Sometimes I ask music historian Andy Zax about music-biz stuff, and every time it’s entertaining. Our talk below took place in July of 2012; I was working on a piece about multiartist compilations when we got into talking about licensing, a fairly narrow topic he knew firsthand and well. It sheds some light, as well, on the changes in the music business over the last twenty years.
How did you end up in the reissue business?
I had been working at a major label. Almost from the minute that I got there, I started hammering people about, “Hey, you’re not really doing anything with this catalog. Why don’t you let me do stuff?” I would get politely rebuffed. The head of sales at this label had been there for decades. He actually remembered when a lot of the records I was interested in reissuing had come out the first time and not sold well. He would just give me this sort of [response]: “Kid, kid—what are you talking about? Why would you want to do that, kid? Nobody wants these records.” He was very old-school.
A friend who was doing a lot of work for Rhino asked me to write some liner notes for a series of compilations they were putting out in the mid-to-late ’90s. Rhino had done this very successful series of comps of AM radio hits, Super Hits Of The ’70s, and the R&B counterpart, Didn’t It Blow Your Mind! They were looking for a big series to follow that, [for] ’80s nostalgia. They had put together this 15-volume series of new-wave hits of the ’80s, [Just Can't Get Enough]. I wound up doing liner notes for several volumes of that. Suddenly, I had significant relationships at Rhino.
One of the things I had been bugging people about was that the Echo And The Bunnymen catalog was a shambles. There was a ton of stuff that had come out on singles that I thought represented a lot of their best work, and none of that had ever appeared in the digital era. It was all lost. The existing CDs were terrible—clearly [this was] a band that was spoiling for a big-ass Rhino box set. I was haranguing one of the main A&R people there about this, and he finally said, “Do it.” Once I had produced that, I basically refused to stop. They had people on staff doing this, but also a small pool of freelancers as well. I became one of their go-to outside producers over the next decade or so.
Were curated multiartist overviews decent sellers at that point?
Yes. Well-curated, multiartist genre or label overviews were a mainstay of the catalog business during the earlier part of the CD boom. Think about it for a second: You have this new technology that supposedly offers greatly improved sound, and a lot of material was not yet available in that format. There was a tremendous hunger, essentially among people who were adopting a new technology, the CD player. They needed software.
A lot of what went on during that early phase was cherry picking, a surface scrape before people went deeper. The big labels were handling their A-list artists acceptably, but there were a lot of B- and C-list artists that weren’t represented at all—in many cases, hadn’t really been represented on vinyl or cassette since the ’60s or ’70s. [...]