A Rational Conversation: Chris Ott On Marketing Premature Nostalgia, Circa Interpol's 2001 Breakthrough...
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
When does premature nostalgia for music that is already based in nostalgia get gross? And what does it say about our current cultural tastes? Case in point: this past October, Saddle Creek reissued Danse Macabre, the 2001 album by The Faint. Meanwhile, Matador Records reissued Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights this past week to mark its ten-year anniversary, which has resulted in oral histories via both Pitchfork and Paste. Alas, such celebrations of albums that are just over a decade old – ones that themselves fetishized earlier landmarks of post-punk and new wave – can seem kind of suspect; conversely, do these re-releases provide crucial windows into how we consume the not-so-distant pop-cultural past? Ducker discussed this accelerated canonizing of cool with “Chris Ott”: https://twitter.com/shallowrewards, the highly-opinionated man behind the Shallow Rewards videocast. Ott is almost absurdly qualified to such matters – he was on the firing line when these records had their initial impact: he edited Pitchfork when the site, in a post also written by Ott, called Turn on the Bright Lights the best album of 2002.
Eric Ducker: Do you think it’s premature to start reissuing albums from around ten years ago for reasons other than remastering or fixing technical issues with the original recording?
Chris Ott: Absolutely. Turn on the Bright Lights is a catalog Gold record; it’s been recognized by the RIAA for sales over 500,000, but what percentage of those records moved in 2002, I can’t say. I can say that The Eminem Show sold 7.6 million copies that year. That to me is what makes it weird: Interpol never charted significantly in the U.S. But the band had a lot of buzz, toured very strongly, and MTV loved the video for “PDA” at a time when MTV was still trying to help with the new generation of rock music.
ED: So you’d argue that, on a purely practical level, such re-releases don’t make sense?
CO: When I see something that wasn’t really a big deal unless you already paid attention to independent music, a record that didn’t crossover or break in any meaningful way, getting this treatment – yeah, it doesn’t make practical sense to me. It’s a big back-patting exercise, and I don’t think in the scope of recorded music, Turn on the Bright Lights is something that merits an NYU/IFC/Pitchfork roundtable victory lap. Assigning that kind of stature to a record that didn’t establish it on its own seems pretty suspect to me. I mean, I loved that record: it was so important to a lot of people, and definitely worked alongside the moment of 9/11. Whether it represented any kind of broadly important social phenomenon, though, I would dispute that.
ED: Then what do you think is the purpose of these reissues? Is it just a way for the labels and bands to say, “Remember when we did something awesome that you guys were super into?” Can indie labels write that off in 2012? Is it to set up something in the future – to make these acts still seem relevant?
CO: My contention is that this is a misplaced marketing idea. Everyone is trying to figure out how to sell CDs in 2012; they’re still the best price point for everyone involved. Labels continue to make packages and sets, which have been the strongest sellers throughout the digital era. So per your point, yeah, they advertise the idea that this record is important, and deserves such treatment. But the main driver is trying to appeal to people who are older, because marketers believe older people still buy CDs. They think because I’m 37, I buy CDs, when I haven’t bought a CD in 10 years. I’ve donated money to bands that have sent me CDs, but I already had their music. The CD was superfluous.
ED: You really think they’re that naive? I can maybe see them thinking you’d purchase, say, a 180 gram vinyl reissue that came with a free digital download.
CO: They expect that of someone like me, a music obsessive; but I’m saying the trend of the last three years, in music marketing, has been to get yourself on the racks at Target because they still sell CDs. If the CD is marketed in such a way that it lets “grown ups” know it’s not some no-wave screechfest or dubstep – if they have a little trailer for it that plays that kind of sweet Echo & the Bunnymen sound – then the people in their 40s and 50s who listened to “She Sells Sanctuary” and didn’t go digital might buy it. And Matador and Interpol stand to make a shitload more money off of them than the Tumblr generation. And those people definitely read Pitchfork, too, so this feature is a 360 kind of thing. They’ve certainly found out about Pitchfork by now: it kind of serves as an Amazon Wish List for them.
ED: Do you think the same situation pertains to The Faint reissue that came out earlier this year?
CO: No, that one is just… I don’t know what anyone at Saddle Creek was thinking. I didn’t even know this was happening until Tuesday of this week and they’re midway through the tour. That is really sad. I mean the first song from Danse Macabre, “Agenda Suicide,” is fuckin’ great. I love that line, “Like a cast shadow…”
ED: That may be more of a situation of trying to generate interest for the new tour, and so on.
CO: The situation with Danse Macabre is that No Doubt took them on tour as an opener to buy their “cred”, as it were, in 2002. And so, as far as The Faint goes, that was the biggest thing that ever happened to them, in their entire career. But I suspect those audiences don’t remember it that way, and that they didn’t make a lot of fans off that decision. When Saddle Creek and The Faint look back on ten years ago, perhaps they remember that tour and maybe almost getting mainstream attention. But The Faint weren’t My Chemical Romance, and it was never going to happen. There’s a very distorted memory there, in trying to celebrate Danse Macabre and that moment, which I experienced as a complete failure.
ED: A failure in terms of crossing over to even broader audiences?
ED: Obviously you’re not buying these releases in terms of actually purchasing them, or accepting the idea that they deserve to be reissued right now.Do you think you’re an exception, or indicative of most people’s opinion?
CO: I couldn’t really venture a guess, but I would point out that the period between 2003 and 2005 when DGC was doing all of its deluxe editions of, like, Sonic Youth’s Goo and Dirty and Weezer, those trailed off pretty quickly. Today? I don’t know what audience there could be for a deluxe edition reissue. And considering the lengths you have to go to to put together posters and buttons and four DVDs of in-studio footage, it’s not worth the upfront investment for any label.
ED: Let’s separate this from the commercial question for a little bit. Do you think it’s emotionally premature to do ten-year anniversary retrospectives on releases?
CO: My gut response is more about the perceived significance of the record than the amount of time that’s passed. I’m not slamming Interpol; the reissue that completely mystified me was the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Automatic, which Rhino reissued in 2006, which was almost twenty years after the record was released. Seeing that, I was just like, “Seriously?” That record is reviled by most music snobs; people who are big-time JAMC fans can’t stand it, either. The idea that JAMC were so consistent that they warranted a whole-catalog reissue exercise is nuts: they’re not Bowie – they’re not even The Cure. But pressed on the time idea, yeah, ten years is way too short. You hear the record at 18, and then someone tells you at 28 it’s being reissued, as if it went away somehow? Especially since it’s been on iTunes and Spotify from the moment those services came online? There’s nothing obscure about Interpol’s music, and moreover, they’ve been celebrated nonstop, along with The Strokes and the Arcade Fire, as the standard definition of indie rock’s legitimacy for the last decade. Antics was basically Turn on the Bright Lights, Part II: they should just append that and do a retrospective of “The Good Music Interpol Made Before They Lost It.”
ED: Do you think readers want to read about an album from ten years ago that probably hasn’t been totally out of their rotation for the past ten years? I ask that as someone who is generally happy to read, and will totally write, retrospective pieces (though I’ve never actually pitched a ten-year anniversary story).
CO: I’m definitely the wrong guy at the wrong time to ask that, because right now I’m sort of convinced people – kids, fans – are completely exhausted by music writing. There is way too much of it, and the playing field is very stratified. I don’t see very much in the way of challenging or inspiring writing on music on the Internet of late. I see a lot of ambulance chasing; I see a lot of refinement pieces that are just trying to hitch their “brand” or blog to others who are chattering about whatever topic of the moment. It’s really gotten to the point where I just see the subject of a piece and I’m like, “Next, yeah” because everything is so drenched in slant and an effort to collocate with an artist’s reputation. Specifically, I would point to Chris Weingarten’s Band of the Year feature in SPIN on Death Grips. There will not be a year-end issue of SPIN, as I understand it, so this is comically the shallowest approach one could take to the shallowest award you could confer. And by approach, I mean his suggestion that Death Grips are too “real” and “authentic” for anyone but SPIN magazine to deal with, which really offended me.
ED: Presumably there will be a year-end digital issue of SPIN…
CO: Yeah, but there’s an every day digital issue of SPIN, you know? If you mean like an eBook thing like SPIN Play, eh…
ED: To get a little bit back on track, do you think the labels and the publications are manufacturing this accelerated canonizing nostalgia? Or do you think there is a 28-year-old somewhere, bummed out on his or her day job, who is scrolling around Pitchfork going, “Oh yeah, 2002 was totally an awesome year for music. I’m totally going to put some Interpol and The Datsuns and The Walkmen’s first album on a Spotify playlist right now? No one gives those bands the credit they deserve.”
CO: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking stock. A band like Interpol definitely had a legitimate moment where they stood for something and were important to a lot of people. But yeah, where things are at now, anyone musically curious or likely to enjoy Interpol’s music will have no trouble finding it. And it’s been interred by critics like me that Turn on the Bright Lights is a very significant, decade-marking record for the 2000s. As far as the acceleration goes, that’s also sort of an Internet problem. In 1990-something, when The Feelies’ first album was reissued, that was a huge deal for a lot of people because it was out of print; there was no digital library to store or save it. Reissues were people doing God’s work in the 1990s, because there was so much stuff that you literally could not get. Look at Messthetics, and what Twin/Tone was doing burning CD-Rs for people – I have that Yung Wu record on CD-R from them. Fans were clamoring for this kind of thing – obviously not in huge numbers, but there were still mysterious, out of print, impossible-to-find and simultaneously good records to track down. Today, you can’t turn around without six people telling you which records matter. I look at the reissue thing as a way for the classic, outmoded music industry to toot its own horn and say, “We might have a way here to force the gatekeeper websites to promote our catalog.” Advertising is everything; so, in a way, the reissue is a very powerful advertisement for catalog sales. Catalog sales dwarf new music sales in terms of physical media: they overtook them this year, statistically, along every measurable line. But it was already the case for ages: that’s why Billboard had the “Heatseeker” bullshit inside the chart, so your new hip-hop protégé doesn’t notice his record is two positions lower than an old Michael Bolton album.
ED: I agree that if labels are doing a reissue on such a truncated timeline, I wish it would be to celebrate something that people may have missed, rather than to celebrate something that is already acknowledged as important.
CO: Definitely. Fog! Ether Teeth!
ED: I feel like that’s also an opportunity for labels to redeem themselves a little bit.
CO: It is, but if you’ve got the stuff out there digitally, it’s my job to tell people what they might be missing or have missed. Not to be a capricious dick about it, but I just see the whole attitude around the past as a lot received ideas and really generic commentary and presumptions of the music’s importance. If the record was that big a deal, it would have been a big deal.
ED: I’d like Matador to release live recordings or footage of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion touring in 2002 with Liars and Yeah Yeah Yeahs as openers, when JSBX were still the headliners, but all the heat was shifting to the supporting acts. To me, that would give a greater insight into the era than what is already readily discussed.
CO: That’s a fuckin’ brilliant idea. In 2002 to 2004, that period proved so raw for exactly that reason. You saw the kind of shirky attention-comfortable media-friendly blog bands coming up so fast, and the stalwarts who had an “us vs. them” mentality with the media were getting blown out the doors. There’s a whole other conversation there, around how “punk” and “DIY” were ripe for the taking by attention-seeking, unserious and insecure people, versus people with something to say.
ED: You did do the Pitchfork write up for Turn on the Bright Lights as the best album of 2002. Do you still think it’s the best album of that year?
CO: I wrote that as a staffer to try and deliver Pitchfork’s view of the indie landscape. It was sort of an advertisement for our allegiances. I rated the album very highly on my personal list, and still do, but if you read my blurb on The Streets’ Original Pirate Material further down the list, I sort of intimate I was more personally taken with it. Ten years later, I’m even more convinced that was the best record of 2002.