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April 2019

Creativity or cash grab: repackaged albums aren't always all about the money

Not all deluxe editions are that deluxe, but when creative bands return to a record to flesh out their vision, they're far from selling out.
Published: 12:32 pm, February 23, 2016
Creativity or cash grab: repackaged albums aren't always all about the money
“To the small portion calling this a “cash grab”, you can hop right the fuck off. We’ll stick with our ride or die friends who get it. To assume we’re only doing this for money or other material bullshit is pretty insulting considering the amount of work we put into this. We only want to make honest and real work that we’re proud of, and we only want to give 100% with whatever we do. There’s no point otherwise.”

That, tweeted by Lynn Gunn following the announcement of her band’s deluxe reissue of debut album ‘White Noise’, is a refrain that’s far from unique to PVRIS. For long before the internet and social media gave everyone a worldwide mouthpiece to spew their opinions onto, musicians have been accused of selling out. Depending on where your comfort zone lies, almost any overtly commercial activity - and quite a few artistic ones too - can be enough to provoke that hard-to-shake branding. Now, living in a culture of instant gratification, more is more and everything for free, it’s more prevalent than ever before.

But what exactly is a “cash grab” in 2016? Deluxe reissues of successful albums have become common place. Everyone is at it - and the bigger the band, the more likely it is to come round. That doesn’t mean they’re only about making money, and even if they were, that doesn’t mean they’re automatically bad.

Making money is a reality of the music industry. It’s easy to forget that last word - industry - when essentially what’s being marketed is art. For better or worse, your latest band crush is, in some way or another, prey to the rules of commerce, competition and the bottom line. Few bands get to work on their music full time, and other than the very top 0.1%, the rest are all fighting for their share.

For small bands, the sums are more modest, but the stakes are just as high. Being able to afford to press that vinyl, print some new merch, or even get on the road to play their songs without losing money can be a huge challenge. Buying tickets to shows while downloading the music for free doesn’t help when an act is on a £50 a show flat fee for a support slot 150 miles from home. All you can eat streaming brings in just about enough for a frugal shop once every quarter down your local budget supermarket, if they’re lucky. It’ll be beans on toast all week. Yes, it’s a life a musician chooses, but one that’s worth considering when you accuse them of amassing piles of cash. And it's also one that simply wouldn't work for some shinier, more polished acts who need to survive on a bigger level to find their more mainstream audiences.

For bigger artists, just because the label has more money doesn’t mean the odds are in their favour. Here, it’s proper business. It has to be. Bands must recoup, because however much they love their art, somebody somewhere has to look at the bottom line. Promoting an album designed to make dents in charts around the globe isn’t cheap. From marketing through to producing enough physical copies, down to videos designed for broadcast outside YouTube and exclusive content for a million different platforms, it needs serious money. And every penny spent needs to be accountable. Smart. Considered. There’s very little room to get creative when you’re trying to sell tens of thousands of albums in order to not lose money.

So, when something does well and outperforms expectations, options open up. There’s proof a record can connect, and signs it could expand to a bigger market. The next album is in everyone’s mind, but there’s an opportunity here. Not simply one to get more cash in - that money almost certainly won’t end up in the band’s pocket in any significant volume - but to open up more possibilities both now, and in the future. And, more importantly, to finally realise what they’d have liked to have done in the first place. Improved packaging, special videos, liner notes - the stuff that costs but can be left out if you’re sticking to a tight budget.

Of course, not every reissue is perfect. Some really are a bunch of old stuff thrown together to fulfil a contractual demand from a suit, and there's no excuse for that kind of lazy move, but to give them all the same treatment is myopic in the extreme. That re-released early single may be familiar to a hardcore fan, there from the start, but it’s also a band’s best song. They can get it played on the radio now, synced on a big TV show. That exposure could take them to the next level. As much as you’d prefer something fresh, for new bands that’s the difference between having a second album and not.

Where repackaged albums are concerned; just look at Paramore’s recent self-titled. ‘Tell Me It’s Okay’ is a track so good it’s incomprehensible it didn’t make the original record. ‘Escape Route’ and ‘Native Tongue’ are just as brilliant, and deserve the audience. Every single note of it is streaming via Spotify. You can sign up for Spotify for free. If you’re into it, buy it - but you don’t have to anymore. That’s another can of worms, but even the biggest bands in the scene can’t make money off good intentions and fairy dust. Fairy dust costs money.

PVRIS are simply the most recent example. A band with a vision they apply to everything they do, when they released their debut album back in 2014, a few may have hoped they’d grow to where we find them today, but putting money on it would be a different thing altogether. Now, with their success assured, there’s the opportunity to go back and apply that creativity the band hold so dear to the record in thicker, bolder strokes. Adding new tracks and recording videos for every song isn’t a cheap business, but now they can afford to do it - to find a definitive version. This isn’t simply adding on a few b-sides and shoving it out there. They’ve worked to make something they believe in.

That version will be something new that can be pushed to a bigger, newer audience. Think PVRIS are as big as they can get? No way. Expect to hear ‘You and I’ all over the airwaves, converting more people to a band who genuinely could be one of the biggest on their block.

And yes, it is for sale. It is, in part, there to make some money. But that money will mean that when album two comes around, they’re more able to do what they want. Bigger, better, more fully realised. Music isn’t a charity - everything costs. What some may think of as selling out, in a different light is simply opening new doors. All those videos, those new songs - they’re going to be available online, without charge, too. That’s the way the world works now, remember.

And what's the alternative? Stick a brand label on everything that isn't nailed down? Where's the art in that?

Of course, necessity or the love of money can drive people to do things that, in an ideal world, they wouldn’t. But bands making new things can also give new opportunities to be creative - to do something that makes you step back and appreciate. Just call the phone number on Creeper’s latest t-shirt and see what we mean. Merch is there, in part, to make money - but even that’s an opportunity to do something cool. To sell out, you’ve got to sell in the first place. It’s the little touches that make the difference.

© 2018 The Bunker Publishing