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Re-releases, special editions and re-masters: how far is too far?

If you have an original copy of The Beatles ‘Please Please Me’ on vinyl – the earliest 1963 release – you could cash in at over £10,000. There simply weren’t many of them on first pressing, but in various formats almost one hundred versions of the debut have been printed to date. It’s a completest’s nightmare, but at least if you own one version then – bar a few minor tweaks – you’ve got the musical content covered. Pick any major album from the last five years and you’re unlikely to be able to say the same.
Glancing around the local record store, it’s hard not to get a ‘popcorn at the cinema’ vibe on the special edition mark-up sneaking in. Increasingly, if you want to hear the 20-22 tracks that constitutie a big modern pop album, you’ll need to stump up for several copies. Expect a basic version, an iTunes version, the ultimate super special shiny edition with added cheap-assed postcards, and the ‘only if you come to see us on tour/ new artwork’ release. If you happen to live in the US, throw in the Walmart version, the Target version and in hop-hop, the ‘covered up half the lyrics because they’re not suitable for Walmart or Target’ version. Back home, Tesco have cottoned onto the trend and are asking for their own USP-grabbing additional ditties, too. Rather than simply producing an album, major record labels are producing a sales range.

Some case studies: in the UK, the bestselling albums of 2013 were by One Direction, Emile Sandé and Michael Bublé. Bublé, to his credit, stuck to just one bonus release, a three track add-on launched on the same day as the original. One Direction have two extra editions, offering eleven more minutes – or five tracks – on their ‘ultimate edition’, and another three tunes only available on Japanese import (two are covers). Sandé really takes the biscuit, with five different versions in the UK alone, every one of which offers a track unavailable anywhere else. If her Olympic bum-notes inspired a peculiar sense of loyalty in you, there are another three import versions with yet more exclusives. Clearly, with music industry profits through the floor, money for old rope tack-ons are edging into the realm of the daft.Then there’s the re-releases. The twenty year anniversaries, given faux significance by the age realisation they bring about in a certain group of us. Nirvana. Oasis. Led Zeppelin. Morrissey. Each comes with various ‘insightful’ glances originally left on the cutting room floor, deemed to be too weak for the album, or a lesser form of the song. There are gems, true. In Utero’s special edition Albini mixes show what Nirvana’s poppier incarnation might have sounded like, and ‘Sappy’ is easily good enough to have made the cut first time out. Regardless, there’s still a sense we’re being fed the unwanted subplot to rock’s most famous suicide note, and charged £80 (on top of our original £15) for the privilege. When a key protagonist – a man known to be hugely anti-commercial – is unable to have his say, it’s probably not even moral.

The policy frustrates because it would be so easy to be fan friendly. How can record labels expect fans to stay away from illegal downloading when hearing every part of a new release requires buying it four times? Why should an Oasis fan have to buy another copy of the original ‘Definitely Maybe’ just to hear the rarities? Is it really so hard to give us everything in one go, or produce an ‘add on disk’ to anniversary albums? To at least nod towards a customer-friendly position?
For music lovers, there’s a fine line. It’s hard not to want to know everything about your heroes, even when you know you’re being sold the musical equivalent of corkage; the profit padding bullshittery of taking out additional insurance on your already under warranty PC. There’s the part of you that knows that The Beatles Red Album fits on one disk, and it’s on two just to jack up the price. But the OCD part of your brain is dying to hear The Lemonheads ‘Mrs Robinson’ on ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’, the version that came out six months later than the original, and it gnaws. Labels have created a slap fight between common sense and music fandom, and driven the unerring stupidity of reissue record marketing right through the middle.

It’s easy to spot when money isn’t the motivation. Rising Norwegian punk stars Honningbarna wrap their special editions in a unique to every version fabric and handwrite the lyrics. Kid Koala’s improved version came with a DIY cardboard gramophone. Emile Sandé, meanwhile, adds a cover song from the Olympics, and Michael Bublé changes the background colour on his cover and adds three tracks, two of which he didn’t write. We live in an era where record labels primary value arguably lies in collation, and major labels – already known for appropriating success stories from their smaller cousins – are increasingly seen as middle men.

We could almost forgive them for that. There’s no harm in wanting great music to be widely heard, after all, and just occasionally these second comings are truly gourmet. Look closely at what’s really on offer, though, and most are more hotel minibar.

James Hendicott

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