Re-Releases: The Past, The Present and The Future

Tuesday saw a giant inflatable pig floating above Battersea power station, and not for the first time. Last seen in 1974 as part of a photo shoot for the album cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals, the pig flew again, this time for the re-shoot of the album for the re-release of all sixteen of Pink Floyd’s albums. Think this all getting a bit tiring? Well we do too, so we decided to take a look at the various arguments behind re-releasing an album and the future of this type of prodcut. The verdict? They are going to die out..

The Past

There are various reasons behind a re-release. The traditional logic behind this is based upon demand outstripping supply. For example, when Clouds released Watercolour Days in the 60s, the song was such an unexpected success that it was barely seen on the shelves before stocks ran out. With so few copies in circulation it meant that for a period, except for when it was on the radio, there was no way to hear it. The label stepped up and rereleased the album. The demand was met.

Or, like when Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon and they went from cult hit to international hit almost overnight. There were new fans who wanted to own everything the band had ever produced. They wanted The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother. There weren’t enough copies in supply so EMI re-released Pink Floyd’s back catalogue. The demand was met.

Then there was when Ice T recorded Cop Killer, the album was pulled from the shelves. But, people wanted to hear it. When the furore blew over, and the track was allowed to be stocked in stores there was a huge demand for it. Warner Bros. Records re-released it and the demand was met.

And, when the tape was released in the 70s there were early adopters – there always are with new technologies – but it wasn’t until big bands were ported over to the new format that it was formally adopted. The Beatles have been on vinyl, tape, CDs, mp3, hell, they were used to sell their own brand of Rock Band. Whenever there was a new format, there was a demand. Labels stepped up and the demand was met.

The Present

The system of re-releasing has always run on supply and demand. In all the above examples the labels re-released music to keep up with the demand of their consumers. But, that is no longer the case. With the advent of streaming there is no longer an issue of supply. If demand ramps up a label doesn’t need to up their production. Once a file is on the web it can be infinitely copied, infinitely shared, and forever in pristine condition.

Previously, the number of albums on the market would reduce over time. Records got broken, CDs scratched, tapes crunched. Now we have lossless formats. Short of a doomsday scenario there is little chance of there never being a perfectly replicable copy of Sergeant Pepper.

There is no longer a consumer need for a re-release.

The labels need to re-release material. As the need for a physical copy has declined so have the sales. Part of this is due to piracy, but there’s another more important reason. Because unlike piracy which has always been there, and will always be there, the unification of systems is new, and it’s a change that, once complete, will not be undone.

Whereas ten years ago we might have a record player in our sitting room, a tape player in the car, and ripped CDs on our computer this schism of formats is closing fast. In the next five – ten years we’re going to see technology that unifies those players. Already, you can have speakers in every room of your house and in your car, all that are synced to your iPhone.

The mantra of this decade is one track to rule them all. One track, many platforms.

So, how have the labels responded to this? There have been two methods. The first is remastered tracks. Take the original master recordings and the newest production equipment, and create the crispest, cleanest, most finely attuned version of the track as you can. Then re-release it.

There is a problem with this method though. The remastered version supersedes the previous version, at first, but soon it replaces it. The streaming services simply switch to the higher quality version (because as technology advances, and the world finally catches up with the internet, streaming will not be limited by bandwidth). Now, without paying again, the users have access to the new version.

The labels are back to square one then. How can they get the consumers to buy again? They have to force the technology back in to the physical world, something that degrades, and in ten years time can be replaced. Say hello to the collector’s edition. Booklets about the band’s history, hard bound CD cases, and a special box – do not underestimate the power of saying limited edition – in a world where data can be limitless, a limited item becomes all the more desirable.

See, there are fans, and then there are fans. Fans go to the concerts, buy the albums, they “love” a band. Fans buy everything, their obsession is unquenchable. They’ll by the vinyl, the tape, the CD, the iTunes album, hell they even bought the mini disk. Fans buy collector’s editions.

If you put stock in such things, that’s not a problem. But, when you are looking at that 20th Anniversary edition of Nirvana’s Nevermind ask yourself who profits most: you for getting the version of the album you want at the price that you’re willing to pay; or them for managing to re-package the old item and sell it one more time.

Yeah, we thought so. However, this current rationale behind re-releases is not sustainable: the cost of producing physical copies is increasing as the market shrinks; digital sales are unlikely to pick up the slack due to the growth of streaming services; and price increases for material that is not, in essence, rare or confined to the physical format, is likely to decrease sales when alternatives exist online.

The Future

So, what will the future of re-releases be? We believe there will be a split between the remastering of an artist’s work and the bonus content associated with it.

Paying for access through streaming services, rather than buying the physical or digital copy, is set to be the relationship between the consumer and the music industry. As these services rely upon a subscription-based pay-by-meter approach, they need to stay ahead of the curve in terms of the catalogue they provide. This encompasses not only the size of their catalogue but also the quality of their recordings. This is why Spotify streams at 320kbps and will continue to upgrade the bit rate of their service in order to sustain their market share. For record companies to release a remastered copy of an album with the sound quality only marginally and temporarily higher than the current streamed version is not really worth the effort in such a situation. Consumers are unlikely to pay extra for the product – it will soon be superseded – and the cost of improving the quality of the recordings can be passed onto Spotify et al.

The other rationale for buying a re-release is the bonus content, revered by only the most committed fans. This content, whether it is video, images or text, can still be monetised. You only need to look at the success of the Financial Times and other specialist online publications. Their content, exclusive and valuable to their target market, can be placed behind a subscriber wall to create a captive super-fan community. The bonus material that license holders and their associates own can be released directly to the fans without having to piggyback on remastered physical sales, marketing campaigns and other distribution costs. Invariably, the revenue generated from this content will drop as some of the content will need to be free to attract the fans, but targeted sales of the most exclusive and important content can still be made directly to the target market, as well as the targeted marketing of additional record company material to this community; all based upon the data gathered through the subscriber wall. The drop in direct content revenue can easily be offset by the drop in costs, the increase in targeted sales and advertising revenue, and the wider profit margins that will result. Having a captive market is every sellers dream and it is a great way to continue profiting from the bonus material without having to rely upon physical and digital sales.

This is why we believe that re-releases, in their current form as a partnership between additional content and remastered tracks, will die out. What do you think?

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9 thoughts on “Re-Releases: The Past, The Present and The Future

  1. The constant rehashing of old music does not appeal to me. If I like a band, then sure I will listen to their work and attempt to see them live. I have no need to listen to their obscure ‘b-sides’ or collect limited edition re-mastered work.
    Sigh…I’m a grumpy git really.

    • Heh, I think you’re with the majority here. As outlined on the Pitchfork review of the Nevermind re-release, most of the bonus material is stuff that has been axed from the original album because it was not up to scratch.

      Listening to all the obscure extra bits is hardly ever worth it!

  2. I think re-releases in the future will take on a new meaning in this digital music world. While digital releases are definitely the way forward, there will always be – as you have pointed out – ‘fans’.

    My prediction is that when exclusively digital releases have gained a cult/iconic status amongst its fans, many will demand a physical re-release. This is especially true of self-confessed audiophiles and vinyl collectors. If the band/label decides to re-release it on a physical medium, calculating demand – as to not waste manufacturing resources and risk masses of unsold stock – won’t be a hard thing with the advent of pre-orders and crowd-sourcing services such as Kickstarter.

    Re-releases won’t be as big a thing as it was, but I don’t think it’ll die out anytime soon. As with the case with any kind of digitalised media (movies, comics, books), there will always be a legion of people who still prefers the physical product. This kind of approach of releasing a digital version, and then re-releasing it in a physical format is probably the least risky way the music industry can deal with this issue.

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  4. I wondered why it was so difficult to get Watercolour Days at the time, and only managed to get the recent re-release after some waiting. Politics like this decide who is going to be mainline acts and who isn’t. Clouds was one of those who got a raw deal.

    • I know what you mean. I’ve only scratched the surface of politics in the music industry, but the more I look the more tools and tactics I find employed – which in some cases are active attempts foil a band’s success. In the case of Clouds it seems that it was a human error, whoever was in charge of distribution simply wasn’t on the ball, by the time they got the re-issue out the demand had slipped.

  5. Reading AllMusicGuide and Wikipedia etc, Clouds seemed to have suffered a lot of that sort of thing, yet in recent years, it has been acknowledged that their influence was crucial. Then again, look at what happened to Badfinger, so it could have been worse. This is a real stone that Phonograph has turned over to show what lies underneath.

  6. PS – Perhaps music is returning to its roots? In former days, people who produced music or poetry worked in the fields alongside everyone else; the musicians and poets were valued, but no money was involved.

    [sorry, have been posting these with a mistake in my email address, now corrected]

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