Regular readers might be aware that a lot of the recent flood of represses have left me a little bit cold. Particularly galling has been the re-releases of old 430 West material, the Detroit imprint owned by the Burden brothers of Octave One fame. While it’s thrilling to see so much of the classic Octave One stuff back in circulation, the sheen has been taken off it slightly due to the knowledge that the music to be found on 430 West’s sub label Direct Beat appears to be off-limits dues to licensing issues.
This is a blow for all sorts of reasons. Personally speaking, Direct Beat were one of the labels who taught me what electronic music could be. It was vastly different, almost alien, to much of what comprised electronica in the 90s. Where a lot of British electro at the time continued to have a fascination for what could be described as classic forms of the genre, reaching back to the mid 80s and before, and the sounds from the continent were becoming more experimental, swapping out much of the genre’s original warmth for a clinical coldness, the electro of Detroit took everything around it from techno, acid house, funk and soul, and rolled it together into a brand new, futuristic, whole. Tunes like tonight’s choice, X-ile’s amazing I Wanna, were the epitome of that fusion. Streetwise, lightening fast and fearsomely sensual, even playfully sexual. It was a tune which thundered with an attitude you just didn’t get in European techno or electro, and barely found in house. I would love to see it get a re-release, even though I’ve got a pristine original copy. Why? Everyone deserves the chance to own it. Don’t they?
But is my desire to see the music of Direct Beat back out there again based in altruism, or is it simply the selfish wishes of someone who wants the past to be back in the spotlight? This is the age-old problem with the concept of reissues. Let’s face it: any scene which constantly plunders its own past is not a healthy one, and electronic music at the moment appears to be locked into a deep regression trip. At least on the surface. Whether it’s boring disco themed house music, techno wearing Jeff Mill’s old clothes, or the regurgitation of material from some tape of 70s drone nonsense which was dull beyond belief even at the time, it’s all symptomatic of music’s oldest disease – nostalgia.
The weird thing is, nostalgia is usually a desire for things that are no longer commonly available. 20 years ago, a lead nipple from one of the dozens of utterly interchangeable Britpop bands proclaimed that one of the reasons ‘the kids’ were out buying Beatles CDs, and making music that sounded like it had been sent across a fax machine from the 70s, was because ‘they didn’t hear it the first time around’. This strength of this argument could only last as long as it took to go into a record shop or switch on a radio at which point you would be floored by the fact that you didn’t have to have been around in 1967 to hear the music because ALL of those bands were still the biggest sellers decades later, and continuing to garner radio play which dwarfed that of almost all contemporary bands put together. The music of the past was inescapable in the present. Hell, several of the biggest major labels barely had an A&R man between them by the time the 80s were in full swing because they understood that what people wanted was the past, stuck out in a fresh format. For ever.
The argument is even less true nowadays. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, it seems to be almost impossible now for music to exist anywhere than the present. If it’s not on Spotify, it’ll be on Youtube. Can’t find that B side on Youtube, hit it up on Discogs and get it 3 days later. Old music, and the availability of old music, is now, perhaps more than ever before, beginning to look like the entire reason for the existence of the music industry. And it’s killing the future.
Everyone and their mother got handwavingly excited last year at the news that vinyl sales had reached their highest point since about 1996. Everybody assumed this meant we would soon be sailing into tomorrow on an ocean of wax. But as has been widely reported in the last week, vinyl sales are already down 10% on last year, and those figures from 2015 were themselves, in actual fact, the sort of numbers that, had you presented them to the industry back in, say, 1974, would have been responsible for an epidemic of record execs leaping out of 25th floor windows. That’s right – from a historical perspective they sucked, they were just awful.
It gets worse. 60% of all those vinyl sales were Pink Floyd and the Beatles. It was the major labels selling us the same crap once again. The result of this was the pressing plants were strangled by the demand to print up material everybody had a dozen times over, or could be had from Discogs for next to nothing such was their ubiquity. Because of this, smaller labels, indy labels, our labels found themselves unable to get records out there. And slowly they began to starve. From the perspective of a scene like ours, which is one of the few where vinyl, because of its unique relationship with our weirdo culture, is still important, it has become a question of survival.
I’m not entirely against the idea of reissues. Jeez, I’ve bought enough of them I’d be a hypocrite if I was. The comedian Bill Hicks once said that if you were a struggling actor just starting out, then allowances could be made if you did an advert for cash. The same wasn’t true if you were a big star. Likewise, if a reissue is actually putting out something rare, or groundbreaking, or if it means that the original artist might finally make a few bucks from their work (unfortunately not rare in Our Thing – you only have to listen to the stories of some of those old Chicago heroes to understand that) then fine, power to you, I hope you sell a million of them and get the kudos you originally deserved. But another copy of Dark Side Of The Moon? Get the hell out of here.
The best of both worlds would be for more reissues on digital formats. Clean, remastered and easily available. Hunt down the originals in their original form afterwards. Some labels do this already, of course, and it will become more and more common as the pressing plants get constipated with Queen gatefolds. Other than that, support new music like never before. Buy every new release you can because if you don’t then the good guys will fold and everything will be nostalgia. And a future with only Pink Floyd for company sounds like my idea of hell.