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In late August, Billboard reported that CD sales had plummeted to their lowest point since 1991.
"This week's 3.97-million album sales tally is the smallest weekly sum for album sales since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking data in 1991," the music industry weekly noted. "It's also the first time weekly sales have fallen below four million in that time span."
And it’s not only an issue of physical sales. Streaming services are cutting into digitally downloaded music sales, too.
Some small retailers in Milwaukee, however, say sales of CDs remain strong.
"Compact Discs, surprisingly, are still selling well, especially the last couple years versus the previous three or four prior," says Dan DuChaine, co-owner of Bay View’s Rush-Mor Records, which caters to serious music fans.
"I believe (it’s a) combination of the record labels making them semi-always affordable now -- something they should have done in the '90s -- as well as the consumer and lover of the actual 'physical' entity. The love affair of the phantom album owner via download, and the all-around theft of artists’ work, has had it's honeymoon," he says. "The real supporters want the real thing, what the artist envisioned and produced for an audience to experience."
But some of what may be helping to drive sales -- or at least that’s what labels are hoping -- is the continued flow of "deluxe" reissues of catalog material in box sets, in multiple-CD packages and in other enhanced products.
"I think having extra or bonus content for pre-ordering a CD is a great idea," says Terry Hackbarth, who works at Bull’s Eye Records and The Exclusive Co. on the East Side. "It gets people to buy a physical medium that maybe they would've gotten on itunes or illegally."
Some recent examples are the first five Led Zeppelin albums, which have been remastered by the band’s guitarist Jimmy Page and reissued this year in gatefold digipak sleeves with a second CD of related material selected by band members. A variety of other options, from vinyl reissues to super deluxe box sets of these reissues, are also on offer.
Similarly, Paul McCartney has continued to reissue his 1970s solo albums. The latest installments -- "Venus and Mars" and "Wings at the Speed of Sound" -- each feature remastered LPs on one disc and extras on a second. The former has some singles tracks as well as tunes from a New Orleans session with Allen Toussaint, while the latter offers mostly demos of LP tunes, including a much-fabled version of "Beware My Love" with Led Zeppelin's John Bonham on drums.
And it stretches across genres. My mom -- and maybe yours, too -- is excited about an exhaustive new boxed set offering a look at Johnny Mathis’ Mercury Records material. And recently, Impulse! Records issued the two-disc, "Offering," an unreleased 1966 live recording of John Coltrane at Temple University.
For me, a new reissue of The Jam’s "Setting Sons," one of the most influential records of my youth, is exciting and also a little frustrating. Like the McCartney reissues -- and many others -- "Setting Sons" is available in two formats.
A double CD pairs the original album with a live concert from the period. However, the most interesting material -- mainly demos and other unreleased recordings -- is only available on a third disc that requires an outlay of well beyond $100.
"With things like The Jam reissues or the recent Zeppelin and McCartney reissues, the labels are going for different markets with ‘deluxe’ and the super expensive ‘super deluxe’ versions," says Hackbarth. "Some people have deeper pockets than others."
While many may be eager to hear the previously unheard material that might shed interesting light on a band’s process and how a beloved record came to be, some might have a difficult time paying, or justifying paying triple-digit prices for these extras.
"I've been digging the extra material on the McCartney reissues and feel the fan is getting quality rare and unreleased stuff," says Hackbarth. "But the Zeppelin reissues have been a complete disappointment thus far aside from the remastering."
DuChaine agrees that just because material has never been released before doesn’t make it automatically interesting.
"You have to use some caution with repackaging and re-visitation," he says. "If it wasn't released initially there may be a reason why. That being said, there's always the desire to harvest every bit of sweet nectar from a creative force."
Labels shouldn’t forget that the kind of devoted music fans being targeted by these releases are savvy listeners and consumers. But, clearly, they sometimes do.
As Hackbarth points out, much of the cost associated with these releases has long since been recouped, and fans know that. So, for listeners to shell out hard-earned shekels for deluxe reissues, they must see real bang for their buck.
"I think most fans are happy to buy appropriate upgrades," Hackbarth says. "I think what CD buyers are getting sick of are things like this, where an established artist is reissuing an album that is less than year old, way after all of the super fans have already bought the CD. I think this practice really rubs a lot of consumers the wrong way. Obviously, the labels must be making money on these sort of cash-grab reissues."
At Bay View’s Acme Records and Music Emporium, the focus is on vinyl, but owner Ken Chrisien says he does stock some CDs, too, notably those that are unavailable in other formats. He points especially to the elaborate packages created by labels like Dust to Digital, which often release CDs in book-like editions.
Chrisien believes there will always be some demand for LPs and CDs, no matter how they’re released.
"At the end of the day," he says, "I think there will always be a bit of market for physical music, regardless of the format. There will always be a certain number of people that will buy them regardless of the bells and whistles offered. All physical formats sound better than downloaded music."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.