I call myself the Post-Punk Monk. Mainly due to my interest in the dramatic explosion of creativity in music during the ’78-’83 period. It’s primarily for this reason that I spend more time gazing in the rear view mirror of music for the last 25 years. But there is another reason why I tend to dwell in the past. As one with the collector’s sickness, the options to feed that particular obsession was infinitely more plentiful in days of yore. Growing up in the seventies and becoming expert on music collecting in the 80s, there were many venues available to stoke the fires of music fandom, from a collecting point of view.
With the Punk/Post-Punk/New Wave movement, there was a shift back to the emphasis on a great single after many years with The Album as the primary music carrier of cultural value. Albums as deep artistic statements were typical of the 70s Rock Hegemony® [as seen at left]. Singles were derided and scoffed at. Led Zeppelin refused to allow singles to be taken from their albums [in the UK, anyway]. Naturally, when the time came to put this pomposity all to a grinding halt, the lowly single was seen as a viable thing once more. Singles could be non-LP tracks, that added further value for the buyer’s money. Better still, extra tracks could find their way out of the studio to reach the fan’s ears. The glory of the non-LP B-side exploded in the late 70s as a return to pop values and that made record collecting much more interesting for me.
After buying an album, I could collect the singles from the album and get new songs by my favorite artists. The emergence of the 12″ single format in the late 70s, now added extended 12″ versions of songs that were longer than radio airplay would allow for. When the machine was humming along steadily, I found myself buying albums and if I was particularly enamored of the artist in question, I also had singles to also buy. 7″ singles and 12″ singles. Sometimes with different tracks. Then, when ZTT threw down the gauntlet, the idea of multiple 12″ remixes began to spread. All of this meant that an album worth of material could conceivably generate another album’s worth of material not specifically on the original album. Sometimes more.
Catnip for the hard core music collector were the various promo singles that labels would release in various territories. Sometimes with the elusive POPS [promo-only picture sleeve]. club and radio DJs were regaled with rare tracks, live cuts, unique edits and mixes of everything under the sun. These records could be hard to find, due to their relative low numbers, but that offered extra challenge to collectors like myself who broke out the issue of Goldmine Magazine every fortnight and tried to scoop all of the other collectors gunning for that one single you saw in 3 point type on a blurry newsprint set sale ad.
FOREIGN TERRITORY SINGLES
One interesting about promos. A band’s label in their home territory could have a promo single with certain tracks, and one of their foreign labels could have another promo with completely different tracks. Rabid fans could need both! Then there’s the rabbit hole of foreign picture sleeves. I usually try to only buy records that have music on them that I need, but in more fiscally comfortable times, I was known to buy records that offered me nothing that I didn’t already have, with the exception of a unique cover design. Decadent, I know! Don’t get me started on Japanese sleeves. They were often radically different covers; usually band shots where there were no images of the group in their home territory.
By the mid 80s, CD singles began to proliferate. the three main formats [7″, 12″ CD single] all needed to be fed. Sometimes there was enough material generated to make purchasing all three viable. At others, one could buy just one format, and get all that was out there. All the better when that was the CD single. Then in the 90s, there were multiple CD singles that could happen. All of it offered collecting possibility. This ended abruptly with file sharing.
File sharing dramatically impacted the music industry which immediately began convulsively contracting to a fraction of its former size. The biggest casualty, from my perspective, was the loss of singles as a value added proposition. These days, a favorite artist can put out an album, and I may buy it. And that could be it. In the last decade while singles have all but dried up as physical artifacts, the alternative, from the industry point of view, was to offer multiple versions of albums with different tracks. It used to be that one could buy an album and spend often far less on a single to get some new tracks or mixes. Even so, at the end of an album campaign, I might have spent $18 on an import CD and $75 on all of the import CD singles to get the associated tracks and mixes.
At least collecting singles offered much visual interest as well as music to hear. Now, the idea might be to have a version of an album for this retailer with these exclusive tracks, while offering an alternative package for another retailer. Since single sales are dramatically lower than in the past, the notion of propping up album sales by having multiple versions of an album for a collector to buy was one way to put the squeeze on fans. And that was last decade. Now, all of these multiple album packages may be DL only with no physical copies for sale. Worse, the versions with the tracks that I might want, might be restricted to certain territories; preventing my legal purchase.
It’s bad enough that I have to listen to music on download; it’s insult to injury to hold it away at arm’s length because of where I live. In 2014, I bought the deluxe edition of Simple Minds’ “Big Music” album. The DLX package had more songs on a second disc and a DVD. Not too shabby! The extra material had some real gems and the price was modestly higher than the “regular” album. One could look at this as the B-sides on disc 2 that were no longer available on singles since physical singles were dead in the water. A second album of bonus tracks is convenient if not as interesting as 3-4 individual singles, each with different packaging, but it’s good enough for me. But what about remixes? Simple Minds got Johnson Somerset to make remixes of four of the songs from their new album. These long [Johnson Somerset favors an expansive, widescreen remix style of 8-10 minutes per track] remixes formed a DL EP that is selling in territories other than America. A Simple Minds collector like myself, has no way to legally buy these tracks. A promo CD-R of a scant number of copies [good luck in finding/affording a copy] did leave the nest but CD-Rs are a very fragile medium. An hour in a hot car can render one unplayable. I can easily imagine spending a small fortune on one only to have it arrive in an unplayable condition.
While the present has been a hellish landscape of no singles to buy from my favorite acts, this is not always the case. There have been a few bright spots. When OMD reunited in 2009, they have released several singles from their two album thus far. There were 7″ and 12″ vinyl and CD singles, though not one of each single. Better still, the last CD single of each run from the two albums featured all of the B-sides that may have been on vinyl only. This certainly helped, thought there was also a welter of remixes for some singles that were DL only with some tracks impossible to legally obtain in my territory.
The best case scenario thus far was when Visage reformulated and released six singles from their “Hearts +Knives” album. A full five of these were CD singles, meaning that almost every remix and every B-side were out there on CD. Even so, they had some vinyl/DL only remixes for my favorite of their singles. But I can’t be churlish about Visage. they showed how even late in the game and band could work that single action like it was still 1983. What I’d give for some more of that.
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