Wednesday, 9 April 2014

How I Learned To Hate Record Collecting: Part 4 - The Double CD Single Set

Imagine the scene. You are watching a film in the cinema when, halfway through, it stops, and you are ushered out of the theatre. You are told that if you want to see the rest of the film, then you will need to pay again to get back in. Some people decide that they can more or less guess what happens, so decide not to bother, and head home. A bunch of latecomers, stragglers who missed the start of the film, are also given the opportunity to enter on payment of the entrance fee, and figure that they can probably catch up with what happened in the first half of the film, so pay their money. You decide to pay as well, mainly because you want to see the whole picture, and so end up shelling out twice as much as everyone else to see the complete film. Not two films, one film. You have paid twice as much as everyone else, but it is difficult to know if your life is any the better for this experience.

This, dear reader, is the ludicrous premise upon which the “Double CD Single Set” was born. The most blatant cash guzzling trick pulled by the UK music industry, it didn’t happen in some overseas territories, certainly not in The States, where the maxi single format was usually long enough to gather together all the various B-sides and remixes that were being planned to appear on the flipside of the latest single by whoever it was. But in the UK, what started off as a thought out, collector friendly approach to a single release, became another industry standard, which by the end of it’s reign in the late noughties, had simply become the latest in a long line of record company scams, the labels issuing these things with little love or attention, tossing them out en masse with little fanfare which did nothing but to further (un)enhance the reputation of the music biz of being a money driven machine, treating the fans with a certain amount of contempt.

The Double CD Single format worked, initially, like this. A single would come out on the usual formats. By the time the Double CD approach was being properly tried out, format restrictions on the number of editions allowed per 45 were in force, and by the time it really kicked in in 1992, four formats was the official max. So, your favourite band would issue a 7”, a 12” maybe, and a CD. No fourth format. The CD would come in some magnificently OTT packaging, a glorious fold out sleeve, in a box too big to fit on your shelves, and inside, there would be space for two discs. But there were not two discs. Only one. In the space where the other disc would have been, there would be a CD shaped piece of cardboard, with the legend “CD2 - out next week. Features blah blah blah”.

A week later, that fourth format would appear. It was the other CD. Invariably, the packaging would be minimalist, a CD tucked inside a simple card sleeve which would rub against the playing surface of the disc and leave it scratched as you tugged it out. But this mattered not, because the idea was for you to remove the CD from said crappy packaging, insert into your big box where your piece of “blah blah blah” card was, and voila! You had a sort of maxi EP, or mini album, or something.

Whilst it was not unknown for multi formats to have been issued before, there was usually a more subtle approach. Where acts had previously issued two CD singles, it was usually that one was pressed as a picture disc, one not - but the songs on each were the same. It was not unknown for the 12” edition of a 45 to differ slightly from the Compact Disc one, but often, it was usually because the 12” went for a unique mix somewhere, and in doing so, had to omit something found on the CD edition - check out Madonna’s “Rescue Me” UK releases for one such set of examples. Otherwise, the track listings were really quite similar. But the Double CD Set was far more “intense”. Basically, nothing that was on the first disc - apart from, maybe, the mix of the a-side - could be found on the second. So, you could play your completed double disc set, and pretend that you were listening to some sort of “album”, albeit quite a short one, because none of the songs would repeat themselves.

Why did the labels do this? Well, for several reasons. One, of course, was for profits. Get Joe Public to buy this latest single twice, and you could make twice as much money as if you had stuck out instead, as format number 4, a 12” with the same songs on. Second, was that singles were starting to struggle in the UK. Sales were sluggish, and the hype surrounding most releases meant that by the time the single hit the shops, people had been informed of the release date about a month before, so everyone would rush down to HMV the day it came out, resulting in the single hitting the top end of the charts on week 1, and then dropping out of the charts altogether on week 2, as there was nobody left to buy the thing. Issuing CD2 on week 2, allowed for the second week sales to remain healthy, possibly healthy enough to see the chart position remain static, or even rise. But later on, as the double CD set became a common place chart fiddle, this approach was abandoned, and the two CD’s would appear in the shops together. This, however, had the alternative effect of possibly doubling those week 1 sales, thus increasing your chances of a number 1 record. Whatever method they used, the labels were quids in with this new invention.

At first, the concept of the double CD set was approached with a certain amount of “what do we do with it” confusion by some bands. The Stones began dabbling with the concept in the late 80s, when “Rock And A Hard Place” was issued on a number of CD editions, including one in a tongue shaped sleeve. But The Stones didn’t really have enough b-sides to go round, and so took to sticking old “hits” on the different editions. The idea behind this was that the CD was still relatively new, and a lot of people still owned these old records on vinyl, so it would allow them to obtain bits of the back catalogue on the new fangled Compact Disc format. Duran Duran were another band that did this. But the idea of making “Emotional Rescue” available on CD, but not the rest of the album from which it came, was obviously a bit stupid, and this concept largely fell by the wayside soon after. But as the concept of the double CD set became more and more commonplace, bands found themselves having to ensure they had enough material in the vaults to go round.

One get out clause was to record gigs, or to grab hold of Radio Session material, to held pad out your CD’s, and there was obviously an interest factor whenever your new single was going to appear with “previously unreleased live tracks”. Don’t get me wrong, the appearance of BBC tracks on the flipside of “Jesus Hairdo” by The Charlatans was of interest to the geeky collector in me, but you could equally argue, given that these were just alternate versions of songs you already knew, what was the point? Especially when the vaults were filled with mountains of stuff that could just as validly been issued as a b-side, but which never was. For every Peel session that was being used as a source for a couple of b-sides, there was at least one more that wasn’t being touched at all.

Anyway, the concept was in. And a number of bands at least tried to make sure that the material was being presented in a thoughtful way. I have already mentioned on this very site the clever clever approach the Inspiral Carpets took with their late 1992 singles “Generations” and “Bitches Brew”, where the b-sides were all live recordings split into “original release date” chunks, so that the earlier material was on “Generations”, and the latter period stuff was on the follow up 45. But equally, there were some releases where you wondered if the bands were going to be able to keep this up - The Stranglers’ “Heaven Or Hell” was issued on two CD editions, but with only three tracks on each disc (the Inspirals releases had four), it suggested that the vaults weren’t always quite as vast as they could have been.

Once the idea of releasing the two CD editions on separate weeks fell out of favour, the other way of showing you which CD was which was to put them in different covers. Slowly but surely, the idea of CD1 coming in a fancy pack got abandoned, and you simply were able to determine which CD you were buying by it’s cover. Blur’s 1995 effort “Country House” was housed in a simple thin jewel case, but the CD2 edition, a four track live EP from a then-recent gig at the Mile End Stadium in East London, was easily identifiable by it’s “Canary Wharf” cover. A nice touch. But given the whole gig had been broadcast on radio, and thus heavily bootlegged, again, you began to wonder exactly what you were getting for your money. It felt like there was a element of barrel scraping being conducted.

But by now, vinyl and cassettes were being marginalised by the industry itself, and so in order to ensure they were able to make enough singles available in the shops, most labels figured they had to issue multiple CD editions, because there wasn’t much else that people were interested in, although indie bands clung onto the 7”, and pop acts carried on with the Cassette format to a certain extent. But the double CD single set was an obvious marketing tool, as it accounted for two of the three formats that were now allowed in the UK, it was just a case of finding material to keep it up. Acts who had previously been almost exempt from the format, like Madonna, also eventually succumbed - the get out clause with Miss Ciccone was to stick some remixes on CD1, and some different remixes on CD2. Simple. But it was difficult to wonder if this was sheer laziness on the part of the labels, because it seemed a bit “cheap”. New b-sides were obviously nice, live recordings a bit of a cop out but intriguing, but different Victor Calderone mixes on different releases? Honestly, who cared?

Trouble was, the approach was now industry standard. It was more or less law that any single appearing on CD, would have to appear on two different versions. What had started as a quirky, “for the hardcore fans” style bit of trickery pokery, was now being viewed as “accepted record company practice”. So accepted, that some acts not only saw their singles issued in non-fancy packaging, but the labels often didn’t even bother to do anything with the artwork itself - Beck’s “Sexx Laws” released in 1999 used the exact same sleeve on each CD edition, the only difference being that each one had a sticker telling you which edition it was. It all seemed very disrespectful to the punter who was being asked to shell out £2.99 twice for these things.

By the millennium, the idea of NOT releasing a double CD set was almost an alien concept, and bands were being “told” to go into the studio to actually record B-sides. Previously, B-sides had been the odd stuff that couldn’t slot onto the new album, left in a box with people unsure where to put them - now, bands were being asked to record specific songs to pad out their next 45. Some bands were less than impressed at being asked to do this, Rick McMurray of Ash actually refusing to turn up for a 1998 “b-sides session” that had been arranged in order to produce material for the planned chart attack of “Jesus Says”.

But resistance was futile. By the time we got to the Noughties, the double CD set was established as standard, as standard as breathing. Format number three was by now usually also an “essential” buy, as there was often a coloured vinyl 7”, or a DVD with some video stuff, or a Cassette single with an “only on this format!” flipside. The days when you could choose which format to buy were over - you were being expected to buy all of them.

Furthermore, you could - at a later date - feel really cheated when the b-sides you’d slavishly paid out for all turned up on a compilation or a boxset, making you wonder why you’d made the effort to go and buy them in the first place. I cottoned onto this at some point, and began only buying the “CD2” version of the latter period Girls Aloud singles, and then - hallelujah! A CD Singles boxset with repressingss of the singles in their - yes! - CD1 sleeves, complete with all relevant flipsides, was issued soon after. That’ll teach you Polydor! I think I saved about £10 in two years. Oh well, it’s better than a slap in the face.

Don’t get me wrong, there would sometimes be some interesting stuff tossed away on some of these singles - the Franz Ferdinand single where one of their album tracks appeared with the drummer singing instead, that French version of “Can’t Speak French”, Siouxsie And The Banshees having an (acoustic) crack at “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, this was the sort of stuff that you couldn’t really shoe horn onto a “normal album”. I like the concept of the b-side. It was just that there seemed to be an awful lot of them about, and it all costs money to collect them all. Bands in the sixties would manage four or five b-sides a year. Now, it was four or five PER SINGLE.

The double CD single set only really died out because the single itself died out. When Kimberley and Co returned with the Northern Soul whammy of “The Promise” in 2008, it appeared on just one CD. There was a mail order 7”, granted, but no CD2 edition. Why? Because the evils of iTunes was causing digital downloading to impact on the sale of physical singles, and the Jason Nevins remix of the a-side was only available to download as an inferior sounding MP3 file. We had gotten rid of the lunacy of the double CD single set, only to replace it with something far more heinous.

Whilst the double CD single set was a concept which, eventually, helped to virtually kill off the Cassette, and to turn vinyl into a niche “hipsters endorsed” format, it wasn’t alone in doing this. The industry itself contributed to the demise of freedom of choice and the painful long drawn out death of the physical single itself. Next month, we shall see what was going on in the first half of the nineties, and how the end result, in the long run, helped to destroy the old style 45 and to make people refer to albums no more as albums, but simply as “CD‘s“.

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