When artist Milton Glaser was asked to put together a drawing of Bob Dylan for a then-forthcoming biography, he came up with a concept that involved him having psychedelic hair, as it was 1966. The publisher wasn’t able to present the full color drawing in “full color”, so it was scaled down to blue and tan lines. Upon presenting it to Dylan, he rejected it immediately. The drawing would eventually be used as a poster found in copies of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits on Columbia. If you went to someone’s home or apartment and they had the poster, then you’d know they had a copy of the album. The trippiness of the drawing started to take on a life of its own and became iconic in its own right, with people discovering the word “ELVIS” spelled out in Dylan’s hair.
Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson is the drummer for the Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots, and he is about to release his first book in 2013, done with author Ben Greenman, called Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove (Grand Central Publishing). If you have ever read his liner notes, his online posts, or Tweets, you’ll know that he is a walking and breathing version of album/CD liner notes. We’re not talking mere production credits and acknowledgments, but full on liner notes. After all of that accumulation, he has put all of that down (or as much as he can up to a point) so the public can consume it at will. The cover of the book is homage to Glaser’s Dylan drawing, but instead of having psychedelic hair with “ELVIS” spelled within, it’s a number of question marks and his trademark Afro-pick. As I’m looking at ?uest’s book, I notice a few curls in his mustache and beard. Is there secret code found within? Uncertain at this time, but I’m sure the code that everyone will want to discover will be located within its pages.
It is one of the biggest selling and perhaps most famous Greatest Hits album of all time, as it has always been in print since its original release in 1967, and after being available on cassette, 8-track, and CD, you’re now able to buy a newly remastered version of it as a gold CD.
The Steve Hoffman remaster of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits will be released by Audio Fidelity on July 3rd. Many record collections will have this album, and if people aren’t total Dylan fans, somehow this album will be there, and for good reason. Audio Fidelity says that this new remaster will have the best version of “Like A Rolling Stone” ever heard, a bold statement but one that will be of interest, especially those who have enjoyed the remastering of Hoffman over the years.
On the left, the legendary Robert Zimmerman, better known to the world as Bob Dylan. People have called this album cover “iconic”, but a lot of his albums from the 1960’s have received this honor. It’s a way of saying that, in the era when an album cover meant everything, this was one of those that became very famous.
On the right, Seattle MC Spekulation. His homage to Dylan is being used to promote his new single, “Something is Happening Here”, a taste to come from a forthcoming EP due out in January. Spekulation is backed by a full band and DJ, and with a bit of Dylanesque essence in the music itself, it ends up creating a nice vibe from one storyteller to another.
Let’s get the latter part of that question out of the way so you’ll know the focus of this article. In a time of social media, where musicians, producers, rappers, singers, and entertainers are able to interact for the first time via Twitter and Facebook, fans are able to be “in touch” with the people they may idolize. On one hand it might be dangerous, as it can lead to idolatry or worse. On the good side, artists are able to find out what fans really want while fans can pop the bubble and realize that for the most part, artists and entertainers are as real as they make themselves out to be. Away from the facades, most humans are indeed human. But this is not about the people behind the names and personas, but rather their output.
An article posted at HipHopDX about how fans are encouraging Def Jam to release the Lost Tapes 2 project by Nas, instigated by an online petition. For me it brings up one big question: will music fans ever get what they really want, and how much is too much?
As I was growing up and getting into music as much more than just something cool to listen to, I made lists of projects I wanted released. I have a book somewhere where I actually came up with the “cassingle” concept, where one would be able to have the same two songs on a 7″ 45rpm record on a cassette. This was before they were placed on the market, and had I knew about trademarks, I could have cashed in big time. At a young age, I was already an armchair record company CEO, wanting labels to release this or that, and I was never afraid to find out who controlled certain departments at a label, so that my mail would go directly to them. In time I became a writer, and I would continue writing to publicists and music supervisors not only for free music (back when “free music” was reserved for a select few) but in the hopes one of my ideas would be used. I wanted to be in the recording industry, I wanted to not only work in the mailroom, but become a publicist, reissue supervisor, I wanted to run a label. I wanted to be bigger than Capitol, Atlantic, Warner Bros., and Columbia combined. Wishful thinking, I know, but it would not stop me from wanting to make an impact, however small.
If I’ve made an impact, I’d like to think it was with my reviews and articles. If I’m able to find a way for fans to at least be motivated to listen to something I recommend, I’m happy. I’ll rarely hear about it, but I’m hopeful people will take that chance.
One thing I’ve always wanted to do was reissues, to be with a record label, go through the tape library and archives, and find what is rare and/or unknown. I wanted to raid old recording studios and warehouses because during elementary school, I’d regularly go to the Hawai’i State Library and go through old books, microfiche, and file cabinets looking for anything on topics that moved me. I wanted to know what existed before me, especially when they were hidden from general view. I wanted to adapt that craving for knowledge and apply it to a record label. I look forward to becoming a music supervisor for a project so I can also do the liner notes, and be able to fulfill my dream of winning Best Album Liner Notes.
There have been many times when I’ve written to labels and asked them “why haven’t you reissued this?” A publicist for an audiophile reissue label told me this when I gave them a list of albums I’d like to see them handle: “we don’t do outside A&R”. In other words, my suggestions were not welcome and at that point it rubbed me the wrong way. I wasn’t trying to take the guy’s position, I simply wanted to suggest, and even an idea was not something they cared to even read. I had sent another reissue label an idea for a box set, and they told me point blank that that artist is not someone of value. The artist, Eddie Bo, was someone whose music was and still is heavily sampled in hip-hop, soul/R&B, and dance music, and I felt the label, who released a lot of disco, soul, R&B, and blues compilations, would do Bo’s music justice. They felt he wouldn’t sell because Bo was so obscure. A decade later, said label released a box set with heavy duty funk and soul obscurities, with a booklet featuring liner notes from a journalist friend. The label’s British reissue division released these exact obscurities in a series of compilations, and yet due to “no sales potential” here in the U.S., my suggestion was ignored. All of a sudden, this box set is released and it receives a good amount of position reviews. Granted, I’m not in Los Angeles or New York so I can’t make the same impact a music supervisor could do there, but I had an idea and it was ignored, only for someone else to take credit for a similar idea. I also had another idea for a reissue project, sent it in to the head of the label and was told “this will absolutely not sell.” Less than a year, that label released a compilation CD featuring my suggestions. Keep in mind that “a suggestion is a suggestion”, and any group of people can have the same idea, but c’mon. Chances of any other label having the same idea was slim, and again, it irked me. It’s not just the face that my suggestions and ideas were turned into something fruitful, it’s just that it would be nice to work on those projects for the labels.
The small but tight bootlegging industry of the late 1960’s and 1970’s gave power to the fan who wanted to release more music by artists than a label cared to do. All you had to have was a few hundred dollars, a pressing plant to make your records, and a few connections on how to obtain live recordings or studio outtakes. In time, these bootleggers would gain local, regional, national, and in time world attention. The legitimate record industry were pissed, because they felt bootleggers were taking away millions from labels and artists. Little did these labels know that some artists were in favor of these boots, as it often gave them a bit of street credibility when fans were able to hear an artist sound “in the raw” without the polish of a professional recording. Did bootleggers actually steal millions of dollars, no. Did bootleggers earn thousands of dollars, yes, and according to some books and articles about bootlegging, some were able to pay their way through college through the sales of “illegal records”. As compact discs became more popular, bootlegs would eventually find its way in the digital realm and the audio quality would highly improve, changing the definition of what had been known as “bootleg quality recordings”. The introduction of the MP3 digital file in the mid-1990’s meant that any and all audio files could be transferred on the internet, via e-mail and Usenet. Initially it was okay to low-quality files, generally single songs mailed out. As modem speeds increased, so did the amount of digital transmissions (upload and download). Audio quality also improved, to the point where an MP3 was considered “as good as a high quality cassette”, which meant “not CD quality, but good enough for general use.” That was all that fans needed to know in order to abandon hard copy completely. While the MP3 made it possible to download almost anything ever recorded, what some fans wanted was the obscure stuff. Yes, even in the digital world where obscurity means nothing when any audio file can be infinitely cloned, fans still wanted more.
Look at any music community and you’ll find thousands of people wanting to hear more music. We are in a period in time when we are able to consume as much music as possible, or at least download as much music as possible and never having the time to hear it all. It’s megabyte and gigabyte gluttony, and people want to hear not only what’s new, but anything and everything that came out in the last 120 years. Fans are making an impact by creating their own compilations and digital “box sets”, coming up with concepts and ideas that at one time was plentiful in the legitimate music industry. As the industry moved from “music projects” to “mandatory quarterly sales of units”, it seems quality control and creativity… maybe not disappeared 100 percent, but moved to people at independent labels who still care for the music. Those who are not a part of that inner circle are taking their wares online and giving the fans what they want or should have.
There’s a lot of stuff online that I’m not interested in, but people are making custom compilations on everything from 80’s classics, deep disco, Germany military funk, hip-hop instrumentals, country ballads: name a genre, there’s probably a custom compilation out there. If you love avant-garde and experimental music, you’ll find a community catering to that. I’m sure there are fanatical classical fans who must have performances of pieces that may be in the wrong key, I don’t know. Of course, if you want to find music by the top selling artists, you’ll find them in abundance.
Yet with all of these homemade and custom projects available online, it doesn’t take away the fact that fans want to hear them, and many are still willing to buy them, whether it’s in digital form or hard copy. Nas fans support their favorite MC and yet his current label, Def Jam, is holding back. Is it a sales opportunity missed, a label unable to release it because of uncleared samples, or just not caring for the demands of fans?
As anyone in any business will tell you, if you want something done, you have to do it yourself. If you’re complaining about why artists aren’t playing in your city, find a way to bring them there yourself, find people who could do it, make the connections and make it happen. I do not have the money it takes to go to any artist, label, or recording studio to say “I want to reissue this, how much would it cost for me to license these recordings?”, but I would like to be involved with people who do. Yet if I did have the funds to work with, trust me, I would do everything in my power to do the kind of work I want to, to hear the music I want to hear and to satisfy the fans who have been waiting for it too. The reason why box sets were hugely popular in the 80’s and 90’s is because fans wanted more, and labels did not think those old and rejected recordings were of value. All of a sudden, Bob Dylan‘s Biograph and Eric Clapton‘s Crossroads box sets sold immensely, and almost every other artist had a box set in their name. If they didn’t, the bootleggers would come in to save the day. Major labels would often say “we have exhausted the vaults, there’s no more”, and somehow bootlegger Ignacio from the Philippine mountains would be sitting in a warehouse full of unheard of soundboard concert recordings by everyone who toured in that part of the world. At that time, the recording industry did give fans what they wanted, and everyone was rewarded.
Is it a Nas issue? A Def Jam issue? Or has the industry not placed value on hip-hop reissues because the market has been widely neglected? Is hip-hop not “rock” enough, and why does the music have to live up to rock’n’roll when the music was, as Chuck D. had said many times before, a generation’s rock’n’roll? Perhaps when the industry twisted the rock’n’roll power of hip-hop, and had to find its Elvis Presley, its Beatles, its Rolling Stones, that’s when things shifted for the worse. Perhaps a part of rock’n’roll’s power is that idolatry, the idea that there are mere musical Gods walking on this Earth, artists play it up all the time in a live setting, but that power has to do with what they’re creating. The majesty of rock’n’roll, hard rock, and heavy metal can be heard in blues, in jazz, in soul, in funk, and very much in hip-hop. Yet what the opportunists have done is milk the hip-hop lucrative teet for everything but the music. The music is secondary, and it’s as if the industry wants to cater to those who want to buy in the lifestyle and not the music. It’s not a music industry, it’s a lifestyle industry, or as a music executive told me, “it’s less of a music industry these days and more of a T-shirt industry”. In other words, everyone is selling shirts and shoes because it makes more money than the music itself, while music itself is now a tool to sell toothpaste and Armor-All.
Less music, more lifestyle: Does that perception make fans feel that if they “buy” into a lifestyle, they’ll become what they’re not? Maybe that’s another topic, another time, but if there’s any truth to this, then music fans are truly missing some incredible music. It’s not just what remains unreleased, but the millions of artists who are struggling to be heard but are shut out by an industry that continues to close down creativity for the sake of finding a better recipe to make money. How can you blame an industry for struggling to find a way to make the public buy things they haven’t had faith in for a decade? Then again, how can one blame fans for knowing, wanting, and demanding better?
In the rock and folk lexicon, the first Bob Dylan album is one of the most discussed album of his era, enough to where it can be called “his” era.
The album you see on the right honors Dylan not only with homage to his first album, but it’s a brand new tribute album (to be released on October 12th) called How Many Roads: Black America Sings Bob Dylan featuring covers performed by Brook Benton, The Neville Brothers, The Staples Singers, Patti LaBelle, Nina Simone, The Isley Brothers, The O’Jays, and many more.