Limited Editions and Such

April 21, 2011 | By

Coming next are several soundtrack reviews, but here’s an op-ed that begged to be written.

Last week the venerable Douglass Fake, bigwig of Intrada Records, posted a concise editorial blog on the nature of limited edition CDs, and why some titles sell out faster than others – a familiar headache with collectors of pretty much anything, if we think about it.

A friend and his best buddy are huge fans of graphic artist Tyler Stout, and both have observed the changes that occurred over the last 3-5 years where the work of a respected but lesser-known artist now rapidly sells out, largely due to speculators, and a mania of some To Have Everything, because They Must Have It, Just Plain Love It, or for others, can flip it on eBay for absurd prices.

I won’t rattle out specifics, except that after server crashes and incomplete payment processes at vendor sites, the new methods used to sell Stout’s posters may have changed, but the art still tends to disappear in minutes. More incredible, moments after a sellout, a batch of posters are listed by speculators who just bought a poster, just listed it online, and if you buy-it-now from them, they’ll mail you the poster when it arrives – instant speculation without leaving one’s seat.

It’s free market at its meanest, and it’s enraged people who just want to enjoy his art but have no hope in freakin’ heck of ever owning a piece, unless they sit at their computers and wait for a poster’s first sale announcement; try out the artist’s own lottery system when he sells his personal allotment of copies; or bow to the power of speculators on eBay. It’s not fair, but it’s the norm, and the artist I’m sure is perplexed when some of his work lingers for weeks or months, while other works are gone in minutes.

There’s also the period where the feeding frenzy to own plateaus, and prices on eBay bottom out until an item becomes rare, and things escalate again to a level where they won’t return to Earthly norms (a process that can take a year or two).

Posters, DVDs, and soundtrack CDs are commercial forms of art, and ideally what fans don’t want is a pattern of behaviour and events which ensure a small minority are privy to the pleasure of said art. The argument that often comes up is ‘Why not make more?’ The case of art on either format isn’t all that different: it amounts to rights, production costs, and sometimes time limits where the company may have a limited window to sell their inventory at list prices before rights expire, and they may have to unload excess copies at discounted prices.

Stout’s situation is he’s contracted to produce a limited run of posters, because Universal, for example, owns The Thing, and unless they decide to license the images for another run, you’ll need to pony up a G-note to buy Stout’s gorgeous poster in auctions.

Douglass Fake’s explanation regarding limited soundtrack albums is much more different, particularly in regards to the way soundtracks are licensed now compared to 25 years ago when Intrada began as a label, and I bought their first LPs.

As Fake describes:

“Unlike the norm years ago, most of the limited edition CDs we release today have their costs loaded up front, not in back. We often pay the royalties and mechanicals (publishing) at first signing, before the project actually goes into production. And all of the restoration, mastering, printing, manufacturing and packaging costs come on the front end as well. Whether we sell all copies or none, the costs remain. To err on the side of caution is far better than erring the other way…

“In a nutshell, for every instant seller there’s a slow seller… followed by a non-seller. Multiply that by numerous labels all cranking out exciting (and sometimes not exciting) releases every week, all competing for your dollar… and you’ve got a warehouse full of guesses.”

Put another way, few labels today can afford to maintain inventories of stock for years, because as fans know, we don’t buy everything any single label releases anymore.

A label’s worst fear is dead stock, so things have to move reasonably fast. Some solutions include selling older stock at a special discount for holiday-themed specials, or deleting dead titles – the latter a boon to previously hesitant collectors, but an aggravation for first-time buyers who plunked down list price. That happened to Intrada’s lovely CD of Christopher Young’s Species, which seems surreal when it’s one of his more enjoyable scores, but all I can assume is a) the prior promo CD was enough music for some; b) Intrada’s CD was bought primarily by Young fans and completists; c) buyer demographics shifted again, and Young, being a veteran now, is less known by a newer generation who rarely buy CDs .

The labels have a serious quandary: Do people still need to own physical media? Is the concept of ‘limited collector’s edition’ really worth annoying collectors who feel they’re being cut out of what 25 years ago was a fair chance to own and enjoy a one-time release?

Physical tends to mean permanent to fans; if you can touch it, read it, insert it into a player, and file it on a shelf, it has a sense of longevity which a burn, an on-demand product, or a digital product doesn’t. The fact someone cared to produce an art directed booklet, tray art, and design CD silkscreen means something, and collectors by nature like getting stuff. It’s just part of the DNA.

But as Fake points out, it’s hard to judge what titles will sell out and enable the label to recoup its costs and have extra for the next project. However, the ability to judge means there’s actually wiggle room to adjust the pressing run of a limited title, but what keeps the figure low is the need to recoup as many expenses as possible within the shortest time-frame because contractual agreements have evolved into something in line with the way studios release films to theatres: they too need to make the most up-front to recoup costs, which itself has radically reduced the time we have to catch a film. The limited window of theatrical engagement plays into (if not fosters) fickle film-going behaviour, in terms of how long a film remains on a moviegoer’s Must See list before it loses its attractiveness and is kicked off by the newest new release.

The same tends to happen with soundtracks because the market is much bigger, covers more national boundaries, and reaches more people than before because of online and mail order vendors. Pricing is less of an issue, in terms of finding a competitive price with limited editions, because at this stage, if it’s one of those released today-gone by evening titles, the time previously spent on price shopping is replaced by just getting the order processed.

That means some limited titles will not be seen again for a while. 15-20 years ago, the average limited run may have been 3000-1500 for a global market with less collectors, but there are many more now, so the situation Intrada and other labels are facing is almost like making a production plan based on tea leaves: If more collectors are out there, why not make a larger run that’s commensurate with the market? If classic and long-in-demand titles don’t sell out in a week or a month, is the affected title a missed gem that needs to benefit from word-of-mouth, or is it a failure, but only through the magic mirror of 2011 buyer behaviour?

Why, or perhaps one should ask, How, can Film Score Monthly continue to produce a prolific roster of limited releases that remain in print long enough for fans to acquire within a period that’s favourable to recession-era wallets?

I don’t’ know, but perhaps FSM’s online magazine subscriptions aid in making the label’s roster limited to more reasonable quantities, or perhaps rabid speculators haven’t been aware of FSM’s own series of gems.

Maybe it’s the specificity of a composer who may no longer be relevant to newer generations, and was never liked much by veteran collectors n the first place. Perhaps it’s the uniqueness of a specific title never available before that guarantees a faster sell-out. And it may be freakish voodoo, where at one specific time, a lot of people just happen to want a particular title over others.

My griping with limited and instant sell-outs stems from the changes in the release models which previously favored current and eventual buyers, and the production of physical releases which not all studios find particularly important.

The trade-off is a tough one: whereas a front-of-line, major label’s music department aide may no longer reciprocate an indie label’s queries with runarounds, year-long periods of incommunicado, indifference or rudeness (it has happened to the best), the deal now for some labels perhaps border on ‘Well, if you guys really, really want to release it, here are our non-negotiable terms.’

Why? Perhaps because from a major label’s angle, the time devoted to contracts, scoping archives, and shared production costs for title X is only worth the while if a proposed project can be done within an efficient time-frame.

The indie label, I’d assume, must therefore be savvy in the process of coming prepared to the bargaining table with as much research, sample campaign art, and advance contractual work done ahead of time. They must also do that first release very well to ensure it snags a productive relationship with the major label, and once both are familiar with their wants, needs, and available back catalogue items, there’s wiggle room to create a definitive release.

Perhaps indie labels do struggle with the issue of left-out, latecoming buyers & collectors, and whether the current (and antiquated) album model needs to be brought in line with the realities of the digital age. Maybe a split-run agreement would help: press CDs for ardent collectors, and issue digital albums for the rest, just so the music remains in circulation, and all that hard work wasn’t for an ephemeral product. Both Varese Sarabande and Silva Screen are among major indie soundtrack labels who do this, and from a consumer’s angle, it’s great (although CD-only releases are still applicable to Varese’s limited CD Club titles, so the vicious circle still continues).

For titles previously unreleased or once issued on obsolete media formats (LP, VHS, wax tablet, bag of trained Mexican jumping beans), a major purpose of any article or review is to make readers aware X exists, and maybe one day it’ll make it to a contemporary medium.

It’s one thing to pine for art that’s near impossible to acquire and enjoy due to format obsolescence, but there’s nothing worse for readers than getting their interest pricked… and then discovering the ‘new’ title in question is no longer available, particularly if it’s less than a month old.

‘Nuff said.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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