Same old song

Reissued and remastered CDs give classic releases a fresh face
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  December 8, 2009


Most music fans can probably be forgiven, at this point, for being doubting Thomases at the alleged demise of the major-label music industry. After all, wasn't last year supposed to be the final hurrah for any kind of box-set bonanza? Wasn't the death knell for the super-album event already rung last year, and the year before, and the year before that?

The truth of the matter is far less dramatic: as every year piles up, there is just more and more product for the music biz to package up in heat-shrinked plastic wrap for us, the music consumer. And don't let those dire sales figures mislead you — music has become a 24-hour soundtrack to our civilized existence. Smart phones, iPods, what-have-you: they are just more ways for us to be listening to music in more places at more times than ever before. If that means that there are no multi-platinum guarantees anymore for mainstay artists, it also means that new artists are promoting their shiny new wares in an ever more crowded marketplace.

A good analogy for the reissue business is the end of the 1999 film Being John Malkovich, wherein an elderly group seeks out a way, every generation, to enter a younger portal, thus living forever. Substitute the group of old codgers in this analogy with, say, old codgers like the Rolling Stones and Neil Young (both of whom are midway through a multi-year CD remaster campaign of their back catalogue) — the challenge for the old guard, then, is to find access to this younger portal. Whether with Rock Band or movie soundtracks, older artists are clinging on to dear life with a tenacity not seen in previous pop-music generations. As rock and roll enters its (ulp!) seventh decade, the backlog has started to pile up. We see this not only in lavish remastered reissues of albums that have been released a million times before, but with the remastering of albums that are not that old to begin with.

In fact, the culture of remastering and reissuing has become so commonplace as part of the music-buying experience that a new CD hasn't really succeeded until it has had an official victory lap reissue as a "deluxe edition," replete with bonus tracks. If this seems like a desperate move on the record industry to dredge the last drop of capital out of, say, the most recent releases by acts like Bat For Lashes and Lady GaGa (both of whom have recently hit the shops with two-disc reissues of albums that are less than a year old), it can also be seen as a windfall for music fans, as we are courted by musicians with a continuous opening of the vaults, an audio fire sale with no end in sight.

Can you even remember a time when artists would release albums with no enticing trinkets attached? If you are a fan of older music, it is no longer a matter of "I wonder if they will ever remaster this classic record?" — now it's more like, "Wow, 10 of my favorite artists are remastering their entire catalogues with bonus tracks and slamming sound — what furniture can I sell to buy them all?" If you are a dedicated music fan, start thinking about a pre-holiday yard sale. (Just remember to hang on to your CD shelves.)

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