ast year, in a piece for the Guardian Unlimited, American writer Dave Eggers reveled in the delight of meeting an adolescent hero: Phil Wilson, one-time singer/songwriter for the ’80s pop band June Brides. Eggers regales, in I-walked-to-school-uphill-both-ways style, how he and fellow Anglophiles would puff 20 miles on beat-up Huffys to Evanston, Ill., to procure near-impossible-to-find vinyl and then bike back, albums snug inside cardboard-lined backpacks, safe from any pothole-induced creasing.
While such diligence is indeed romantic, it’s no longer necessary, as the Internet has made pop music infinitely more accessible than it was two decades ago. Thanks in part to this development, there thrives a subset of independent labels—some new, some with much longer narratives—dealing primarily with reissues and compilations. Beyond mainstream channels and once-restricting boundaries, and wielding the Internet as their primary tool, these labels package, market, and distribute product to fans they would have never reached 20 years ago—and with methods they would have never dreamed of utilizing. The goal has become, to quote Cherry Red Records head Ian McNay, “To produce the kind of albums that so many discerning music fans would like to own, but often encounter great difficulty in locating.”
Pop music is now inexorably linked to the web, and this relationship has spurred individuals such as Jim Kavanagh return to the record business. Kavanagh founded a fanzine entitled “Simply Thrilled” back in 1987, releasing flexi discs as part of Sha La La, a short-lived collaboration of various British fanzine writers. Eventually he left the disposable world of flexis behind, launching the Glasgow-based Egg Records in 1988. Over the next three years, the label released eight EPs and singles (seven- and 12-inch) by less ballyhooed acts from his native West Scotland: the Prayers, Remember Fun, the Church Grims, and the Bachelor Pad.
Kavanagh eventually resurrected Egg in 2003, citing the Internet’s effect upon product exposure and distribution as a pivotal factor in him doing so. When it comes to reaching prospective fans, Kavanagh is no longer plagued by questions of “How?” but instead, “How many?” That mimeographed, stapled, biannual fanzine is certainly no match for a regularly updated, user-friendly web site. “The Internet is important for Egg in reaching people,” Kavanagh said, “particularly the ease of buying online. An overseas market was always there back in the ’80s. However, it was not easy to reach, and expensive to deliver the records.”
Today, Egg focuses on reissues and compilations, releasing albums through what Kavanagh’s dubbed the “Egg Records Restoration Programme.” And while reissues and compilations are hardly a product of the Internet age, there’s no denying the role the web plays in helping drive this particular subset of the industry. As Kavanagh points out, during Franz Ferdinand’s heady rise in 2004, the band frequently namedropped one of its Scottish pop ancestors, Josef K. Domino Records eventually capitalized by releasing a lavishly packaged Josef K compilation in 2006. A process simplified considerably, sure, but the example is still a viable one.
“Labels know there is profit to be made in, for example, a Weather Prophets CD collection,” Kavanagh says, “as the listeners have fond memories of the band, but the old records are gathering dust in their parents loft.”
Chuck Warner’s love for hoarding vinyl manifested itself in Hyped to Death (H2D), a label he began in 1998 as a cassette adjunct for his mail-order rare-record business. The purpose was to introduce customers to samples of obscure punk, post-punk, D.I.Y., and power-pop material. Warner even gave the whole project a nostalgic sheen, mixing the songs so they segued/overlapped like an old-style radio show. Today, H2D releases compilation series like Messthetics, which chronicles unknown bands from Britain’s D.I.Y. scene much like Pebbles and Nuggets archived the ’60s underground in the States.
According to Warner, while pop music’s accessibility has its benefits (“Finding bands was far more difficult seven or eight years ago than it is today,” he said), there’s a downside as well. After some successful, early days, H2D is living a hardscrabble existence, jostling with a glut of other independent labels offering the same obscure pop music. “We did quite well for the first couple years, in large part because we wholesaled to a few small retailers, online and off, with devoted customer bases,” Warner explains. “But as outlets for unusual music multiplied so quickly online—along with more and more networks of people sharing files for free—that kind of ��specialty-shop’ market for H2D’s CDs dried up almost entirely.”
The death of the compact disc has been discussed from one end of the Internet to the other and back again. Album sales are down: according to Nielsen SoundScan, 588.2 million albums were purchased in 2006, down 4.9 percent from the previous year; the Recording Industry Association of America delivers more doom, saying annual sales figures have slumped 25 percent since 2000. Meanwhile, digital music sales are on the rise: from $1.1 billion in 2005 to $2 billion last year, which means downloads now make up 10 percent of global music sales overall.
Anthology Recordings certainly has two fingers on the pulse of the average, computer-savvy muso. Launched in October of 2006, Anthology embraces the Internet’s distribution-made-easy ethic like no other: it’s currently the world’s only all-digital reissue label. “The market for physical product—or at least CDs—is dwindling day by day,” says founder Keith Abrahamsson, an A&R; executive with New York City-based independent label Kemado Records. “It seems like it’s only a matter of time before the CD becomes a dead format. Anthology was an idea birthed from the decline in CD sales, as well as the lack of obscure titles available on online retailers.”
On the Anthology web site, users can download single tracks, full albums, and even original artwork and liner notes from a rather eclectic group of esoteric artists—everything from New York post-punk acts like China Shop to African Head Charge, a dub act from Adrian Sherwood’s legendary On-U Sound label. The approach also readily acknowledges that subset of fans who desire more than a sterile mp3 collection occupying the cold, aluminum expanses of an external hard drive. “I think for any fan of physical product, the digital format will always be inferior,” Abrahamsson says. “We’re trying to compensate for the lack of something tangible by providing as much art and information as we can.”
Kavanagh talks of reaching these particular fans as well: by improving liner notes and cover art for Egg releases, since good packaging is often a differentiating factor in someone purchasing a CD, instead of file-sharing or making a copying. However, Kavanagh admits that since the number of fans who desire the physical product is relatively tiny, general cost is a prohibitive factor in making it a regular practice at Egg. “There is definitely a market for people who want the whole CD package, as opposed to a download,” he says. “The market is small, however. I feel these people come from the generation that wants a tangible product, something solid in their hands. As times goes by I feel that concept will diminish.”
Warner acknowledges that stellar packaging can also singularize a compilation/reissue label from its competitors. H2D releases are frequently lauded for their eye-catching artwork and absorbing liner notes, filled with the most arcane of pop facts. (For example, did you know John Peel deemed the record sleeve for Shish by the Different I’s to be the worst he had ever seen?) According to Warner, the Internet makes this possible. “We are definitely seeing an improvement in the quality of reissues. The web is certainly the major cause, both in terms of allowing much faster and more reliable research, including multiple exchanges of email messages and online verification/proofing of liner notes. Also because of the increasing need to use ��value-added’ packaging to compete with downloads and file-sharing.”
Cherry Red Records is competing with rampant digital music swapping in its own unique way. The label, which began as a firm to promote gigs at the Malvern Winter Gardens, officially entered the records business in June of 1978, releasing a single by the Tights. In the early 1990s, on the heels of a four-year sabbatical from the business, founder Iain McNay returned to a transformed independent music industry: major labels looking to break acts through the indie network, the independent charts now deluged with these very artists. “The word ��indie,’” McNay explains, “had become a marketing term that was banded around and had absolutely nothing to do with either the original intention of the chart, or even the meaning of the word. We didn’t have the right resources that were now needed to sustain a band’s career. It took money, a lot of money to help make a band successful.”
What Cherry Red did was quickly find a niche for itself, as it acquired the rights to many of the important independent labels of the late ’70s and early ’80s (Flicknife, No Future, Rondelet, Midnight, Temple, and In Tape, to name just a few). It began churning out compilations such as The Punk Collectors Series and The Psychobilly Collectors Series. The label also tapped into the profitable football fan market, releasing collections of songs focusing on specific English or Scottish league clubs.
But it’s Cherry Red’s dalliances in the diverse multi-media market that have many regarding the label as a model for independents looking to make web-fueled modifications and survive in today’s industry. A book division opened in 1997, while the label began issuing DVDs in late 2006 (over 50 releases are slated for this year). Cherry Red’s site, which is updated daily, also features a download shop with over 17,000 songs.
“We still see ourselves as a ��physical’ label,” McNay says, “but there’s no question we have embraced new products, and new ways to distribute and market old products. It’s a matter of adapting. If you look at many of the independent labels that formed around the time Cherry Red did, you’ll see many haven't survived. Adapting has involved making some radical changes, but without those changes we might not still be here.”
The Internet has forced record labels to move beyond the ambit of traditional marketing. Eschewing time-honored strategies such as street teams and print advertisements, labels often utilize online social networking sites, mp3 music blogs, and online journals for identifying pop trends and promoting product. Look no further than the recent MySpace-charged success stories involving Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen (and the fictional Hope Against Hope, if you want to look at the negative side).
According to Abrahamsson, Anthology combines traditional and digital strategies: print ads and press releases, as well as banner advertising, Google keyword searches, and RSS feeds tied in with podcasts and Anthology’s online news section. Warner takes a similar approach: “I encourage bands to work MySpace and post songs there,” he says. “We send review copies to the more useful music blogs, we’re evaluating Last.fm, and we obviously work as selectively and strategically as we can with deejays on radio, on the web, and in clubs.”
However, promotion work at an independent dealing primarily with compilations and reissues can be a bit arduous, even when the amount of prospective customers one can reach is relatively limitless. As Kavanagh points out, creating a buzz for a band that’s been inactive for 20 years isn’t easy. He combats this by using a detailed mailing list, and securing reviews on indie pop blogs and webzines. “I haven’t gone for any viral marketing, feeding websites, or peer-to-peer networks,” Kavanagh says. “Somehow I feel this is more appropriate for current, active bands.”
The theme is preservation. In 1877, Philip Webb and William Morris formed the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings to oppose what they saw as the gauche renovation of antiquated buildings. The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty came together in 1895, concerned with protecting open spaces and structures threatened by arrant demolition. In the same way Morris was spurred to act after witnessing the destruction of London churches such as St Michael’s Queenhithe and All Hallows Bread Street, individuals like Kavanagh feel the need to preserve music that could be lost to history. “These were bands I felt had been forgotten, almost written out of the history of the period,” Kavanagh said in an interview with John Clarkson of Pennyblackmusic. “I feel that is important, preserving this. This may sound pompous, but I feel that there were these guys like Alan Lomax who went around making field recordings of Appalachian folk ballads or guys resurrecting Cornish sea shanties or whatever, and I feel this music should also be preserved. It is my folk music, music of a time and a place that deserves as much preservation as other eras and genres.”
With that in mind, Kavanagh lumps Egg in with projects such as TweeNet’s ongoing The Sound of Leamington Spa series or Beautiful Music’s 2005 tribute to Television Personalities—fan-driven ventures exhorted by a fervid love for the music, as well as a desire to tap into today’s immeasurable consumer market. “Egg is most certainly in this camp,” he says. “I feel these bands deserve to be preserved, to be available to whoever may be interested.”
Like Kavanagh, Warner is not necessarily profit-driven, but stimulated by the frisson of excitement he gets from sonically restoring obscure material. As Warner explains, H2D’s releases are often culled from the actual records themselves, as master tapes are rarely available. However, quite often the record itself is of a better quality than the original, as the individuals who mastered the original lacquers (such as George “Porky” Peckham, a British record-cutting engineer who worked on many punk, post-punk, and new wave LPs) already made improvements to the sound.
For Warner, the entire restoration process is unflagging and exhausting, but worth the effort when he—and fans of British D.I.Y. from all over the world, more importantly—hear the final product. “There’s pressing-noise, tape hiss, and whatever scratches may have been added in the last 25 to 30 years,” he explains, “so I spend way too much time cleaning: digitally rebuilding wave-forms by hand, de-hissing, setting levels, and gently re-EQing the material. I’m also careful to master my CDs at low enough volumes, so they still sound as warm and immediate as vinyl. No T-waves or crushing digital compression. So if you put them on a changer with the latest “American Idol” CD they’ll well . . . sound like crap, because they’re so much quieter. But you get the idea.”
Change in today’s music industry is sudden and sweeping. There’s been recent chatter focusing on major labels finally agreeing to voluntary collective licensing, which would grant individuals the ability to download and exchange music freely over computer networks, with fees included in, for example, the cost of a high-speed Internet access line. Also, David Pakman, head of online retailer eMusic, recently predicted that by the end of the year, digital music would be sold without the copyright protection or digital rights management software major record labels have traditionally demanded.
So how will independents in the compilation/reissue market continue to subsist in an ever-changing industry?
Despite over 350 scheduled album releases in 2007 alone, Cherry Red will keep making a splash in the digital music realm. According to McNay, downloaded music accounted for 3.5 percent of all turnover at the label in ��06. That number is expected to swell to 10 percent within the next two to three years. “The downloadable market is age-driven,” McNay says. “Those under 40, maybe 30, are the ones who aren’t necessarily interested in collecting records. These are the ones we are targeting.”
Anthology has 125 to 150 releases slated for this year. “We’re really looking forward to diversifying as well,” Abrahamsson says. “There’s a lot of great stuff in the works that will definitely add some new flavors to our catalog.”
Egg’s release schedule for 2007 will include compilations by Let’s Go Naked, Even As We Speak, Lighthouse Keepers, and Riot of Colour. Kavanagh also alludes to a day in the not-too-distant future where Egg would take a similar route as Anthology. “I’d like to do more download singles, but make available short-run versions for those who want that tangible artifact. However, I do feel that at some point more and more of Egg releases will be online, and I can even see one day the majority of the label being download only and a lot of the material possibly free.”
In that aforementioned Guardian Unlimited piece, Eggers mentioned how for years he tirelessly scoured the “J” section of record stores he visited, searching for any sort of June Brides compilation. As Eggers knows (Cherry Red finally delivered said comp in 2005), such meticulous foraging and fancying is no longer required of music zealots. Today’s enterprising compilation / reissue labels make that possible.
By: Ryan Foley
Published on: 2007-04-02