Brett Gurewitz holds a new CD in his hands, an advance copy of an expanded edition of last year's New Maps of Hell. He opens it up and proudly points to a live DVD, lyrics, panaramic photos, posters and other fine extras, all set for release in July. It's an example of added value aimed at the new generations of music lovers for whom the "silver circles" of CDs have lost their luster as rock's holy object. Gurewitz is the founding guitarist of Bad Religion, a band of veteran Los Angeles punks, but he's also a record company man, the founder of influential indie Epitaph Records, which helped launch the careers of Rancid, the Offspring, Pennywise and many others. He says the label is still going strong in the era of collapsing record sales, and as he sits with Bad Religion singer Greg Graffin, he feels just fine.
You're re-releasing New Maps of Hell?
Brett Gurewitz: I always wanted to try this. The reason was to try and give something extra. The band's had lots and lots of records, so it becomes a little harder to make each one special. I think this is number 17 for us. We made the record, we're proud of it, we said 'Hey, let's do all this stuff and reissue it.'
Greg Graffin: It is easy to joke and be cynical about how people aren't buying CDs anymore. My son is 16 years old, and in all honesty, he and his friends love having the actual piece of merchandise. And when something has this much content on it, it makes them salivate. Maybe it's harder for record companies to release product without adding some bells and whistles, but it really is a nice product in the end.
There are other Bad Religion albums that fans might want to see get this kind of treatment.
Gurewitz: We did on this one because it was to create some value in a CD. Music is so widely available now — even though Greg says his son loves CDs, I've found that most kids I know don't want a CD even if you give it to them for free. They love the music, but they just want to get it on their iPod. They don't care much for silver circles. Really what it's about is: here is the CD, but here's some really nice artistic content you can have. It's not just a cheap piece of plastic. There's some posters, you got all the lyrics, you've got a DVD which is beautifully shot with seven cameras of the set we did when first releasing the album. It's a new paradigm. I don't know exactly what's happening with the music industry, but it may be that the album format itself is dying, or maybe that the album format isn't dying but the CD is dying with nothing to replace it yet.
Graffin: Nobody has done the research. Nobody has asked kids: What would you rather have? It's easy to speculate, but if you don't make the records, and you don't market the records, guess what? They don't sell. Whereas if they're available for free as a download, kids will take them.
You seem strangely not worried about this.
Gurewitz: I'm not worried in the slightest. I think the music industry is about to enter into a golden age. It's wonderful. I don't think record companies need to sell CDs. Major labels need something cheap that they can sell bulk of, or they're going to go under. Small companies like myself, that kind of evolved to be the cockroaches in the music industry, to survive on meager sustenance? We're going to be fine. We're the ones who will be left when the whole thing craters. Music consumption is up. It's CD sales that are down. Record stores are going out of business. I'm not concerned because I'm a huge music fan, and I see the explosion of genres and artists and records and tracks and new concepts and mashups is so fascinating and wonderful and kaleidoscopic. In my truck, I can listen to Yaysayer, the Fuck Buttons, Santogold, Ozzy Osbourne and the Cool Kids, and the teenage kids in my truck think it's all cool. What's happening is going to be a renaissance.
Graffin: We both agree on that. Brett loves technology, but when you find him on an airplane, he's reading a book. There's an aesthetic quality to books that he prefers. I'm not saying my kids have the aesthetic connection with the CD itself, but maybe the artwork, the words that are printed, have a intangible quality to them that kids prefer.
Gurewitz: Virgin Records did an interesting study where they brought in a bunch of kids for a focus group. They had them listen to music: What song do you like better? Which song is catchier? Thanks you very much for giving us three hours, and as a reward, you can have any of our new CDs, and they didn't want any of them.
Graffin: They probably weren't cool. There probably weren't any bands that matter to those kids.
Don't the hardcore fans of Bad Religion want to own the album as an artifact?
Gurewitz: The hardcore fans do. Kids don't want CDs, man. They want MP3s. I know — I own a record business. I don't think it bodes ill for bands. Those kids will still come to shows. They'll still buy some kind of an artifact. I know kids with whole record collections, and they don't own any records; they just have drives full of music. These are 16 year old kids. My kid doesn't have a single CD, not one.