Repackaging music from the era when packaging mattered

By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / April 18, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Single Page|
  • |
Text size +

What can entice consumers to buy a new copy of something they already own, never cared about, or were too young to buy in the first place?

The folks who release music reissue packages believe bells and whistles are the answer. Today is the second annual Record Store Day, a celebration of independent music merchandisers, and shoppers will find remastered, remixed, super-sized, bonus-boasting editions of vintage albums in elaborate multi-disc packages and simple, straightforward vinyl releases.

Many share a common time frame: 1988-1996. Return visits to albums by Pearl Jam, the Beastie Boys, Radiohead, Green Day, Sinead O'Connor, Lenny Kravitz, Beck, and others seem to signal that the time to reappraise - or re-sell - the alt-rock revolution is upon us.

"There's a bit of a 20-year rule in pop culture," says Billboard executive editor Rob Levine, who points out that folks who graduated from college two decades ago are now ripe to get nostalgic. "Now you have this resurgence of interest in the kind of Lollapalooza culture, for lack of a better word."

Carl Mello, director of media buying for local chain Newbury Comics, isn't so sure the reissues signify anything, pointing out the concurrent raft of recent vintage jazz reissues from the likes of Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis. "It's just a good revenue stream to be able to repackage something," he says.

There is no doubt about that. With reduced overhead - no recording budget, for example - labels can see a significant return on smaller sales when they do a reissue, even when it includes bonus features like posters, extensive liner notes, and extra tracks.

And given the digital migration of most consumers, where "packaging" in the conventional sense isn't even part of the equation, this era of artists may be one of the last that can actually support repackaging.

"I think there's a sense of 'if you want to reissue product physically, you've got to do it soon,' " says Levine. "It's a bit of a gold rush here."

"It's definitely a business - we've got to make money," says Tom Cording, VP of media relations for Legacy Recordings, which recently released an ultra-deluxe version of Pearl Jam's 1991 debut "Ten."

Because the labels are working with existing content, sales of 30,000-50,000 can be considered triumphs. The Pearl Jam release, in various formats, is closing in on 100,000 copies sold.

In addition to the glut of '90s and other reissues, the vinyl resurgence continues.

Not only are contemporary bands increasingly offering limited runs of new releases on vinyl (Death Cab For Cutie, the Decemberists) but reissue packages are including vinyl as an option. ( The Pearl Jam "Ten" reissue for instance comes in a two LP version.) Individual bands that came of age in the CD era are also starting to repackage their catalogs in the 12-inch format, including Ben Harper and pop-punk trio Green Day. The latter is re-releasing all of its studio albums in chronological order through November 10. Its major-label breakthrough is being reissued today as part of the Record Store Day celebration.

Jason Boyd is director of catalog sales for Capitol Records, the imprint behind 20th-anniversary releases from the Beastie Boys and Lenny Kravitz, and a coordinator of the label's "From the Capitol Vaults" vinyl reissues. He reports that the label has sold over 100,000 copies of 30 titles since the inception of "From the Capitol Vaults" last September, with acts like Merle Haggard, the Band, Megadeth, and Radiohead.

Billboard's Levine also points out that another upside of vinyl sales is the wider profit margin for retailers, since the albums tend to sell at higher prices than loss-leader CDs. "In the last month we're making three times as much on vinyl [sales] as we are on our top 30 CDs," confirms Newbury's Mello, who says it's an all-ages audience, with older folks investigating Fleet Foxes and younger ones picking up "Abbey Road."

While lovingly curated reissues of iconic or blockbuster albums makes financial sense for labels thanks to a built-in mainstream audience, sometimes music fans are seeking something more offbeat and less commercially successful. Grunge enthusiasts may fondly recall "Ten," but how many bought Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard's 2001 solo album "Bayleaf"?

Until recently that album was out of print. Enter CreateSpace.

In partnership with 20 major and independent record labels, CreateSpace, an offshoot of Amazon, is now making hard-to-find, out of print, and never issued on CD albums available with Disc on Demand, part of its "Back From the Vault" program.

For those who want a physical product, discs are literally manufactured to order; digital consumers can opt for an MP3 bundle. Generally speaking, says Hunter Williams, senior manager for Disc on Demand, "it's a full replica of the original release with the booklet and everything." Among the 1,000-plus titles is every imaginable genre, from jazz (Art Blakey, Duke Ellington) to pop (Hall & Oates, Kenny Loggins) to Gregorian chants.

Ironically, technological advances make it possible to put increasingly old-fangled CDs into people's hands.

"Ten years ago I don't think Disc on Demand was viable the way it is today," says Williams. "The cost of the blank media itself was quite a bit higher and the manufacturing as we do it just didn't have the scale that it needed to have the cost make sense."

As for the albums themselves, the labels decide which ones to make available. But, says Williams, "We help identify titles that we think customers are going to be most interested in based on what we see customers looking for."

It's no substitute for poring through the racks at your favorite new or used vinyl shop. But if you've been searching high and low for a copy of Prince protege Jill Jones's first album, you might want to start plugging it into the search function ( might be holding it sooner than you think.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at