I wrote a post a few weeks ago about “vinyl ethics”, basically asking whether it was ethical to start digitizing some of the rarest records in my collection and posting the resulting files on the internet for folks to share. The response I got from a few readers was enthusiastic, and encouraged me to post more records online, which I’m likely to do over the next couple of weeks.
But I couldn’t help but feel that posting these records was an imperfect solution at best – it’s better than letting them languish in obscurity, but it doesn’t compensate the artists for the work they’ve done and doesn’t do a good job of showing the popularity of these new/old downloads. As I mentioned in that previous post, what I really wanted was for these albums to be available at iTunes.
Well, that might take a while, but the next best thing does already exist, and it’s called Anthology Records. Founded by Keith Abrahamsson, A&R representative for a small NYC indie label (Kemado), Anthology is an all-digital reissues label. They strike deals with artists who’ve retained copyright to their works, or had rights revert to them, and digitize their master tapes, or occasionally, rip and clean vinyl. Some of the titles in the catalog are records that were never released on major labels – they circulated as cassettes, or as records released on private presses. Others are legendary, hard-to-find collectors items, now released as 320 Kbps mp3s. Due to the absurdities of the music industry, some of the musicians who recorded these collectible albums have never seen royalties from them – Abrahamsson wrote the first royalty check that the musicians behind early heavy metal band Lord Baltimore have ever seen.
Surfing through the Anthology website has some of the charms I get from visiting really good vinyl stores. I’m not looking for vintage Beatles or Springstein – I’m looking for something strange, unexpected and occasionally sublime. Which makes it hard to resist titles like “The Eyepopping Sounds of Hershell Gordon Lewis”, a collection of sound track pieces from Z-grade slasher flicks with titles like “Blood Feast”. Or the bizarre psychrock freakouts of Ya Ho Wa, a band composed of the leader and followers of a northern California cult in the early 1970s.
Some of the albums offered on Anthology are ones I’ve been looking for previously, like African Head Charge’s “Off the Beaten Track”, the first release from an astoundingly talented Adrian Sherwood produced dub band – I’ve got a lot of AHC in my collection, but not this one, where the re-releases of the album tend to change hands for at least $50 and the original version is simply unobtainable. Others I’ve never heard of, but are clearly legendary for a reason, like the marvelous “The Gentle Rain” by Moody, a collection of funk and synth instrumentals from 1973 that’s become hugely collectible by fans of early electronic music and rare grooves.
What I took from Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail was the hope that the Internet would make it possible for niche media to find small, but sustainable audiences. Anthology expands that hope, and suggests that the power of the long tail might be capable of resurrecting media that never had a chance the first time around.
My respect and admiration for Anthology doesn’t mean I’m any less enthusiastic about the great music blogs out there that are trying to revive obscure African music, like Ben Loxo Du Taccu or Voodoo Funk. I can imagine a bright future where the cratediggers who put these great blogs together serve as a form of A&R for labels like Anthology, helping pick the discs that are most worthy of this sort of high quality reissue. That would be a remarkable move into citizen/professional media partnership, and just might help revitalize one of the most broken and moribund industries in the world.