Up in Smoke: Record Rereleases in the Virtual Era by Ben Greenman [New Yorker]

Great read from the New Yorker.

What does it mean to rerelease a record? On the face of it, this is a simple question with a simple answer: you take music that has already existed as a commercial product and reintroduce it into the market. But secondary questions crop up immediately. Does a record have to be out of print to be rereleased? If not, what makes the new version significant? Do you need cutting-edge remastering? Bonus tracks? A new essay by a brand-name critic? A limited-edition colored-vinyl pressing housed in a wooden box and accompanied by a poster of the original album art? The record industry has always grappled with this issue—profiting off of music people have already heard has always been as central to its plan as profiting off of new music. And Record Store Day, which will be celebrated this Saturday, April 20th, offers one set of answers, via high-end collectibles designed to draw customers back to brick-and-mortar establishments.

But Record Store Day represents only a tiny fraction of the equation. On the other three hundred and sixty four days of the year, music no longer exists on or near records. And so the central question resurfaces: What’s a rerelease, anyway?

This week, Motown answers the question by not quite answering it. The label is reissuing Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “What Love Has…Joined Together,” a 1970 album that is one of the rare jewels in the label’s crown. It arrived at a strange time. By the late sixties, Robinson wanted out of the Miracles—or, at the very least, wanted to limit his commitment so that he could spend more time with his family and concentrate on his career as a Motown executive. That plan would be thwarted when the 1967 single “The Tears of a Clown” was rereleased in 1970 and became one of the Miracles’ biggest hits, but the albums released around that time showcase a different side of the group. Robinson, one of the greatest American songwriters, relied more and more on cover songs and outside writers, which resulted in albums like “Four in Blue” and “A Pocket Full of Miracles,” workmanlike efforts that had neither the inspiration nor the intimacy of the best Miracles records. “What Love Has…Joined Together” arrived in the midst of that period of retrenchment and reassessment.

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