Friday, 6 June 2014

How I Learned To Hate Record Collecting: Part 6 - The “Tour Edition”

In the summer of 1995, I went to see Sheryl Crow play the Hammersmith Odeon, or whatever it was possibly called that year. In the run up to the gig, word filtered through that she would also be doing an acoustic in store show at the HMV on Oxford Street in the afternoon before the Hammersmith show. So, I headed into London early to attend said freebie.

Once I was there, it was announced that Crow would also be signing copies of her debut LP, the accompanying tour being the final set of shows she was playing to help plug this now two-year-old record. At the time, I was still in my “I hate CD’s” phase, and so opted to simply buy the cheapest available format of the record to get it signed - the Cassette pressing, even though this was the very same format I owned it on already.

Had I thought ‘outside the box’, then I would have bought instead the 2-CD “Tour Edition” reissue of the record that was also in the racks that day. The Tour Edition reissue was the latest record company “fad” designed to boost sales, and thus profits, and in a long winded and roundabout way, the concept is still very much in place - in one form or another - today. It changed forever, the concept of the “album”, how it started, and how it finished. What we were now getting was expanded versions of albums that now seemed to end with some random song on a second CD. All the thought and care that had gone into making an album ‘flow’ properly, was basically discarded by the record companies en masse.

This was how it worked. Somebody would release a new album. You would buy it. Said artiste would announce a tour due to commence in five months time. You would buy a ticket, and then would listen to the album in order to learn the new songs, some of which were obviously due to feature at said gig. Then, about a month before the show was due to take place, the album would be reissued as a double disc tour edition. Basically, this version of the album would feature the original regular album on disc 1, but would come with a free “bonus CD”, usually consisting of previously unreleased live material - to tie in with the whole “concert” concept. You, as somebody who wanted to own everything said artiste released, was thus forced to re-buy an album you already owned.

Sounds like a bit of a con? Well, yes, it was really. But the labels were laughing. For the person who already owned this LP, they were basically paying twice the amount to simply own two different versions of the same thing. For the more casual fan, the idea of a limited edition release with extra songs was often the nudge needed to get these people to shell out the cash. In one fell swoop, sales of the record would increase twofold.

Crow’s album (“Tuesday Night Music Club”, for those of you who have been living under a rock for 21 years), was probably not the first such reissue, but it’s one of the earliest I can remember. Whilst the concept of reissuing old albums with extra archive tracks was by now well established (see that Costello campaign from the early 90s), repressing something that was barely six months old was a relatively new phenomenon. After all, with one or two exceptions, it was still possible to buy a new album on tape, and not miss out in any way in terms of “music” (see Bowie‘s 1995 effort “Outside“ for example). But soon, the tour edition concept would catch on - and in a big way. In the years that followed, it became increasingly difficult to find a new release by a major artist that was NOT being reissued as soon as it started to fall out of the charts.

The trouble with these double disc things was, the VFM aspect was - again - sorely lacking. There were, as I understand it, strict chart rules governing these releases. Basically, if it had too many songs on disc 2, I do believe it would be treated as an “expanded” pressing, and would not count as additional sales towards the standard versions, thus meaning the chart position would not be boosted - it could still chart if it sold enough units, but would chart as a separate release from the “standard” copy. And so, the running time on disc 2 was often rather scant, the length of an EP or if you were lucky, a mini album. Meaning that if you were buying the record for a second time, you might find yourself being asked to fork out £13.99 for 15 minutes of music. A bit dodgy, if you ask me. But still they kept coming.

Occasionally, an attempt would be made to try and make you feel like you weren’t being completely cheated, such as housing the reissue in a new sleeve. Sometimes, this would be done by using a completely new cover photo (such as the 1997 reissue of Crow’s 1996 self titled second record), sometimes, the artwork would be rejigged so the front cover image would be sort-of-new. Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” reissue came in a ‘new’ cover, simply by taking the original fold out booklet, but then placing the folds in different places, so that the original cover image ended up somewhere inside, and a photo previously buried in the middle of the artwork became the cover photo. Cheeky, but kinda clever.

Some bands, however, seemed so embarrassed/horrified by their label bosses that they decided to offer the “new” material as a separate release. When Garbage’s second album was given a 2-CD reissue, the four track live EP that was being given away was also made available as a mail order only single via the band’s website - it’s probably worth more than the actual album nowadays, but at the time, the cost of the EP on it’s own was only a fraction of the double disc pressing. Thing was, very few bands went down this route at all.

Every so often, the tour reissue was a bit pointless, as material that had been released elsewhere was used to pad the revamp out. When Blur’s self titled 1997 effort appeared again in the summer, it came with a second disc of live material, which whilst mostly unreleased in the UK, had in fact all appeared on a Euro only CD EP called “Blur Live”. When Madonna’s 2000 effort “Music” turned up again in 2001, the second disc came with various remixes and alternate versions of songs from the record, all of which had been spread out across releases from around the globe. But for anybody who didn’t already have this stuff, well I guess it was like manna from heaven.

Where bands weren’t reissuing tour edition versions of recent records, they were instead issuing, on the day of release, “limited” editions of their newest long player. This seemed to be done as a response to the rise of illegal downloading, an attempt to shoehorn something exclusive onto the record that the bootleggers wouldn’t have had access to. Sometimes, these releases just saw the album housed in some fancy packaging (Pet Shop Boys’ “Nightlife”), sometimes there would be an exclusive CD-Rom part to the disc (Blur again, this time with 1999’s “13”). But more common, was the decision to include a bonus EP a la the tour edition concept. Now, the idea of issuing an album in expanded form on day 1 was not new - as far back as 1977 saw the debut albums by The Pistols and The Stranglers coming with free 7” singles tucked inside - but it was now becoming increasingly commonplace. Even live albums by artists who were no longer with us were somehow being subjected to “a free EP of new material” on the day of release (see Jeff Buckley’s “Mystery White Boy”).

Again, if the second disc was too long, the sales would be split between “standard” and “limited” editions - which explains how REM’s 2003 Warner Brothers “Best Of” charted twice in the first week of release. And so, in order to help push the sales of the so called “limited” edition in the direction of the standard one, the running order was often keep short and sweet, thus increasing the possibility of a number 1 album.

Another approach was to release the second disc not as a CD, but as a DVD - easy to do as they were the same size. But again, the running time of the DVD had to be under a certain length to avoid this version of the album being counted as a “limited” pressing, and so, many of these releases were “watch once and never again” style releases, a promo video for the lead single, an interview with the band, and, well, not much else. Historically interesting if you can be bothered to ever dig them out again, but I never really am. The labels would tell you that this sort of stuff was being done “for the fans”, but I can’t help but think my life would not be much worse had the initial pressing of QOTSA’s “Lullabies To Paralyze” been on one disc only.

And that album brings up another bizarre concept. Something that really kicked in in the mid 00’s. The “Special Edition”. Now, these releases were restricted, mostly, to releases by Universal Records artists, but given that so many labels had been swallowed up by other labels by this point, it meant every other artist was thus subjected to it. Here’s the thing - the rise of the internet saw cash savvy web geeks discover websites like CD Wow, who would routinely make available albums more cheaply via the power of the net, thanks due to dubious tax laws. In the UK, Universal were grumbling about how they were losing out on hard earned cash this way, as people simply paid £8 for a record that was gathering dust in Zavvi for £12. And so, they started to add a couple of extra tracks to the UK editions of the albums, that you wouldn’t get on your imported copy from CD Wow, and they would call them “Special Editions”. They weren’t that special - basically, two songs that in a previous life would have turned up as B-sides. But a lot of records had them - “What Will The Neighbours Say” by Girls Aloud, Semisonic’s “All About Chemistry”, The Oo’s “Endless Wire”...I doubt Universal were on the breadline by this point, but they were determined not to lose out financially.

The concept of “slightly tarting up” your new album was then re-employed across the industry during the late noughties by making new albums available as “Deluxe Versions”. This was a real con. Basically, an album would appear as, say, a 12 track “normal” version, and a 16 track “deluxe” one. The normal one cost less of course. But guess what people? All of the tracks on the “deluxe” one quite happily fitted onto one disc, suggesting that the two different versions would surely have cost EXACTLY THE SAME AMOUNT to press in the pressing plant, and yet you were being asked to pay more for the one which dragged on for a bit longer. Unbelievable. But again, loads of people did this (see Bowie’s “The Next Day”, or the second Marina And The Diamonds effort). Occasionally, an artist would release an album on day one as an expanded “deluxe” version (Lana Del Rey’s “Born To Die”), and would then reissue it again several months later in an even more expanded form as a “tour” edition (Lana Del Rey’s “Born To Die”, and yep, Bowie‘s “The Next Day“). In an attempt to obscure the ludicrousness of this, some revamps began appearing as retitled efforts to try and confuse punters into thinking they were buying a brand new record, rather than an old one with seven new songs shoved onto the end (Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”, which became “Bright Lights”, or Pixie Lott’s “Turn It Up” and “Turn It Up Louder”). The first time this happened, it seemed cute. Fourth or fifth time round though, and it starts to grate.

It got to the point where I became increasingly irritated about having to rebuy something I already owned, and so I stopped buying “new” albums altogether, deciding to wait for the almost certain “tour” edition. But then, so many “new” albums started also appearing as “limited” day one releases, that I simply ran out of money. Nowadays, my incentive for buying an album on it’s day of release simply seems to be based on if I can be bothered or not. Within a decade, the record industry had worn me down. Buying records was no longer fun, but a chore - a chore that cost large amounts of money when you decided to take the plunge. The money needed just to keep up with all the new material being tossed away on this repressing, and that first pressing, got too much. I accepted defeat, and gave up. It does mean there are some albums that appeared ten years ago that I have still not got round to finally buying, and if I do, it will only be if it turns up on Amazon - with bonus disc or not - for less than a fiver. Isn’t record collecting supposed to be enjoyable? So why did the record companies make you feel like you had to jump through hoops to keep up? Why did they have to make it all so hard and painfully miserable?

Maybe I just like too MUCH music - if I only liked Bowie, I’d only have to buy an album once every two years. Perhaps that’s what it is. But why should I be punished for loving so many different singers, and so many different bands? I guess I should be asking Warners, EMI and everyone else that question. I began to feel that I was being punished for loving both The Ramones and The Supremes. And believe it or not kids, if there wasn’t already enough “product” in the shops as the millennium approached, it was about to get even worse.

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