Numero Group

Running Out of History: The Issue with Reissues

Grayson Haver Currin

By Grayson Haver Currin

on 04.25.14 in Features

On Record Store Day, Chaz Martenstein does not open his shop early. Saturday business begins at 11 a.m., as it has for the last eight years. No matter what time he turns the latch on the front door, he knows the customers outside of Durham, North Carolina’s Bull City Records will be standing in line, snaking past the lock-and-safe shop, at least to the popsicle boutique at the end of the four-store strip mall. There’s no point in making the regulars wake up early on a weekend.

Martenstein is right about the line. Two hours after the doors open, a single-file queue still snakes through the small store’s tight aisles and out the door. Inside, each customer flips through cut cardboard boxes of albums being offered exclusively on this, the seventh-annual Record Store Day, and dutifully waits for the space in front of the cash register to clear. I peer over Martenstein’s left shoulder, watching what people buy as his right hand taps numbers into a dusty old Royal cash register.

Some spend hundreds, buying Dave Matthews Band and Songs: Ohia box sets, Die Kreuzen singles and Harry Dean Stanton picture discs. Others are more particular, perhaps only grabbing Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back with a shimmering lenticular cover before asking, at the register, if Martenstein has managed to stock any of the very limited and unplugged R.E.M. box sets. (He hasn’t.)

‘Of the 450 titles officially released as part of this year’s Record Store Day, 243, or 54 percent, were reissues.’

But one thing unites nearly every customer in line, no matter the size of their purchase or the style of their selections: Almost everyone buys at least one reissue. That might mean records made available on vinyl for the first time, such as Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster’s Rock, Rot & Rule, or albums presented again in some fancy new iteration, like the pink-splatter version of the Velvet Underground’s Loaded. During the first 90 minutes of Record Store Day, Martenstein sells 163 reissues and only 111 truly new releases. Those archival sales drive another record-setting Record Store Day for Martenstein.

“It’s the biggest day of the year, by far,” he says. “And only it gets bigger every year.”
Martenstein’s numbers aren’t an anomaly: Of the 450 titles officially released as part of this year’s Record Store Day, 243, or 54 percent, were reissues. The Everly Brothers and the Allman Brothers, Sam Cooke and Credence Clearwater Revival, the Doors and Hüsker Dü: That’s just a sample of the acts who re-released old material last weekend. Some offered ostentatious box sets, others rather ordinary 12″ vinyl in crisp cardboard sleeves.

The Record Store Day phenomenon is only one large piece in the wider proliferation of reissues. In 2014, for instance, separate labels make a respectable business out of rebranding horror film scores, overlooked soul cuts, out-of-print modern classical recordings, esoteric country and folk albums and psychedelic rock curios. Last year, Jack White’s Third Man Records released a trove of old Paramount singles in a limited-edition wooden box for $400; a second volume is set to follow. And just last week, Black Sabbath again offered up a set of catalog favorites, packaging their first eight albums together on CD through Rhino. They did much the same on vinyl only two years ago, a move that followed yet another comprehensive reissue series in 2009. This major-label cycle of endless reboots starts to seem ridiculous, but it’s just one aspect of reissue culture. At Bull City Records, for instance, Martenstein says a particularly intriguing excavation from the label Light in the Attic can outsell a hot new title from Sub Pop Records.

“Every year, it seems that people are digging deeper and deeper into other genres,” says Matt Sullivan. More than a decade ago, Sullivan launched Light in the Attic, one of the anchors of an increasingly crowded reissues scene. “It’s the evolution of listening to music.”

To an extent, it’s the evolution of buying music, too: Reissues have become necessary bait for Record Store Day. As Carrie Colliton, a former record store employee who co-founded the annual event in 2007, puts it, they’re lures that remind people, “Record stores are places for discovery.” She sometimes rolls her eyes at the albums labels choose to reissue or expand; for her, an album needs to be at least 15 years old to warrant revisiting. But they get people into the stores.

‘The reissue market is now more crowded than it’s ever been, with new imprints specializing in isolated scenes and sounds seeming to appear almost weekly.’

On Record Store Day, Colliton herself bought six albums, four of which were reissues and one that compiled old material from Sun Records. Her most expensive purchase was Touch & Go’s monstrous update of Slint’s Spiderland. She heard “Breadcrumb Trail” on the radio the week after the release, something she thinks likely wouldn’t have happened had the new box set not brought that album back into attention. She sees each wave of Beatles reissues, as well as a forthcoming Led Zeppelin relaunch in June, in much the same way: Reissues are a way to push old signals above new noise.

“I love the idea of introducing a record to somebody who hasn’t met that record, or bringing it back into somebody else’s life,” she says. “Reintroducing people or introducing people to music from the past is good. If the music warrants being heard again, there’s no reason not to bring it back out and treat it like a new release.”

As Colliton suggests, the perks of reissues are manifold and not limited to mere nostalgia: They pry long-neglected private press or otherwise very obscure titles from the hands of collectors, making records that might’ve cost $100 online or in the right record shops available for the price of most any other new LP. And those albums — which might not have received the attention their contents warranted upon initial release — enjoy a fresh wave of publicity, almost as if this marked their debut into the world. Such reissues allow albums to get upgrades — high-end remastering, an addendum of demos or outtakes, new photos, contextual essays — in their presumed afterlife. Rather than buy a used, scuffed copy of a classic on wafer-thin Dynaflex vinyl, stored in fraying and stained paper, new fans can buy a version that might sound and look better than ever before.

But can the music industry survive by repeating itself? The reissue market is perhaps now more crowded than it’s ever been. Not only is there the collector-and-eBay-friendly glut of Record Store Day and the steady stream of classic titles being repackaged and resold by large labels, but little new imprints specializing in isolated scenes and strains of sound seem to appear almost weekly. Light in the Attic, for instance, distributes titles by 30 such labels, Sullivan says. As both supply and demand have increased for such titles, he believes the market has become incredibly competitive.

Brendan Greaves runs Paradise of Bachelors, an upstart imprint that releases new albums by acts such as Hiss Golden Messenger and Steve Gunn, but which began in order to issue a collection of eclectic Southern soul songs by North Carolina singer David Lee. More recently, the North Carolina label reissued Lavender Country, the self-titled debut by a little-known Seattle band that made openly gay country music in the outlaw-prone ’70s. Greaves talks about the process for securing rights to such cult favorites as though he were a college basketball coach in search of high-profile high school stars.

“There’s a finite number of records out there, and there is, to some extent, a law of diminishing returns,” he says. “The highest-profile private press records have been or are in the process of being reissued now. In a very limited sense, we are running out of things ‘worthy of rediscovery.’”

Even one of the bastions of reissues, Numero Group, is feeling that squeeze. During the last decade, the Chicago-based label has issued massive collections of forgotten soul sides and would-have-been folk guitar heroes, regional funk cuts and left-out-of-the-bright-lights metal bands. Given the work that other, newer labels obsessed with the past are now doing, though, they sometimes wonder what they have left to do. Chris Swanson, who started the label and distribution company Secretly Canadian with his brother and some friends in the mid ’90s, became a partner in Numero Group last year. The challenge of what’s next looms large, he says.

“They’re really good at what they do,” Swanson says of co-founders Ken Shipley and Rob Sevier, “but it’s getting harder to find the stuff. We spend a lot of time talking about what the market can bear now.”

When Numero Group realized that they might one day run out of material, they turned elsewhere for archives to restore and reintroduce. Their new “200 Line” reexamines influential indie-rock bands — Codeine, Unwound, Bedhead — that often sit just outside the canon conversation that includes Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. and the like. It’s a way of steering clear of exhausted resources and staying ahead of decreasing quality.

Sullivan says that’s the path forward for Light in the Attic and reissue labels at large: They must excavate new sounds — or, at the very least, find novel strategies for thinking about those sounds. Earlier this year, for instance, Light in the Attic launched a partnership with Vanguard Records, keepers of one of the largest catalogs in American music history, filled with gems long lost in the label’s own dogpile. And last year, they issued I Am the Center, a sprawling 20-track collection of majestic, overlooked cuts from 40 years of “new age” music. The set attempted to invert the niche’s stigma, to show that something long relegated into banality could be vital, too. There will always be new eras and realms to reconsider, Sullivan says; right now, young bands are making music that will one day warrant reconsideration. It’s up to reissues to fill in the cracks of history.

‘Think about how large the planet is. For reissues, people are now focusing on Africa, Indonesia, these deeper places that are just beginning to get touched. — Matt Sullivan, Light in the Attic Records’

“Think about how large the planet is. Most of what people tend to focus on or talk about is the Western world, but for reissues, people are now focusing on Africa, Indonesia, these deeper places that are just beginning to get touched,” says Sullivan. “And there are so many genres that we are always rediscovering. Zach Cowie, for instance, said that maybe we should do a compilation of funky country music. ‘Well, what’s that?’ These ways to curate and listen to music like that are just endless.”

Dust-to-Digital, another leader in audio archaeology, has indeed started to turn its focus from obscure American folk to the music of the world, fastidiously restored, documented and presented. The label’s earliest releases dug through old American gospel, the motley vaults of Fonotone Records and the rural field recordings of Art and Margo Rosenbaum. In the last three years, though, they’ve pursued new frontiers — exotic instrumentals from Greece, ecstatic 78s from most of Africa, amorphous sounds of Indonesia. It’s the first time much of this music has been available for Western audiences.

“Usually, but not always, we weren’t there,” Sullivan says of the mystery and allure found in such reissues, in seeing the very old for the first time, or at least the first time in a very long time. “Imagination is a big part of it. You’re not always able to go on Wikipedia and find out what a band’s favorite color is, when they were born. You can listen to it, take it for what it is, and not have all the answers. That’s a wonderful thing.”

Will E. Brooks contributed research to this article.