carried out in the printed rock press every few years when a panicked publisher remembers that no one's ranked The Best 100 Albums Ever or the Ultimate 100 Albums That Changed the World or the Most Rockin' 100 Records Ever Released that Rocked and Changed the World Because They Were the Best and Most Rockin' Records Ever Made and Released except we all seem to have forgotten that and we've decided to swap the illusion of difference for the comforting reality of homogeneity. DJs became rockstars, and we all thought that was exciting for a minute and then the coke ran out and we all got bored of dance music and clubs started closing and now we're left with something that looks a bit like clubbing but isn't.

I mean, that's bullshit, obviously: there are still incredible clubs and wonderful DJs and amazing records being put out on a daily basis, but taken as a totality, we still seem as in thrall to Marshall Jefferson and Ron Hardy and Trax and DJ International as we were 20 years ago. Club culture is, in many ways, a nostalgia industry. Now, we've talked about the difficult relationship between the hedonistic possibilities of the present and the ever-attractive proposition of the past before here on THUMP so we don't need to do it all over again. What we do need to think about, though, is this idea that it isn't just records being reissued but a cultural repressing.

There's a few reasons as to why we're indebted to the past, and why that sense of devotion to that which was before we were, edges us closer and closer to the close-minded circlejerks of the retro-obsessed rockists.

Read more: does dance music have a nostalgia problem?

The first, and most obvious, of these is that we're living in a period where, in the UK at least, clubs and clubbing is less and less viable by the day. in very real terms, as well. If clubs are shutting or having their licenses renegotiated then we're not really left with anywhere to go, and the places that do remain have to play it safe in terms of booking because, understandably, reasonably, all involved want to make money off the back of the the pleasure they're selling us — or trying to sell us at least. When that happens, we end up with bills that nod towards the past and an industry that's still not really sure how to make money in the second decade of the new millennium but knows that people like old shit because old shit is shit that's coated with a layer of something very important: authenticity.

None of us want to look like clueless cretins who don't know our Basic Channel from our Chain Reaction, right? Dance music is rife with snobbery and age isn't an excuse for not knowing your history. The internet's allowed all of us to learn everything we need to know to bullshit our way through conversations, which is great. But it's also meant we've developed fetishes for the rare, for the relatively unknown and unheard. Re-pressing an old record immediately gives it a sense of status that it might not artistically deserve (if we can think of art as something which can be spoken of in such terms) because the very act of bringing something back into the present —be it a book or a film or a record— makes it seem like said object was missing, like it had to be returned. Which means a lot of very boring records are spoken of in hushed terms.

The third, and most basic argument is one that's pretty much driven purely by simple economics. House music was born 30 years ago. Rave died out 20 years ago. There's a generation, or two, of adults with disposable incomes who remember their younger days fondly and still want to feel part of a world that's always been predicated on youth, always happy, in a way, to exclude the older participant, to Other anyone over the age of thirty. These non-clubbing-clubbers have cash to splash and record companies know it. They'll happily re-press records safe in the knowledge that Sean, 43, an accountant from Sudbury, remembers hearing X in Y when he was Z. That link to the past can't be severed but it can be strengthened by manufacturing an object with stands in for the past that was once the present. No one is being conned here: the record company make a bit of cash and Sean gets to own Snivilisation on 180g vinyl and relive whatever's left of his memorially-encased youth.

That's all fine, I guess, but what it does, really, sadly, is make it look like the modern world is shit, that there's nothing of worth that's worth looking forward to. It makes record shops look like museums of the near past. It makes 2015 look like a very depressing place indeed. Which is isn't. But that's another story. Now, where's my deluxe digipak of "Blue" by Eifel 65 gone…

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