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Musicians Split Over Album Reissues

Henry Rollins: 'When the band isn't involved, it usually means the label is looking for sales'

August 3, 2011 1:30 PM ET
Trent reznor
Trent Reznor
Michael Buckner/Getty Images

This year’s Nineties-era reissues — like Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Vitalogy and Alice in Chains' Jar of Flies – may seem like harmless exercises in Gen X nostalgia, but some artists are publicly denouncing what they see as their labels' blatant money-grab.

“NIN fans, don't waste your money on this version of PHM that was just released,” Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor tweeted about the recent rerelease of the band's 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine, adding that it's, “a record label bullsh-t move repackaging the old version. Ignore please.”’

This pressing, released in July, marks the second reissue of the same album in eight months from the same label, Beverly Hills-based UMe/Bicycle Music Company. In November, Ume/Bicycle unearthed and tweaked the PHM tapes with Reznor’s blessing. The album’s packaging boasts fresh art and a B-side Queen cover. The 2011 version? It’s nothing more than a non-remastered, virtual carbon copy of the original TVT release. Nothing new, no upgrade. And in this era of sour sales, even the most dedicated NIN completists refuse to shell out again for the reissue they just re-bought last fall. (UMe/Bicycle Music Company representatives did not return requests for comment.)

“Usually when the band is involved, it is a good thing,” says Henry Rollins, who personally handled the remastering of early Rollins Band albums, tells Rolling Stone. “When the band isn't involved, it usually means the label is looking for sales.”

That said, classic albums undergoing the sonic makeover process promise to sound better the second time around. Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill steered Rhino’s career-spanning 100 Flowers Bloom package, and supervised the limited-edition box set of last year’s Content. The steel box indeed packs in plenty of content, including booklets, drawings and – for the most committed completist – sachets of the band’s blood. 

“For some bands, I don’t think it matters that much, because they don’t particularly think in those kind of terms, but for Gang of Four it very much matters,” Gill says of the tangible product. “I think sometimes record companies just get in there and do it their way, without thinking too much about it.” 

In 2008 Warner Music Japan released the seven-disc This is the DEVO Box, a remastered collection complete with the band’s original, LP-style packaging. Warner’s American arm offered remastered selections from DEVO’s catalog the following year. “They ran everything by us,” says Devo’s Jerry Casale, “and cared as much as a band member would care, which was really nice.”

Band acrimony hasn’t prevented guitarist Johnny Marr from overseeing the Smiths’ forthcoming catalog reissue without the help of former bandmate Morrissey. Other groups, like the Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello and the Attractions, have profited several times from reissue treatments over the years. And Jimi Hendrix’s estate continues to issue live material culled from the vaults 40-plus years since his death.

Reissues sell well. Most music buyers prefer the physical CD or LP package to the digital option, and sales of Pearl Jam's Vs./Vitalogy anniversary box set prove as much. Of the 20,000 copies moved since March, just 12 percent were downloaded from sites like iTunes and Amazon.

Perhaps history's most successful reissue campaign was for last year's Rolling Stones deluxe Exile on Main Street box set, says Michael Kurtz, co-founder and manager of Record Store Day.

"Convenience doesn't trump art," Kurtz argues. "When you are dealing with a piece of art and it's a tangible thing in your hand, you're pulled into that. You're moved by it, you interact with it. When it's on your screen of your computer, it's mixed with everything else, like your work."

Earlier this year Sony Music Entertainment's Legacy Recordings division began offering its Complete Albums Collection series, a deal-of-the-day special on comprehensive CD sets available exclusively through PopMarket.com. Repackaged discographies from artists like Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and the Avett Brothers are up for grabs for a limited, 24-hour period.  

"If you're interested in anything other than what's on the Top 40 chart, you've got to do some digging to find those products," David Griffith, senior vice president of Sony Music's marketing and partnerships, says. "There's a lot of people out there who still don't listen to music through an iPod."

As for Nine Inch Nails’ loyalists, they appear to be listening to their leader. Nielsen SoundScan reports that, while 68,000 copies of the Reznor-approved PHM package have sold, only 1,000 people have purchased the version he condemned. Seems they prefer a little necessary evil with their nostalgia -- 54 percent of them ponied up for the vinyl.

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