Collecting music in the digital age

Today I received an email from the Serein label, announcing two (physical, ie. CD) re-releases of sold out CD editions of two particular albums, Nest’s “Retold” and Brambles’ “Charcoal” – stating that they’re re-issuing new editions because “copies of the original CDs [are] going for ridiculous second-hand prices.”

And whenever something like that happens, I’m a little torn, and I’m leaning more towards a “no physical re-issues” rule, now that digital downloads are so well-established (and don’t get me wrong – I prefer a CD over a digital download almost every time, and I’ve been looking for copies of “Retold” for a while).

And in the case of Nest’s “Retold” album especially, I find this an odd move. The album began as a free download, and to this day it is readily available on archive.org (Nest – “Nest EP”). Later on, it was re-released on CD as “Retold” with an additional five tracks – by the time I found out, the CD was long sold out. Since I liked the music of the free version, I wanted to support the musicians, so I bought the “Retold” download, and watched the CD prices on discogs.com (and yes, they are high, but not outrageously high for a true collector).

In 2014 then, it was released as a limited edition vinyl (yeah… don’t ask what it is with vinyl, I just don’t get it) as “Retold 2014 special edition”, and as a download. This release contained two more new tracks. I don’t know how this was handled for buyers from previous CD and/or digital editions – I didn’t get any notice (maybe because I bought “Retold” in 2011 or 2012 when Serein was not marketing their music directly themselves through Bandcamp, as they do now).

Anyway. Now from my point of view, it would have been fair to release the two new tracks as a free download to existing customers, or for an “update fee”, something like that. And no, I don’t know if that happened.

And now, this 2014 special edition is re-released, this time on CD, with the two bonus tracks. On the one hand, I could be happy. Waiting that long and not buying one of the 2nd hand CDs at the high price for a collectors item paid off! The new release contains all 13 tracks from the vinyl special edition, only this time on CD – and I get it at the regular price.

On the other hand, I see a few problems with this whole digital/physical/vinyl/re-release mess:

  • I already paid for 11 of the 13 tracks in the past. And I’d sure like to have the two new tracks – do I have to pay for the whole thing as a download again, instead of just the two new tracks? Why? Maybe that’s just tough luck – but shouldn’t there be a relationship of trust and respect between small indie internet labels and their fans?
  • Those who went ahead and bought the original “Retold” CD release in 2010 and supported the artists now have a collectors item pretty much devalued – by a new CD release that not only sells for cheap, but also contains more music!
  • And can those who bought the special edition vinyl in 2014 also expect to have their collectors item devalued by a vinyl re-release sooner or later, because the vinyl release pretty much too trades at the same “ridiculous second hand prices” as the original CD?

This is only an example. Things like these happen ALL the time, and of course not just on the Serein label. And I think the small indie music labels need to seriously think about their strategy and, bluntly put, get their act together – and stop pissing their long-standing supporters and collectors off.

I don’t mind digital only re-issues of out of print/sold out CD and vinyl releases at all. For anyone who wants the music and pay their respect to the artists and label, they can get the download edition any time. There’s no limitation.

But I think that by now, physical releases should be treated differently – and buyers of physical releases should earn a little more respect for the support they’ve shown. Yes, I buy a physical release because I like and want the scarcity and rarity, and eventually also the rise in value (and I hardly ever sell any of them).

Physical releases of music in the age of digital downloads to me increasingly are like the limited edition prints of a photograph. If a photographer would pull a stunt like the Serein label (and again, many others too) did and decide to simply re-issue a new batch of prints for a limited edition print that sold out (because they’re “going for ridiculously high prices”), he would pretty much ruin his reputation and sooner or later, no collector would buy from him anymore.

And I think music labels should really begin to handle their physical releases in a similar fashion, and leave their limited physical releases alone. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Sold out, the end. That means no re-issues, ever. Labels like Ultimae and txt do it that way (at least until now, and I hope it stays that way), and it seems to work for them – and why shouldn’t it? (ok, with txt actually, I miss a digital option for some of their releases).

Ultimately the question is – does Serein want to be a label that is highly collectible like txt or Ultimae? As it is now, probably not – so the high second hand prices where a bubble, and they made it burst. If anything, that’s good to know, and I’m glad that I didn’t hunt down a physical release of “Retold” from the second hand market.

UPDATE: within a day or two after publishing this article, multiple copies of both albums were listed for sale on Discogs.com – some of them probably collectors parting with their inventory, since Serein turned out to be not a collectible label, and some of them fans who want the re-release instead with the extra track. Me? I decided to not reward Serein for that stunt. I already paid for 12 of the 13 tracks, and I can easily do without the 13th one…


And yet: of course you should listen to the “Retold” album if you don’t know it. It’s a beauty.

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1 Comment

  1. Agreed.
    The digitizing of music has certainly created a need to view its distribution differently, the longevity of the copy being a driving force.
    It reminds me of a cable company offering “new” customers a killer deal while they ream the loyal customer….just doesn’t make sense.

    Liked by 1 person

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