When buying CDs in the basement of Harvest Records last weekend, I ran into another sign of the end times. While there were many releases in promotional card sleeves, a substantial number of them were the seriously less desirable CD-R format. Some CDs I was interested in were sealed with stickers on them screaming at me to NOT LEAK the title and that the audio on them had a unique, traceable “watermark” besides, and that at the very least I would be shamed for doing so online. Sigh. Welcome to the 21st century.
My introduction to the world of promo copies happened in high school. I was a DJ at my high school radio station, WGAG-FM [don’t snicker] even though I was going through that awkward adolescent voice thing. We occasionally got serviced [as they call it] by very, very minor labels. The one label that responded to our call for promos was I.R.S. Records, and we got a boxful of their funky early releases with the garish rainbow banded labels. You old timers may remember these. Our LP library had been donated by WLOF-AM after a format change. All of these albums had promo stickers or stamps on them. All of them reserved ownership to the labels that had, technically, loaned them to the stations. In records from the 60s/70s, the stickers went out of their way to be helpful. CBS liked to put tick boxes with each song title on each side printed on them so the program director could select which songs he wanted the DJs to play – back in the Cenozoic era when human beings at the radio station made that decision! But these were the only promos I encountered until the senior year of high school, when I discovered the glory that is used record stores.
Used record stores offered many ways for me to stretch my music buying dollar, not the least of which was the practice of selling promo copies – explicitly illegal if you have read the stamps above. Promo copies might be as good as new, and one might be able to buy a promo ditched by some program director or DJ due to:
- the inappropriateness of the release to their format/usage
- their desire to obtain money for drugs
Some times, one could find these the week of the release and substantial savings would ensue, as long as you didn’t mind having a stamped copy in your collection. I was pragmatic enough back then and I had no problem getting a promo copy of a release for a fraction of full retail cost.
As I became more knowledgable about collecting and the resources to study what was out there, I eventually discovered that many unique items were promo only – sporting rare tracks or versions of tracks and releases that did not replicate commercial releases. Some of these also had unique covers or POPS [promo only picture sleeves] and thus were collector’s catnip. In time I gravitated to these releases which in some cases were not cheap. Not by a long shot. Some were albums that were compiled just for radio stations. If a release had live tracks or remixes that were not commercially available, one might pay through the nose for such items.
It’s no joke that by 1990, at least a fourth of my Record Cell was comprised of promos. Some of these were crown jewel items of my collection. I used to joke to my friends in the 80s that if the Promo Police® ever came to my home, I’d be up the creek without a paddle. I have promos not only from from American record labels but also from labels the world over. Yes, the mind reels at the cachet of cool inhabited by UK or Japanese promo items! Without these promos, I’d be missing hundreds of unique tracks that pepper my BSOGs. Had I been tied to buying only new, commercial releases, my Record Cell would be a fraction of its size.
But it’s not just low price or exclusivity that drove the purchase of promos. If you had tastes like mine during the 80s [and let’s hope that you’re reading this far because you did…] many titles that I wanted to buy at any price, were simply not available. I vividly recall seeing the “Dancin'” clip by Chris Isaak on MTV in 1985. His “Silvertone” album was at the top of my want list for over a year before I finally found a promo LP for sale at Murmur Records and I bought like a grateful man. Until the time that I was able to buy the German CD pressing of the title in 1987 via a catalog [there was no US CD until after “Wicked Game” hit the charts], this was the only copy of “Silvertone” that I saw for over two years! If record stores don’t buy releases, you can’t buy them! To this day there are a substantial percentage of titles in my Record Cell that I have never seen non-promo, commercial copies of… ever!
But I’m here today not to praise the promo, but to bury it. The ability of a monolithic, and even indie, record industry to manufacture product, much less costly promo product, is receding to a dot in our rear-view mirrors. As seen at the sale last weekend, most promos served these days, if they are served at all in physical format, will be flaky, fragile CD-Rs. And the media used by labels is definitely not the MAM-A gold archival that I favor! These promos are designed to play briefly then decay, as the reflective layer responds to heat and humidity. I’ll need to rip these to my music drive and keep backing up the file, ad infinitum, just as if it was a download.
And let’s face it, probably most promos these days are DLs! Both of the promos that PPM has been served with thus far [I’m open for more…] have been DL copies. I get the convenience and cost factor. I accept that and for review purposes, it’s good enough. It actually serves the intent of the label much better than when music was physical. If labels could have done this in the 70s, they would have! But the collector in me regrets that future generations won’t know the excitement of tracking down that amazing promo mix that might have only a few hundred pressings littering the globe. They’ll never know the thrill of owning a rare Bowie album like the one above. And how can DJs afford their dope habit now is just another one of life’s unanswerable questions.
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