Assaying the Archives
Reissue reviews often raise as many questions as they answer as critics evaluate the merits of various titles and ponder why they turned out the way they did. The reissue business, more complex than most realize, is fraught with pitfalls. As one who has reviewed them for over 25 years, produced and compiled a few, and annotated over 300, I’ve seen those questions from both sides.
Reissues originate from varied sources. Major labels have dedicated reissue or “catalog” divisions (newly-merged Sony BMG Legacy, EMI Special Markets, WEA’s Rhino imprint) that handle nothing else. Independent outfits such as Koch or Collectables license from other labels. So do roots specialists such as England’s Ace or Germany’s Bear Family, who aim their pricey, encyclopedic box sets at the hardest of the hardcore.
Newer European labels capitalize on European Economic Community copyright laws that classify recordings older than 50 years as public domain. Anything newer is protected, but these labels legally reissue older material without paying owners or artists.
Such are the parameters. Now, the questions.
Why are some acts reissued often and others not at all? Every major label wants a breakout like Sony’s successful Robert Johnson box. Since that rarely happens, consistent, steady sales are a more realistic goal. That’s why most efforts focus on big names: Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Elvis, etc. While majors reissue some second or third-tier acts, smaller specialist labels are often more willing to risk producing collections on obscure artists.
How are repertoires determined? This point, which raises the hackles of buyers and critics alike, has subjective and objective answers. Whether compilers are label staffers or knowledgeable outsiders, personal preferences come into play to some degree. For hits-only collections, Joel Whitburn’s books, based on Billboard chart positions, provide safe choices. If existing packages contain big hits, some compilers focus on hits not included in those packages or add unique, outstanding B-sides of singles or album cuts selected to spotlight lesser-known facets of an artist.
Many compilations involve “cross-licensing,” or paying to use material owned by other labels. A producer-compiler of a collection for label A might be permitted to license thirteen tracks from outside labels. They may want five from label B, four from label C and four from label D, and might get all or only some, requiring alternative choices. If the other labels need label A’s material for their own projects, making deals often gets easier. One complication: Label C might specify that a cross-licensed set include no more than a specified percentage of its material. All this affects the final repertoire.
“Mechanicals” also affect selection. This is a fee paid per song per disc, to song publishers. If a given publisher handles a large amount of tunes on a compilation, fees (currently a bit over eight cents in the U.S.) can sometimes be negotiated downward, allowing a compiler to add tracks. Snags in negotiating mechanicals can knock songs — sometimes important ones — off a compilation.
Satisfying everyone is impossible. Labels unable to license certain tracks are usually as frustrated as critics or consumers. In late 2004, Bandit Records, co-owned by George Jones and Evelyn Shriver, issued 50 Years Of Hits, a two-disc, cross-licensed, career-spanning Jones collection minus any of his 1964-70 Musicor hits. Why? Bandit couldn’t come to terms with the Nashville firm that controls Musicor material. To their credit, Bandit admitted and explained the omission.
How do wrong versions of a tune wind up on some packages? Since alternate takes and mixes of the same numbers often exist, this can quickly become Nightmare Alley. In the ’50s and ’60s, 78-era music was “enhanced” for LP release by adding phony echo, fake stereo or even overdubbed instruments that compromise the original sound. Artists sometimes recorded different arrangements of a number. It’s incumbent on producers intent on using original hits to verify they’ve got the right versions.
Carelessness causes many errors, like a Bill Monroe/Monroe Brothers compilation that incorrectly added Charlie Monroe solo tracks. Labels may substitute later re-recordings, sometimes disclosing that fact, sometimes not. As stereo LP sales gained ground in the late 1950s, many country and pop acts re-recorded LPs of their mono hits in stereo. Compilers ignorant of that fact sometimes reissue the remakes. Producers of bargain CDs often throw them together quickly, with little concern over which versions they include.
How are rarities selected? Usually subjectively. If there’s room, adding outstanding or legendary outtakes is a no-brainer, particularly on box sets. Foraging for quality unissued material can yield stellar results, though not always without added expense. While reissues are cheaper to produce than contemporary releases even with remastering, pre-tape material from the 78 era requires added digital processing to reduce noise and enhance clarity. Later unreleased music on tape sometimes needs to be remixed or mixed from scratch. Deteriorating tapes necessitate special preservation (including controlled baking) before engineers can work with them.
A caveat regarding unreleased material: Many fans and collectors assume unreleased songs constitute automatic hidden treasure, a mindset that has sustained the bootleg business for decades. It’s not always so. Artists and producers reject material for a myriad of reasons. Some tracks stem from abandoned projects, suffer from musical faults, or simply didn’t work out. While forgotten gems languish in tape boxes, so also does mundane music with minimal historic or aesthetic value. Many alternate takes are nearly identical to the final, released versions. Even on all-inclusive Bear Family collections, outtakes sometimes prove less than earthshaking.
How much say do (living) artists have? Bob Dylan and a few others have contractual veto power over use of their material for any package. Only a few acts own their masters outright, most notably the late Ray Charles (his ABC and Tangerine material) and Buck Owens (his complete 1950s-70s Capitol output).
Is artist input helpful? Yes and no. Artist cooperation can open doors that greatly enhance a project’s accuracy, authority and marketability. Some performers, however, provide decidedly self-serving or incorrect spins on history or cause other problems. While readily acknowledging his pre-1960 recordings possessed fire and verve, Chet Atkins still felt them too distastefully immature to be reissued. Given his status as an RCA executive, the company long avoided reissuing that material, even after he retired. A decade ago, Atkins tried to block Bear Family’s 1946-54 Atkins box (disclosure: I annotated it). Since Bear had all required legal clearances, he was unsuccessful. Reflecting near the end of his life, he admitted he’d judged that early work too harshly.
These are the obvious questions. The travails of research, packaging, annotation, etc. add even greater layers of complexity. If historical research is, by its very nature, inexact, reissuing historic country recordings poses some truly unique challenges.