Wednesday, 2 July 2014

How I Learned To Hate Record Collecting: Part 7 - Late 90s, Early 00s

From a record collecting point of view, the UK market had an air of “vanilla” about it come late 1995. The restriction on the number of singles formats, coupled with the rise of the Double-CD single set, had more or less destroyed freedom of choice, with format number three often a tokenistic Cassette release with nothing unusual on music wise - released even though Cassettes were dipping in popularity. Over in the LP charts, vinyl and tape were also being marginalised, as CD’s offered extra tracks unable to be found on those editions.

By the start of 1996, Blur had started to run out of B-sides for “The Great Escape” promo campaign. Having sourced BBC recorded material for the flipsides of “Country House” and “The Universal” the previous year, there were no other suitable avenues to venture down in the vaults. As so it was that “Stereotypes”, issued early that year, became the first Blur 45 to actually appear on 45 for well over a year, as opposed to being issued on two CD editions. Issued the day before Valentines Day, “Stereotypes” was housed in a uniquely mocking ’Valentines’ cover pressed on pink vinyl, an obvious reference to the “wife swapping is the future” line in the song. OK, so the b-sides were nothing more than some, but not all, of the ones off the CD edition, a problem that had also afflicted the MC pressing of “Country House”, but the fact that it was actually out on vinyl, was possibly a sign that something was happening. Yes, it had “gimmick” written all over it, but in an age where the Compact Disc was striding across the globe like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, it was nice to see.

Of course, over in “proper” indie land, the 7” had never really gone away. Labels like Fierce Panda and Fantastic Plastic had continued to release singles on the format, often issuing them on 45 and nothing else, but now it seemed as though the mainstream was catching on. By the end of 1996, bands like Fluffy had taken to not only issuing 7” singles on coloured vinyl, but were also including “vinyl only B-sides” on some of their releases (see the black and white sleeved version of “Nothing”, with it‘s cover of “I‘m A Boy“ on side 2).

As the millennium approached, more and more bands began moving towards the 7” in order to use it as a home for spare flipsides. It became increasingly commonplace to abandon the Tape format altogether, and to try and get bands in the studio to record extra tracks to spread out across a vinyl pressing and two CD versions where possible, or at least issue a “gimmicky“ vinyl release pitched at the collectors market. All of the Blur singles from their self titled 1997 effort appeared as coloured vinyl 7s, whilst Sleeper’s “Romeo Me” was the recipient of a 7” with a unique B-side, which meant that when you added up the CD flipsides, resulted in no less than SEVEN new songs being released for the first time (well, remixes and alternate takes, but you get the drift). By the time 1998 came around, the chart regulators placed restrictions on the number of songs allowed per format (down from four to three), and this made the 7” even more important, as issuing something on this format allowed for more new B-sides to be released per 45 than if you didn‘t issue it on 7“. For anybody who hadn’t gone down this route already, now was the time to do so. If you didn’t, you were restricting the outlets upon which to shoehorn your new material. And so it was that vinyl only B-sides and coloured vinyl singles began flooding out, with everyone from The Divine Comedy (“Postcard To Rosie” on the back of “Generation Sex”) to Catatonia (the yellow vinyl “Road Rage”) turning to the humble 7” to help them hitch their latest efforts into the charts. Even a post-”Different Class” Pulp ended up reissuing a number of mid 90s singles on vinyl either for the first time (“Something Changed“), or on coloured vinyl second time around, almost as if they were apologising for not doing it in the first place, as if they had not been “indie” enough when these singles were first released commercially. Vinyl had made something of a hip comeback.

Meanwhile, in the dance/pop crossover land where Madonna was, the consensus was that if the 7” could have a comeback, then so could the 12”. “Frozen” was issued on the format, Madonna’s first vinyl release in the UK since mid 1995, although there was admittedly nothing on that edition that wasn’t on the CD. But it was a start, and Madonna 12” singles became the norm - again - from that point on. Furthermore, even the humble Cassette began fighting back, with both Madonna and The Divine Comedy issuing Tape-only flipsides before the end of 98. It was becoming increasing commonplace for the collectors to have to hunt down all three formats of a single, either to nab all the new b-sides, or to get all the flipsides plus a coloured vinyl pressing, irrelevant of who it was and which genre it slotted into.

That wasn’t all. Not widely reported was the existence in the mid 90s of the “non chart eligible” 12”, which was usually issued as a fourth format the week after the third one. But by 1998, it was becoming more common with, again, Ms Ciccone leading the way. Sometimes these releases would be simple “for the fans” style releases, offering nothing rare (“Drowned World”) but at other times, the format was used to stick out material that had failed to get on the other formats because of the chart rules governing ‘number of songs‘. And it wasn’t only the 12” format that was used, as “Ray Of Light” appeared on two CD editions, with the second one the non chart eligible one (the 12” pressing had been released beforehand as a standard pressing, and did count towards the charts).

Soon enough, anybody with a dance/pop crossover trait was getting in on the act. Many non chart eligible 12” releases began appearing with at least one new “mix” in situ, turning them into an essential purchase for even the slightly-hardcore-but-not-quite fan - see the 1999 PSB release of “I Don’t Know What You Want”. Furthermore, as these releases were not eligible for the charts, then the usual rules concerning how long they were and how many songs they had did not apply, and some of these releases began appearing as totally over the top pressings, such as the follow up PSB release “New York City Boy”, which appeared as a 5 track double 12” in a gatefold sleeve! Of course, it came with a price tag to match.

Why were the labels doing this? Well, they obviously figured that the cost of producing singles that were not going to help their chart position would be outweighed by the profits they would make if they sold them all. Previously, if UK chart rules had prevented a “US only” remix from being released, well, that was the way it was - but now, this was a way around it. By the mid noughties, everyone from Beyonce to Goldfrapp, and Depeche Mode to - yes - Blur were getting in on it.

It wasn’t quite like this in the LP world. Eventually, the Cassette died out, whilst most vinyl pressings had an air of “retro-ness” to them - rarely would a vinyl album include something unique, and when one was pressed, it was usually on heavy vinyl, cost more than the CD, and seemed like a niche format, rather than one the record company were really encouraging you to buy - over in the singles charts, the marketing of the 12” single seemed more “in your face”, but vinyl albums now had a cult feel to them. It was sometimes difficult to know if they even existed, as smaller HMVs tended to hide them away so you couldn’t easily find them. Some vinyl pressings included extra tracks and/or unique mixes of selected songs (such as Pulp’s 1998 offering “This Is Hardcore”) but more often than not, there was some limited edition CD pressing or “tour edition” reissue knocking about, which included songs completely absent from the vinyl edition, which thus made it rather defunct. Every so often, an album would appear on coloured vinyl, or with a free 7” single inside (see another Catatonia release, “Equally Cursed And Blessed“), but really, the album world was being so dominated by the Compact Disc, that most vinyl albums from the period were often of interest to completists only. This explains why some of the pressings from this period are now worth huge amounts of money, as relatively few were pressed because demand had dropped so much.

Come 2000, and the singles market was overflowing with multiple formats, multiple B-sides, and multiple everything. Singles containing nothing but remixes of the a-side were again allowed to play for longer than one without, and when you thus bought one that had been multiformatted, it meant you ended up with about 80 minutes worth of mixes across two discs (see Dannii’s late 90s effort “Disrememberance” as one such example). Pop acts meanwhile decided to resurrect the Tape format for the singles market, with the likes of Atomic Kitten not just issuing Cassette pressings, but including MC-only B-sides and remixes on the format as well. By 2001, format number three could be either a 7”, 12”, Tape or even a DVD (more about that next month) - and virtually every time, there would be something on that format that wasn’t on the CD pressings. The usual trick on the 12” was to include at least one “non-CD” remix (see J Lo’s “I’m Real”) and when you then factored in the existence of a fourth non chart eligible release, well, you can see how much product was being tossed out. Madonna even issued the likes of “American Pie” on not one, nor two, but THREE non chart eligible releases, done by the label to try and maximise profits from somebody who they knew would “sell”.

Ultimately, this was going to cause problems. I remember one day coming out of HMV having purchased all of the required formats for singles released by people I liked for the week. It totalled something ridiculous like £70. I wasn’t even going to play some of these singles, whilst there was at least one 12” in the pile with it’s “vinyl only mix” that was thus only going to be on the turntable for about eight minutes. This was a lot of money to pay for songs that, in reality, were unlikely to improve my quality of life. The labels were basically making me spend money on things that had they not existed in the first place, I wouldn’t have missed. It did feel as though some sort of line had been crossed, that the “vanilla” scene of 1995 had been replaced by a completely over the top approach to the singles market, where not only was each format being pushed at the consumer, but was being done by offering something “unique” each time, making you feel guilty if you refused to buy it. As somebody who loved lots of bands and lots of singers, this meant the total outlay per week on new 45’s - and albums, new and old - had increased significantly. It was only my “ever increasing credit limit” on the credit card that actually allowed me to buy these things, at no point was “real cash” being used to cover these costs. Something had to give eventually, and we shall look at how the industry tried to fix this in a future article. In the next two blogs, we shall look at two of the new formats that came in post-1999 that helped confuse matters even more - one that eventually failed abysmally, and the one that took the album market to a higher state of unit shifting insanity.

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