Why are so many cult albums being re-released?
The curious few who were lucky enough to have bought Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats when it was originally released in 1979 were in for a treat. Possibly one of the most subversive albums of all time, the cover features the band posing in a pastoral field of wildflowers near a cliff's edge, warmly offering the possibility of '70s jazz funk that lay inside. Rather than easy-listening hits, the listener would soon discover they had purchased an album of pounding industrial vitriol from the "wreckers of civilization." The cliff the band was standing near was an infamous English suicide spot.
Until the rise of online file sharing, obtaining such an influential anti-pop album meant frequenting obscure, eclectic record stores that trafficked in independent, experimental recordings. Since then, though, 20 Jazz Funk Greats' importance has become more widely accepted—so much so that the album was remastered and re-released this past November.
The Throbbing Gristle reissue comes amid a wave of reissues for once-obscure bands, providing another sign that we're living in a renaissance for cultural omnivores.
The stream of now-classic, once-hard-to-find albums that have been recently reissued, and those still to be released, would have been once unimaginable. The list of boxed sets from this year alone is worthy of awe: collections from American primitivist John Fahey, Chicago punk band Jesus Lizard, DC hardcore outfit Void, krautrock originators Can, Turkish psych pioneer Erkin Koray, Seattle funk, indie rock stalwarts Neutral Milk Hotel, music of the Ottoman-American diaspora, and Ghanian folk. Over the last 10 years, this list would expand to include Orange Juice, Bad Brains, Big Star, Fela Kuti, Gang of Four, Kleenex/Liliput, Les Rallizes Dénudés, Neu!, Suicide, the Fall, the Homosexuals, the Buzzcocks, Métal Urbain, the Raincoats, ESG, Beat Happening, the 13th Floor Elevators, Wire, and the Stooges. Then there are the collections of girl group sounds from the '60s, Indianapolis funk, murder ballads, punkabilly, unending collections of international garage and psychedelic rock, or music from countries like Mauritania with no previously recorded output. And while the Beach Boys don't rate as obscure, the 2011 release of their long-languishing Smile tapes handily encapsulates the trend: What was once sought after on bootleg by a relatively small group of collectors has been packaged for official release, to be displayed on Best Buy shelves across the country.
The unifying element across this list is that the original recordings weren't commercially popular. These bands might draw a fervent cult following in certain circles or parts of the world, but few of these names would have been recognized in the larger forum of pop music when they first started. Some were independent musicians with unique sounds, and some weren't interested in marketing—or were actively antagonistic to the idea of marketing.
As it has done with so many kinds of media, the Internet has helped these acts find and grow an audience—one that's big enough to warrant reissuing albums that not many people bought in the first place. So much is accessible so easily that it's hard to remember a time when an extremely influential act like Neu! would have been known only to a small set of music collectors. Now the current barrier to hearing something considered unpopular or outside one's usual tastes can easily be breached by a cursory Google search. That has led to new, larger followings for old cult bands.
But with so much readily available online, re-releasing an album in a physical format may seem strange. In part, it's a prestige play. A band like the Smiths—which came from the world of independent music and saw some success in the UK charts but were hampered by some aspects of independent distribution—now have the opportunity to put out a boxed set to an audience half-composed of older devotees keen on nostalgia and half an ever-widening, younger audience unfamiliar with their songs. That means a new chance to sell albums, and a new reason for the music press to sing the band's praises. It's the same motivation behind the rise of reunion tours (although, famously, The Smiths have yet to do one).
The irony of the download era is that older bands that were ignored and unappreciated during their existence have recently seen their influence and credibility rise, even as their work is now being given away for free. Some of the people behind reissues feel it's only right for these acts to try to cash in on their new cultural cache. As Paul Smith of Industrial Records, which reissued 20 Jazz Funk Greats, put it in an email, "The attitude of 'free for all' culture encourages a lack of respect and appreciation/acknowledgement for the work, time and talent that goes into making music."
But given that so-called "free for all" culture, even if a band experiences a resurgence of appreciation, does that translate to sales for new physical copies of old recordings? Recently, Joyful Noise Recordings re-released six Dinosaur Jr. albums on cassette tape, which went on to sell out in a matter of days. "[With] the prevalence of digital music today, a lot of music listeners have never owned a physical copy of a recording," Karl Hofstetter, owner of Joyful Noise, says by email. "Digital music has reached a point where you are not required to purchase music in order to listen to it. All the music in the world is at our fingertips for free, but the obsessive fan's desire to own something tactile isn't going away."