Once More Into the Catalog, with Concord Music Group (part 2)

Continued from Part One

Sometimes the Concord Music Group reissue team does have to resort to baking the tapes. This is a process that is exactly what it sounds like: the magnetic tapes start to flake, to separate from themselves. The music literally falls off of the tape. So the reels are placed in a low-heat oven for several hours, causing the material to re-adhere. The result is a tape that can again be played…once. “With the technology that’s around now,” Chris Clough (Concord’s Manager of Catalog Development) says, “once you’ve baked a tape, then you can do a super-high resolution archive, and then you can work from that. Once it’s digitized and you’ve got that good transfer, you can go back to that, rather than the original tape.”

Concord has cultivated very good relationships with the Ray Charles Foundation and Frank Sinatra Enterprises, co-stewards of these reissue projects. The list of titles that have come out in the last few years on Concord has been a nice mix of expanded reissues, thematic compilations, and occasional rarities (such as the Ray Charles set Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters). A number of interesting projects are in development, or at least under review. “We’re hoping to put together a Ray Charles Complete ABC Singles box set,” Clough reveals. “It would include a lot of savory b-sides that not a lot of people know about. Even a-sides that didn’t make it as hits, that didn’t make it on albums.”

Some of those songs are great, and haven’t shown up before owing to lack of space. “When we did Genius: The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection, we had to have X number of songs that people expect. There are probably ten songs that, if they weren’t on there, we’d be crucified,” Clough chuckles. “So there’s a lot of really great stuff that most people just haven’t heard.”

Clough describes this potential Complete ABC Singles set as a major undertaking, with challenges related to “sourcing the material” and putting it all together. Likely to be five or six discs worth of material, the project “requires a lot of work before you can really start. And we’re in the process of doing that now,” Clough says.

Concord has also embarked on a jazz reissue series under the umbrella title The Original Jazz Classics Remasters. In the last year or so alone, archival releases have included albums of historical import from a staggering list of greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Ornette Coleman, Cannonball Addereley, Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Wes Montgomery, Cal Tjader, Stan Getz, Vince Guaraldi and others. In addition to the appending of relevant bonus tracks when available, these high sonic quality discs add value by including new contemporary liner notes that help provide context for the music.

“The average jazz fan,” says Clough – whose job it is to know these things – “is the sort of person who buys a physical CD. They want to read the liner notes. They want to know who originally engineered it, who remastered it. And we hire high-quality writers who really understand these records and can give them context. They can bring things full circle,” he points out. “When the original liner notes writer wrote about it, no one knew that John Coltrane was Coltrane.”

On some level, some of the Concord reissues are a clearly labor of love. Some titles are important but unlikely to shift in units necessary – if viewed individually – to justify their release from a cost/benefit analysis point of view. “It’s always a balancing act,” Clough admits. “We run everything through a P&L process before it gets greenlit.”

“A lot of it hinges on the mechanical fees,” Clough explains, referring to the royalties due to the publisher/owner of the recording (as opposed to the actual composer or performer), a rate calculated based on the length of a song. “Jazz is tough, because songs are really long. And anything over five minutes gets exponentially more expensive the longer it goes. There is a threshold, and we do take that into account,” he says.

“The market is shrinking,” Clough admits. “But sometimes you can tuck something in: maybe if you’re releasing five titles, you can include one that isn’t as commercially viable but that is an important title. If you feel strongly about it, you try to roll it into that group. But that gets harder and harder to do.”

Clough reflects on the joy that he experiences when working on these catalog projects. “When I found Ray Charles’ live version of ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ [included on the 2011 expanded reissue of Ray Charles Live in Concert] I couldn’t believe it. It was a totally different arrangement; it just blew my mind. It was really stunning.”

He continues. “We just re-released The Staple Singers album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself.  There were a fistful of outtakes to choose from, and some of them, you could see why they didn’t make the cut. But the ones we included, I said, ‘I don’t understand why this wasn’t on the original record! It’s great!’ Some of these were dynamite songs that had been sitting in the vaults for ages. And we wanted the world to hear them.”

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