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You're Getting Totally Ripped Off by Reissues, Box Sets and Deluxe Editions

As Christmas approaches, it seems like all your favourites are putting out their shit b-sides with a tote bag and a photo book.
October 28, 2014, 12:57pm

Noel Gallagher said lots of interesting things during his Facebook Q&A a few weeks ago. He openly slagged off social media (despite infiltrating the motherboard’s headquarters), spoke about writing his favourite song while walking home from the shops, and generally said some swear words whilst scowling at the audience. His most staggering admission, however, was that the reissue of Definitely, Maybe earlier this year was simply a tired old cash cow with a brand new saddle.

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"I'm sorry to say this you guys, but it's money for old fucking rope" he said.

"Getting away with reissuing Definitely, Maybe for the fourth time, I'm pretty proud of that. Gotta be proud of that right" he repeated, talking to a group of diehard, obsessive fans. Probably the same ones who have probably bankrolled each of the reissues in question.

What does it say when an artist nonchalantly admits to screwing over their fans? Not much when it’s Noel Gallagher; he likes to be a wind-up merchant and openly admits that the best thing about his records is they sell “fucking millions”. Nevertheless, even in his indifference, he touches upon something most artists are afraid to admit: that reissues are mostly regarded with such blatant capitalist opportunism, the blame lies with anyone foolish enough to buy them. Especially when the reissue box set is, essentially, a bunch of magnets, tat, and old music being sold for almost one hundred pounds.

Portishead’s Geoff Barrow touched on this more eloquently back in 2011. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said: “special editions have been a dirty word because they've just basically been a tool of the industry to try and squeeze more money out of the fan or the music buyer… We would only do that if we were maybe forced into it by some label contractual thing.” Jump to present day, and Portishead are indeed re-issuing their 94’ classic Dummy to celebrate its 20th anniversary. In fairness to Geoff Barrow and Portishead; this isn’t Dummy’s fourth reissue, it’s the first. And, unlike most reissues, it’s priced at a totally reasonable £18, without any filler material bumped on.

Dummy is an exception to the rule in 2014; a year when it isn’t just the weight that some reissues and deluxe editions put on hardcore fans’ wallets, but the actual rate at which they are coming out. Smashing Pumpkins, Depeche Mode, Brian Eno, Paul McCartney, The Velvet Underground, Kylie Minogue, M83 (whose discography doesn’t reach back further then 2001), Blondie, Bruce Springsteen, The Kinks and Nick Cave are just a few who have reissued in the last two months, or will do before Christmas, mostly rocking in as £50+ special editions. All, of course, are remasters, digital remasters, original tape recordings or anything left over that wasn’t good enough the first time round, plus a book. There is always usually a book. Worth it then? A comment on Bruce Springsteen’s tribute page, written after September’s announcement of The Albums Collection Vol. 1 (1973-1984), sums up the feeling regarding most reissues: “If anyone should feel cheated, it would be the people who bought the 2010 release The Collection, 1973-1984 containing - you guessed it - the first seven studio albums, but in plain, non-remastered versions.”

For the dedicated fan, the one who gets a massive stiffy over hearing a slightly different version of a song they’ve been obsessing over for the last twenty years, the collection is a turn-on. But let’s be fucking serious. If the extra stuff was any good - like the additional and rare Brian Eno songs being thrown into his own reissue project in December - then why can’t it justify it’s own separate release? The simple answer: because the record companies wouldn’t be able to rip you off. This way they can purposefully package a few songs you want (and will listen to maybe twice) alongside something you already own, and justify the price by throwing it into one big bundle with a free tote bag.

It would be narrow minded of me to write off reissue and deluxe culture as a total con; they’re vital for so many aspects of music. In some cases, a reissue can rekindle celebrations of records that were under-appreciated at the time. The deluxe reissue of US emo band American Football’s only ever album back in May chimed with the band reforming and becoming retrospectively more popular than their original heydey. In other cases, through labels like Luaka Bop or Shadoks, the rarest of music from around the world is picked from obscurity and suddenly made obtainable - all for the perusal and pleasure of the most dedicated music fans. However, on a classic album/major label level, it feels like this method of celebration has become quite a blatant profiteering campaign. Especially when the same record has been reissued three times already.

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You can understand why this works so well for the music industry. Two weeks ago, it was revealed that not a single album from 2014 has gone platinum in the US, and this year is globally indicative of that decline in physical sales you’re sick of hearing about. Less people are buying CD albums than ever, yes, and that’s never going to turn around. However, contrast that news with this Telegraph report about how vinyl sales will be their highest in twenty years, and you have two comparative stories which indicate that while the wider public are predictably flocking to digital, the hardcores remain steadfast in their principle ownership values. Reissues and deluxe editions, with ever increasing price tags, are the way to keep draining money from the last plunge pool of consumers.

The funniest thing about the scheming nature of reissue culture is that it’s the people who eulogise physical ownership, those who dedicate the most to their collections and bang on about how vinyl sales are up year-on-year, who are being exploited by the industry. However, I’m not saying you should raise a cross and shout hail mary’s every time you see a reissue. Some artists and labels are revisiting the timelessness of their art in ways that enlighten fans further. Nas' celebration of twenty years of Illmatic was brilliant, treating fans to a reissue that included remixes, freestyles and unheard material. He re-toured the album from start to finish, and now he’s putting out a documentary that explores the making of Illmatic on a deeper level than ever before. It was like the entire album breathed again for a whole year.

Elsewhere, Respect The Classics is a solid campaign by Universal Music that represses classic hip-hop albums for those who missed out on the first batch. The myth of extra content is ignored in favour of putting out the original album back out on vinyl for those who missed it the first time around. As a result, you can get classic 12” albums from Eminem, Public Enemy, Kanye, LL Cool J and more for under £15. Similarly, Clone Classic Cuts is a sublabel of Clone Recordings which has been documenting the history of dance music with some incredible repressings, like this year’s Drexciya series, which re-shaped the sub-aquatic worlds of conceptual techno into new running orders that appealed to both major fans and new listeners.

But for every celebration of Illmatic, Drexciya or American Football, there is an anniversary vomit of Nirvana’s Nevermind, packaged with evermore unreleased material that serves only to diminish the legend. Like this year’s “Led Zeppelin Reissue Program” - which sounds like a social experiment to see how often you can keep someone repurchasing the same thing - it’s just a cold and routine re-manufacturing of the band’s back catalogue. Not to mention the backlog these reissue programs cause at vinyl pressing plants, when they are prioritised over newer releases.

Reading reviews doesn’t really help either, because reissues often fall into this strange immortal category of music journalism where the classic album in question is just re-appraised like an ancient Aztec relic. The point of whether the reissue itself is a worthwhile purchase for those who already own the original album is usually overlooked in favour of attempting to repetitively gush over heavily trodden anthems that have been mainstays of contemporary culture for decades. That's why when looking at Pitchfork's 10.0 rated albums, you'll find a shit load of reissues.

As Christmas approaches, you are going to have these albums, deluxe editions and remasters plastered across the leaderboards of every website you visit. So, before you fork out, close your eyes, take a deep breath and think: did the band or label in question put lots of effort into making this a timeless addition to their catalogue? Or is it money for old fuckin’ rope?

Follow Joe on Twitter: @cide_benengeli