Show of hands: How many of you have plunked down your hard-earned cash for your favorite artist's latest album, only to discover that a "new and improved" version is on its way later on?
Yeah, me too. And I don't like it one bit.
While a couple of "re-issues" have definitely been worth it (like Gavin DeGraw's re-release of Chariot, which included an entire disc of acoustic material with the original, or the stellar 10th anniversary release of Weezer's "blue album"), that's not usually the case. In fact, many of the so-called "extras" on most re-releases these days barely justify the 99 cents they'd charge on iTunes for a download.
Of course, it's not just the mainstream market that's figured out how to drum up some extra cash in the wake of declining CD sales (USA Today reported that total album sales dropped 7.2% in 2005, while digital album downloads climbed 194%, from 5.5 million to 16.2 million). The Christian music side of the spectrum is playing the re-release game too, as label execs try to come up with ways to tide listeners over until an artist makes his/her next album—which is especially strange in a day when many artists are expected to deliver a new album annually anyway).
While I certainly understand the strategy, it's not always executed in the most beneficial manner. I mean, c'mon, can't someone think of something a little more worthwhile for fans than slapping together a couple of "bonus" tracks (which are usually only slightly altered versions of a song already included on the CD) and maybe adding a video or two if we're lucky? Puhleeze. No wonder CD sales on are on the decline.
Just check these re-releases in Christian music alone: Relient K's mmHmm, Vineyard Worship's Come Now Is the Time to Worship, Matthew West's Sellout, Fernando Ortega's In a Welcome Field, Switchfoot's The Beautiful Letdown, Mute Math's Mute Math (but don't tell them we included 'em with the Christian albums), Tree63's The Answer to the Question, KJ-52's Behind the Musik, Superchick's Beauty from Pain, Mat Kearney's Bullet, BarlowGirl's Another Journal Entry, and the list goes on.
While none of these re-releases featured much new or unique content, I still could see why Switchfoot, Superchick, Mute Math and Kearney went the re-release route: Their albums were first issued in the Christian market, and then, as those artists gained more exposure in the mainstream market, were re-issued to that side as well.
A new disc for a new market makes sense. But a slightly tweaked disc to the same market? Well, that's a whole other matter.
Striking while the iron's hot
Even more annoying than a lackluster re-release however, is the whole "let's strike while the iron's hot" mentality that has yielded lackluster releases like Building 429's Space in Between Us Expanded Edition that was released a little more than a year after the original Space in Between Us. Sure, the band won the prestigious "New Artist of the Year" title at the Doves in 2005, an accolade that could possibly lead to more interest. But why re-release something just to include a couple of alternate and unplugged versions of the same material, along with a tired cover of Chris Tomlin's classic "Famous One?"
Oh, and in the same worshipful vein, did anyone else find it a little odd that the already-stellar Exodus worship project from 1998 had three new songs added to it for no apparent reason last year? Sure, it was a nice way to give then new artists Taylor Sorensen, Robbie Seay Band and tobyMac collaborator Nirva a little exposure alongside Jars of Clay, dc talk, Michael W. Smith and more, but was it really necessary? Especially when it wasn't even the 10th anniversary of the disc or another worthy occasion?
But in some cases, a worthy occasion, like the mainstream crossover success of MercyMe's hit "I Can Only Imagine" can only go so far. In addition to the original release of Almost There, there's also been the dual disc release, which truthfully was pretty cool—especially for techies—as it was re-tooled with 5.1 Surround sound. In addition, they also provided a behind-the-scenes look at the "Imagine" video shoot, told the story behind the song, gave an insightful history of the band and provided plenty of live concert footage.
But all my excitement dwindled quickly when I recently heard there was also a "Platinum Edition" of Almost There as well with "previously unreleased versions" of "I Can Only Imagine" included. C'mon, folks, how many versions of one song do people really need without it bordering on ridiculous?
Why punish faithful fans?
While the list continues to grow—everyone from Sanctus Real to Steven Curtis Chapman to Skillet has provided slightly enhanced versions of their original projects recently—I have to ask: Why punish fans by offering a "new and improved" version of the album they already bought to support the artist in the first place? Instead, why not reserve such re-releases for special occasions—classic albums—making sure to add plenty of B-sides, videos, and special packaging to justify it?
When I heard that ForeFront was re-releasing dc talk's Jesus Freak in honor of its 10-year anniversary, I was excited because that's a prime example of doing it right. Not only does the re-release include the original disc, but an additional disc chock full of rarities, B-sides and alternate versions that are really "alternate," not merely slightly tweaked or haphazardly remixed.
But for every proper re-release of Jesus Freak, there's something bad to counteract it. After all, when Chris Tomlin's marketing peeps decide that after the success of See the Morning and Arriving that it's time to re-issue his first two studio efforts as a combined, budget-priced set called The Early Years (even though his first project, The Noise We Make, only released five years ago), it's time to say "enough's enough." After all, don't you think we fans deserve more for our money and continued loyalty?
One need look no further than the DVD market for examples of how to do it right.
While there have certainly been a few extraneous releases—like the constantly "improved versions" of the Lord of the Rings trilogy—there is almost always more to offer the viewer, rather than less, making the additional purchase worthwhile rather than disappointing. After seeing a favorite movie in the theaters, it's nice to buy the DVD with its typical plethora of perks and bonus footage—commentaries, deleted scenes, "making of" featurettes, blooper reels, and so on.
If re-released CDs featured as many extras as the average DVD, albums—the actual, tangible discs—would have a distinct advantage over their online counterparts. But until that happens, well, we'll have to settle for less.
And that's unfortunate.
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