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Can reissues stretch fans too thin?

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In 2010, after a successful reunion and two great records of full-length resurrection, the original trio configuration of Dinosaur Jr. again took a break.

In the past, the relationship between Lou Barlow and J Mascis had been famously contentious, resulting in the fractures that caused the first (and best) lineup of the band to split. As older men, though, they seemed to have figured out their rapport—joking onstage, touring the world, likely finding that life as an influential and reunited act was easier than as a troupe of upstarts.

The break wasn't permanent, as Barlow noted in a customarily playful update on his website: "Dinosaur Jr. is on a big fat hiatus while J pretends he's a peace-loving acoustic guy," Barlow wrote, referring to Mascis' gorgeous solo record, Several Shades of Why, released last year. Indeed, next month, the new old version of Dinosaur Jr. will release the very good I Bet on Sky, a three-piece rock record with soft edges and a strong center.

The real reason for Barlow's missive was to promote the news from his other long-standing project, the always prolific and consistently inconsistent Sebadoh. More specifically, Barlow announced that he was reissuing the band's most popular albums—1994's Bakesale and 1996's Harmacy—and embarking on a celebratory trek, "The Bakesale/ Harmony Remembering Time 2011 Tour."

Though Sebadoh hadn't released a new album since 1999, they'd been riding the reissue rails for years. Between 2005 and 2011, reissues of five of Sebadoh's seven albums arrived in stores, with the promised sixth, Harmacy, never actually surfacing. (They are, however, now recording a new album and have just released an EP of new songs.) As Barlow poked fun at Mascis, he was hoisted with his own petard; while Mascis was playing new music to eager crowds, Barlow continued to trot out old standards to aging audiences. "Jason and I will be playing the songs y'all have been asking for in proper electrified fashion," he said in a plea so strong it might as well have come with an embedded buy-tickets-now link.

With its omission of Harmacy, perhaps Domino—the label responsible for the bulk of those reissues—finally realized that what the world needs now or needed a year ago certainly wasn't another Sebadoh reissue. Sebadoh were never very good at self-editing, anyway; double-disc reissues of albums already stretching near the 20-track mark were pleasing only obsessive completists and fatigued collectors. That's especially true in an industry where all but the wealthiest or luckiest are struggling to survive.

Last month, Nielsen Soundscan—the service that collects and reports on music sales at large—reported that, for the first time in their two-plus decades of data, American consumers had collectively purchased more old albums than new ones in a six-month span. From January to June, albums available for at least 18 months sold 76.6 million copies, compared to just 73.9 million units of more recent releases. As musicians, industry analysts and fans continue to bicker about what must be done about illegal downloading and diminishing sales, this news presents compelling proof for a long-standing suspicion: New fans aren't making it a habit to buy new music.

That's the problem with automatic catalog reissues, such as those upon which Sebadoh's sustained legacy has so dutifully depended: They crowd an already crowded market, devouring increasingly greater shares of resources from an ostensibly depleted reservoir.

Reissues have their place, sure, as they can, and should, rescue a missing masterpiece from the brink of oblivion or help provide new, broader insight into a scene about which little might be known. But every Sebadoh album and the demos that preceded them don't fit those criteria, at least not in every instance. Or, as ever-frank heavy metal critic Kim Kelly recently wrote, "Quit reissuing things. Not everything is a fucking 'classic.'"

Sebadoh's situation, then, is but a symptom of this problem, one incident in a trend of similar ones. Perhaps art works best as commerce, where market pressure rids the system of the unnecessary—in this and many cases, pushing an album that doesn't need to be saved out of print.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Antique sale."

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