Yeah, it's easy to pile on the major labels these days for all their foul-ups and foibles, for their lawsuits and their protectionism, for single-minded focus on money at the expense of dignity (see below blurry photo of Coldplay banner sullying the roof of the majestic Capitol Building of this summer). It always seems that when it comes to music, they're one of Them, not one of us.
But it's important to remember each of the major labels is comprised of two distinct branches: the creative side and the business side. Some of the most fanatical and knowledgeable people I know get their paychecks from the big labels, hold their noses as they bank them, get disgusted like you and me by the blog posts re: labels disrespecting their artists for the sake of eking out a few extra bucks from the consumer. It's no doubt doubly heartbreaking to work for a company whose other arm, the business side, makes lunkheaded, counter-intuitive decisions regarding its music, the most sacred of things, because it answers to corporate accountants and lawyers. Responsible for budgets and bottom lines, accountants and lawyers make a dastardly duo; they don't care whether the new Graham Nash reissue of Songs for Beginners sounds any good (it sounds great, in fact), but whether it makes fiscal sense to spend the money to do it up right, and how they're going to protect their investment.
A low-point of the summer: Capitol sullies its building with a Coldplay banner.
Most of the time the business side wins out, but lately the pencil pushers are beginning to realize that, lo and behold, people like pretty things that creative people make. They like to hold packages, like the heft of a record, the feel of putting it on the platter and carefully and with great affection locking the needle into the groove.
I've got twin Technics set up in my living room, and my record shelves are around the corner. When I write, I do so in twenty minute increments as I move from stereo to couch and back again. I listen to CDs and MP3s in my car and on my iPod and in my office, but at home I'm an analog guy. I listened to probably 50 records over the past two days as I worked on a feature (you know what? I really like the Stones' Black and Blue, I've decided), and a good number of these movements involved the recent series of vinyl reissues put out by Capitol. In the last year, a few thoughtful pieces have been written about vinyl-love/iPod aversion, and it seems like somebody in the Capitol Building understands.
Over the past three months the mighty label on Vine has issued 180-gram LPs from their back catalog, a big, heavy stack of classics from some of its best artists, including the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, all of Radiohead's pre-In Rainbows output (including beautiful gatefolds of OK Computer and Hail to the Thief, and 10" versions of Kid A and Amnesiac), John Lennon's Phil Spector-produced Imagine and a handful of others.
Which is cool and everything, and makes good business sense given the recent uptick in vinyl interest. But the thing is, they're beautiful documents done up right. Any label can call up RTI Records in Camarillo, CA and order up some vinyl LPs, but Capitol for this campaign has outdone itself.
Take the Imagine reissue. Un-pop the cellophane and there's some heft to the record. It's a beautiful slab of vinyl, has some substance, is pressed like the original issue, not the mediocre mid-eighties crepes that were a rip-off even at $7.98. And inside: the original fold-out poster of John Lennon seated at the piano working something out. Even the poster's on high-grade stock, suitable for framing.
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Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun" on LP. Listen to that guitar.
I bet I listened to side one of Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies a dozen times yesterday, over and over again those two extended meditations, "Who Knows" at nine minutes and all twelve minutes of "Machine Gun." The albums have a warmth, yes, but that's such a cliche that I'm embarrassed to say it myself. It's clean, pure vinyl, pressed with plateau-like precision, and sounds lush and beautiful coming out of my B&Ws.
Look, we're all about tearing down the major label system here at Play. But this recent series by Capitol serves as a welcome reminder that, in the end, the label may be powered by profits, but there's some love inside there, too.