So I’m currently listening to a 20th edition version of Nirvana’s In Utero and it’s got me wondering. Twenty years from now – what rock bands are going to be getting ‘Legacy’ editions of their records? What rock band could break up tomorrow and then wind up with a few massive re-releases down the road? It seems to me that many acts in the rock space have sort of hit a point where they need to keep toiling on and growing their brands with the realization that nobody is necessarily going to care about their early stuff beyond a few songs and that they can’t expect to retire and then still have income from re-releases. Beyond this I wanted to think about why this was – sure it’s in large part due to the glut of bands – but there are still groups who stand above the fray and look like some of the premiere acts of their generation – but it seems fairly clear that someone like Mastodon isn’t going to even be considered to get a thirty year legacy edition of Crack The Skye while a thirty year repress of In Utero seems inevitable. Is longevity dead?
I’d like to point out that there are a few obvious exceptions to this rule – it seems to me that The White Stripes will probably see re-releases of their music until the end of time. Certain genre defining releases like In The Nightside Eclipse by Emperor will probably also continue to be printed in all manner of editions for the next few decades. These are the albums we realize defined the state of modern rock music. Yet some of the groups who seem to have shaped a lot of where we come from as bands and music lovers don’t have any clear incentive to be printed into oblivion. Most of the time when we see a re-release it’s because a longstanding band is trying to promote a tour. This is important to think about – the fact that frequently a bands ability to justify a reprint is by keeping themselves in the headlines. I’m also willing to concede that I might be looking in the wrong places. This could be a major issue going forward. But there’s more to it than that.
I view the futures dearth of heritage releases is going to boil down to three things. The first is how many goddamn bands there are out there. At the end of the day – because of the unprecedented level of access and quantity of groups out there it just doesn’t make sense as a culture to stick to the same shit for years on end. You constantly have people refining, growing and developing ideas. You constantly have people experimenting with new ideas and making things interesting. Sure most people only want to stick with what they listened to when they were 15, but what happens when the average music consumer is exposed to more music than they ever have been before, more than at literally any other point in human history? If our hypothetical 15 year old music nerd is listening to 100 different bands odds are it doesn’t make sense for them to release any as legacy editions – the market couldn’t support it.
This ties into the next point – the fact that music streaming means that because you can get everything the way it was originally recorded anyway vastly diminishes the need for represses. It’s not like it was in the old days where there was only a finite number of copies of In Utero and a fair amount of them were lost to time. These days we live in a post-scarcity world we don’t need to worry about running out of copies of Nirvana records because they are all stored in the cloud. Well we also live in a post scarcity world for all other forms of music and the fact that we live in this post scarcity world means that the need for more copies of something is laughable. Tied into this is the simple fact that the quality of recording has exploded I the last twenty years with digital technology. This means that the need for remastering – frequently an excuse in the past for re-issues is no longer a thing. We can get great quality music shot through our earbuds at any times – and streaming operates at a low enough bit rate anyway that most of the advantages of remastering are lost anyway.
Then we get to the crusher – the obvious one – there is simply a lack of record sales. While in many cases today that means people are doubling down on classic records and back catalogs I don’t see that market holding up. Every day more and more people are shifting to pure streaming. This isn’t a case of them being bad music fans or whatever – it jut doesn’t make any fucking sense. Sitting on my couch I can listen to pretty much any record I could possibly want to hear by pressing a few keys on my laptop through my nice speakers. To do the same with a CD would require literal minutes. I know that sounds privileged and snotty – but that’s where we are at. While physical sales will probably never entirely go away – it seems like as people focus more on the new and the sheer diversity of music out there over the top re-releases and remasters are probably going to be viewed as unnecessary. Records will be printed until they are no longer needed, or reissued to support a tour.
Ultimately this means a lot of groups are going to be lost to the sands of time. The ones who are going to be able to justify re-issues are the ones who figure out cool collectors editions since that’s where the physical market is headed. Outside of that we are going to be seeing a lot of back catalogs getting love on streaming and not many other places. People will always go for the sure buck, but once we have reached a point where it’s hard to print more than a few hundred copies of a commemorative item then people are going to look at the margins and decide that the time is ripe to put these relics of the past to rest and embrace the collector and passion driven future.