Wednesday, 1 January 2014

How I Learned To Hate Record Collecting: Part 1 - In The Beginning...


A record collecting site with an article called “how I learned to hate record collecting”. An inflammatory statement designed to get attention? Or an honest, and at times slightly heartbreaking, look at the marketing techniques of the record labels?

Don’t get me wrong, I love music. I love physical formats, be it vinyl, tape or CD. We have Slade's "Old New Borrowed And Blue" on 8-track in this house, Simon And Garfunkel's "Bookends" on Reel to Reel. There is the second Gloria Estefan hits set on Minidisc, despite nobody having a Minidisc player, and there are now-defunct laserdiscs around here somewhere. I am violently opposed to the concept of downloading (bootlegs excepted of course). But ever since the mid 90s, the sheer bloody minded cheek of the record companies has known no bounds. The hobby of record collecting has become frustrating, never ending, and driven by obsessive profiteering. Even as iTunes puts the final nails in the coffin of the 45, the labels are finding other ways to make money.

When I first started collecting records properly in late 1990, there seemed to be only a finite number of records you needed to buy. Perhaps I was naïve in thinking this, but - especially with the bands who were no longer with us - it seemed as though you could, with a bit of time and effort, get everything you needed by a particular band or singer. As a fan, you obviously wanted everything they had recorded - you wanted every album, every single and every “best of” and live LP. Bootlegs were in the back of your mind, but that’s another story. In 1994, The Who - at the time “on hold” - released a boxset called “30 Years Of Maximum R&B”, which included a UK and US singles and albums discography. There was quite a bit there, but it seemed “achievable” to track the essentials down. Indeed, as the years rolled by, various things listed came into my hands, and often at minimal cost - “The Ox” album, the Who/Hendrix split LP, the two different “Won’t Get Fooled Again” singles. And with the band inactive, it seemed as though once you finally got it all, then that was that.

The boxset included some previously unreleased live material. There was a page in the boxset detailing these recordings, with an explanation over what had been included and why, and why the stuff that hadn’t been included, couldn’t be. Tapes of certain shows were deemed “unusable”. The consensus was, this is the best you’ll ever get.

But then a year later, more material from the famous 1970 Leeds Uni gig got the green light, and a 40 minute long LP reappeared as a 75 minute long LP. Then, in 2001, the rest of the gig followed suit. And then, in 2010, the so called “unusable” gig taped the following night in Hull appeared in full as part of a boxset. And then, last year, a reissued “Tommy” came with a CD’s worth of “previously unheard live performances” of the album. When you go back and look at the sleeve notes in the boxset now, 20 years on, you wonder if somebody, basically, just made it up when they wrote it at the time.

This highlights the main problem we have nowadays, which is to do with product - there is too much of it. Stuff that previously would have been left in the vaults or in the hands of the bootleggers is now being passed off on officially available releases - the specialist Elvis Presley collectors label Follow That Dream has even released gigs where the sound quality is dubious, and where there are chunks of songs missing due to faulty source tapes - and you are being asked to pay £20 minimum for this stuff, because "the fans demand this material". But shouldn’t this lo-fi stuff be the sort of thing being offered up for free on Youtube?

It used to be so much simpler. First, there was the wax cylinder. Then, the 78rpm gramophone record. Then, in the 40s, we had the Long Playing Album. Usually the same size as the 78 but played at 33 and a third instead, and made of more durable material, it’s extended playing time allowed the artists of the day an opportunity to extend their repertoire beyond the limitations of the two song long 78. The 78 was joined by, then superseded by, the 45, the 7” vinyl single. And that was basically it from the 50s until the end of the 70s. A single, an album - often of entirely new material - and then maybe another single, and so on, and so forth. Expanded reissues did not exist. Multi formatted singles a thing of the future. Somebody would release a new record, and you simply bought it - or you didn’t.

OK, so there was also the EP, the extended play format. But it was a curio, in that nobody quite knew what it’s purpose was. Of the big four in the UK, only The Beatles issued them in large numbers. They were too expensive for the teenagers who normally bought the 45s, too “short” on material for the chin stroking album lovers. The Who released one EP of entirely new material in the mid 60s - then avoided the format like the plague thereafter. The Stones released two or three. The Kinks released five or six, but half of them were “Greatest Hits” collections of older songs people probably already had. Some EP’s thus sold poorly and became collectors items because, unlike the single or the album, it wasn’t being targeted at a particular audience. So again, you either bought the latest EP - or you didn’t. It was not really in competition with the other formats, and sort of fell out of favour anyway in the 70s.

Even after stereo sound was invented, the labels did not seem to be using it as though it was a stick to beat you with. Some albums were mixed differently in mono, purely because certain songs would sound better if they were altered to do so, and whilst the mono pressings of “Sell Out” and “The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn” would later become highly desirable because of their noticeably different sound on certain songs, this was not specifically done to try and get the public to buy the same album twice. After all, I am not sure these differences were even common knowledge at the time, and who would have thought about buying the same record twice in those days? If you had a new fangled stereo system, why would you buy anything other than a stereo LP? It’s like, if you own a Blu-Ray player, why would you buy a DVD? My sister did not buy mono and stereo copies of “Matthew And Son” when they first came out, and I doubt many people did either.

And even after the invention of the Cassette and the Eight Track cartridge, things did not change. Eight Tracks were especially popular in the US, where motorcars had an 8-track player fitted inside, and some releases, again, later on, became of interest to collectors as songs had had to be edited to “fit” onto the format, but this had never been done to try and reel the punters in - it was just the way it was. You might not even be able to find a machine to play them on now anyway.

To be honest with you, by the mid 70s, record collecting had actually become a bit grey. The Who, once prolific hit single makers and flipside creators, basically stopped doing B-sides altogether, and instead, post “Tommy”, became increasingly an albums band. 1975’s “By Numbers” was promoted by a 45 with an album track on each side, hitherto unheard of in Who land. The Stones managed an average of one single per LP during the decade, usually with another album track on the flip as well and housed in an attractive, but “standardised”, company sleeve. They had managed only two “proper” b-sides by the end of the decade. Picture sleeves just weren’t the done thing in the UK at the time either. And when they were, cost grounds often prevented too many from being produced - the later pressings of Bowie’s “Starman” were not housed in an RCA sleeve to entice the completists who had the earlier, picture sleeved copies, it was simply cheaper to release them that way.

But Punk and Disco changed things. For the latter, the 12” single became king. For the former, the use of the picture sleeve on singles became standard practice. Times were changing. In the 80s, they invented the Compact Disc. Vinyl and Cassettes became it’s rival, and the three of them started battling it out for supremacy. Singles began appearing on formats other than vinyl, simply because they could. The eighties became the decade of excess, with the likes of Frankie Goes To Hollywood leading the charge, issuing multiple variants of everything. Although some artists never quite went down the same route, the powers that be thought it was all getting dangerously out of hand and began to place restrictions on the number of formats a single could be released upon. By 1995, the restrictions on what was eligible for the singles chart had become quite strict.

It seems as though, just as the grey 70s got coloured in by punk, that the record companies decided to fight back after this happened. 7” singles, on the verge of dying a death in 1995, began to reappear in large numbers the following year, firstly as a retro style throwback with nothing rare on them, but often pressed on coloured vinyl or in fancy packaging, then later with the “non album b-side“ concept fully back in place. Dance/pop crossover acts like Madonna and Pet Shop Boys began issuing singles on additional “non chart eligible” formats during the latter part of the 90s, usually on 12", an attempt by the labels to make money whilst allegedly offering something special ‘to the fans‘. Albums would be re-released in a “special tour edition” version, where an album you already owned would reappear six months later with a free “bonus EP of live material”.

With illegal downloading on the rise by 1999, bands started to release new albums on the day of release as a limited edition, usually with a “free second CD of previously unheard new recordings”, to try and get people to buy the record on this basis, as opposed to downloading the (normal) album from Napster. Meanwhile, the introduction of new single formats in 2000, like the DVD single, at a time when three formats were still the “official” limit, effectively killed the “freedom of choice” aspect that the 80’s, for all it’s excess, did at least offer - and singles started appearing on three formats, all with something “exclusive”, meaning that if you wanted to own everything your favourite band had to offer, you had to buy the same single three times to get it all. It all felt a bit more aggressive, from a marketing viewpoint, than what had happened before. Poor Nipper, previously he only had to listen to a 78 to hear the new music from his master, now he had to swap discs multiple times, often with the last song a poor demo of something that was originally quite good in the first place.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to beat the bootleggers, bands like Pearl Jam decided to officially release virtually EVERY show they played on CD, whilst groups where band members had died and had given up the ghost 30 years before, like The Doors, announced they had “discovered” hours and hours of tapes that would then be released, via the internet, on a series of forthcoming albums that, a decade later, were still trickling out. It all felt like there was just too much to buy.

When I first started buying records in my early teens (maybe earlier, I can't really remember), there was admittedly - of course - an occasional element of quirkiness involved in what I saw, records designed deliberately to entice the punters even back then. I grew up in a house of Bowie obsessives, and became one myself, and in the early 80s, bought some of the RCA “45rpm cash in” reissues where the a-side or b-side had not appeared on a Bowie LP. I quite liked the concept of the picture disc, and so bought “Drive In Saturday” (backed with the non-LP cover of “Round And Round”) on a 7” picture disc. I bought the “non UK” album “Bowie At The Tower Philadelphia”, a single slab of vinyl with half the “David Live” album on it, because at the time, I only owned the complete “David Live” on a copy made on a TDK tape of my sister’s vinyl original. But I was fascinated by the fact that it was made in Holland, so even after I finally bought a proper “David Live“, I was still quite pleased I had a copy. In late 1991, a Record Collector article about the “Top 200 Madonna Rarities” intrigued me, with it’s stories of acetates, uncut picture discs, foreign singles, promo only remixes, and the like. I was obsessed with Madonna and made the decision to try and hunt all of them down. Fat chance. But the “visual” aspect of the records was particularly appealing, and I began to apply certain collecting rules to records which would determine if I needed to buy them or not. If the record had new material, that was a no-brainer, but coloured vinyl and singles in different covers were in. I ended up in a record shop in Ramsgate in Christmas 1991 where I picked up the pink vinyl US edition of The Stranglers’ “Something Better Change” 7“, housed in a different cover to boot - a double whammy. It just felt like it was something “do-able” to try and buy this sort of stuff.

When I started to inhabit record shops on a regular basis during 1991, the popularity of ALL the formats of the time still allowed you an element of choice. So, you could buy some fancy picture disc if you wanted, but it would usually be another format where the really meaty stuff really was. Madonna’s “Crazy For You” reissue may well have appeared on five formats, but only two were of musical interest - the 12” and CD included a unique remix of “Into The Groove” that the others didn‘t. But the 7” was still popular with the ‘floating voter’ - people who wanted to own the hit they had heard on the radio, in the form they heard it on the radio - as it was cheap. The cassette was popular with the Walkman crowd. And so whilst the cool kids would radiate to the formats that went someway to rehabilitating the EP format, the others were of interest to the latest generation of pop kids. But as the nineties progressed, the “short play” formats fell out of favour as the new chart rules restricted the opportunities for their existence, whilst the technological cleverness of the CD saw it become the format of choice. In turn, single sales dipped as people moved away from vinyl and tapes, but refused to pay £2.99 for an EP when all they wanted was “the hit”. However, the labels carried on regardless, issuing as many formats as the rules would allow (plus more) with diminishing returns.

When iTunes solved the problems facing the floating voters, allowing them to buy “the hit” for less than a pound, the virtual killing of the physical single resulted in a catch 22 situation. Less singles were being made, demand dropped even further as shops stopped stocking them, meaning that when somebody did decide to issue a 45, few copies were to be pressed, and so the price had to be set unrealistically high to ensure the labels did not incur too big a loss, meaning that only the rich kids could actually afford it. If singles had been too expensive to start with, well, now, it was just stupid. And to make matters worse, it was the polar opposite of what had happened in the sixties, where the 45 was being pitched at people who only had pocket money to spend. Now, you needed a credit card just to buy the latest Arctic Monkeys single.

Which is where we are today. Record collecting has become an almost upper class hobby, where Boxsets of albums everybody already owns are appearing at £80 a pop. As the noughties progressed, the visual aspect of records being used to entice punters got joined, and then overtaken, by a seemingly never ending stream of B-sides and previously unreleased outtakes turning up on just about everything anybody ever released. Reissues of albums on CD that had already been reissued, earlier, on CD, appeared again and again. Artists who had never recorded a flipside in their life began filling up their latest CD Single with brand new remix after brand new remix. As I started to think twice about paying a fiver for a blue vinyl 7” single with nothing rare on, these started to get replaced by blue vinyl 7” singles which had “previously unheard outtakes” on the other side. And so as I tried to avoid buying certain records, the labels found ways to stop me from being able to do so.

It reached a point where virtually every single was appearing with an exclusive new B-side, where every album was being issued or reissued in “limited edition” form. There were very few “pointless” records being made, and where there were, you felt guilty about buying a bonus track less version of an album where a bonus track filled edition also existed. Because, going back to why you started collecting in the first place, you wanted to own everything your favourite band had recorded, etc etc etc.

It all got too much. Real life started to take over, and after I got married, I couldn’t bring myself to buy the latest coloured vinyl Biffy Clyro 7” because it was more than the price of an evening meal. As I too began to adopt the floating voter approach, and only bought singles by those for whom I more or less had the existing “set” (Madonna, Britney, Girls Aloud, The Stranglers, probably a few others), I began to firstly look at how you could plug the gaps caused by my non-purchases. Singles boxsets, for some artistes, were all the rage - and this site was launched in order to, piece by piece, look at them. And then as iTunes began to destroy the charts, as the floating voters poisoned the hit parade in the same way they had in 1985, I felt a twinge of nostalgia for the old 45 and began thinking, “perhaps I should start buying more of them again”. And in doing so, watched bemused as the latest (2 track) Morrissey 45 was priced up at £6.99 in my local HMV, whilst a copy of (an expanded) “Viva Hate” would be in the same shop for a fiver. The value for money aspect, simply, had gone straight out the window. I am still trying to keep up with the singles, and sometimes, the albums as well, but the days of buying a super deluxe boxset to get a disc full of “alternate takes” is possibly behind me.

This, in some respects, is why the site is called the "Music Collector" site, rather than the "Record Collector" site. I don't really care if you have a black and gold "Please Please Me", my CD edition plays the same songs thankyou very much. But record companies began to realise that record collecting was sometimes more about the records themselves, rather than the actual music, and so began to exploit the fanbases. Over the remainder of this year, I shall look in greater detail as to how this happened. How we got the ludicrous situation where a concept album like “Quadrophenia” got reissued as a boxset costing ten times as much as it did when I bought my copy in 1994, which included a DVD with “half” of the album only remixed in surround sound, because Pete ‘ran out of time to do the whole record’. "Quadrophenia", may I remind you, is an album you are supposed to listen to in order, in full, from start to finish. How we got to the ridiculous situation where the latest (physical) quite-nice Manics single appeared on two different 7” editions, between them costing more than the price of the near flawless “The Holy Bible”. I do love music. And I do love records. But record collecting? Well, that’s a long story. Tune in next month to see where it all started to go wrong...

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