Once he made it, Bowie was notoriously persnickety about the music he released, maintaining a large vault and carefully guarding it. DB obsessives sometimes get angry that his entire output hasn’t been dumped into the marketplace for their pleasure, but I believe it should be the artist’s perogative to decide what they want to release, no matter how frustrating that may be to fans who will always want more.
Well, now we’re getting more, but at what price? Are there any winners in this situation?
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), copyright laws work against the artist’s interests. In particular, there are risks that unreleased material will fall into the public domain if not officially released within 50 years of recording. This has prompted many oddball products in recent years, starting with Dylan’s attempt to copyright early demos by selling a crazy-low number of CDrs via a handful of stores in Switzerland. Of course, file-sharing ensured that Dylan’s loyal fans (and potential buyers) were denied the opportunity to acquire the music legally. Instead they downloaded it for free, making completely defeating the purpose.
Although unconfirmed, I’m fairly confident copyright expiration is what’s driving the recent run of Bowie demo releases. I’d speculate even further that brief appearances of said tracks on streaming services would qualify as a “release,” allowing for legal copyright protection.
This gambit seems to have failed. By mid-year we’ll have had three new packages of (mostly) previously unreleased 1969 demo recordings.
Interestingly, none of these are available in what one would consider convenient, let alone desirable, formats. The first two are 7” box sets, one with eight tracks and the other with a mere six, yet both priced at $35 each - for less than an album’s worth of songs (well, not “Let’s Dance” but that album wasn’t $35 either). There are no corresponding digital downloads, no streaming, no CDs, or 12” records, just 7” vinyl.
These seem designed to be a hassle to listen to. And I’d guess that’s the point - no one really wants you to hear this stuff.
Bowie realized curating his work was as important as the work itself. It’s integral to the value and perception of his legacy. The 70s are clearly where the gold lies. For instance, virtually all the merch on his site’s store is sourced from pre-1983 albums (to be fair, there’s a Reality hoodie and a couple of Blackstar items). He and his estate had narrowed down the range of products to those that were most resonant.
If you love “Hours”, you’re out of luck. But everybody loves young, glammed up Bowie and plastic soul Bowie and Hansa Bowie. Those images, like the albums associated with them, are fantastic. I’m guessing they define how David wanted people to remember him. He really was great at manipulation and that’s NOT intended as an insult. There were no “The Next Day” Vans, were there?
So fair enough, the Estate is backed into a corner; but they’re also calculating. They know hardcore fans will buy this stuff, so why make it so off-putting? Especially since - I assume - as soon as the second 7” box comes out a black market CD label will compile them on one CD or LP. This’ll will sell for significantly less than either box, taking more money out of both the artist and label’s pocket. No doubt tons of illegal downloads of the first box are happening right now. So who wins here?
I’m not sure why the most recently announced release (The Mercury Demos, above) is being pressed as a more consumer-friendly vinyl LP (sorry, 7” box set enthusiasts - both of you!), but apparently the luxury of not having to flip the record after every fucking song comes at a high price; currently $60 for a 9-song LP on Amazon US, and well over $100 in the rest of the world. In other words, multiples of the 7” box price.
Again, I think this is to discourage the casual fan from buying and hearing this material (hardcores will most likely have one of the 90’s era CD bootlegs of this particular set). The packaging tries to justify the price in the cheapest way possible (prints and “special labels(?),” my ass). The sound may well be better than old boots, but no matter what the intention is, this is wildly overpriced for the fans who WILL buy it - no matter what - because they LOVE Bowie so much they feel compelled to own everything.
Sure, no one is holding a gun to fans’ heads, but hear me out; in this data-driven world, there is someone who knows - within a couple hundred consumers, I’d bet - how many people will buy ANY Bowie release. Those 40th anniversary 7” pic discs would be a particularly effective yardstick (don’t get me started on the road those damn things are going down!).
That means the pricing is predatory, and I doubt Bowie, no matter how much he didn’t want you to hear this stuff, wouldn’t be thrilled it was being sold at such high prices to his most dedicated. I also don’t think charging a premium for non-A-list material is a good strategy for maintaining or growing a fanbase. I reckon it’s destined to alienate some of them.
If some dude with an abacus has figured that 5% of all Bowie music generates 99% of the money, this plan is all the more confusing. I get keeping them off steaming, because streaming curation doesn’t exist. You don’t want some curious newbie’s first listen to Space Oddity to accidentally be a rough demo, you want them to hear the hit version. Then - hopefully - they get hooked and WANT to hear all the demos.
But these things are designed to look like what they are, not brand new Bowie albums. And with record stores fading away daily, there’s little risk of a newbie stumbling across a physical demos set either at brick and mortar or on Amazon or similar and think “I’ll start listening to Bowie here!”
“New” old releases by classic rock artists are some of the most reliable physical sellers in music, so it’s not like these don’t have an audience or sales potential. And Bowie, who has always maintained a loyal, rabid fanbase, is a safe bet in that arena.
Maybe a “69 Demos” CD / LP box is in our future, but I doubt it. The RSD live stuff usually gets a wider release in fairly short order across all formats, for instance. If a collection IS coming, these people are assholes for putting fans through the wringer because they know many will buy the material again in a different, more accessible format.
Of course, there’s likely a facet to this that I’m not seeing, but it is getting tiresome trying to rationalize what seems to be an increasingly aggressive battle plan designed to pry ever-larger amounts of cash for ever-smaller amounts of “new” old material from Bowie’s fans. The Stones are shitting out vintage live shows at a steady pace without asking outsized amounts for them, for instance.
So why is the Bowie team trying so damn hard to make it so damn unappealing to buy these demo sets? I keep coming back to them being forced to release the stuff and wanting to discourage anyone inclined to listen. David probably didn’t want you to hear this stuff, but he would’ve wanted his Estate to retain the rights even more.
I’m not judging the music. If the Estate / Label is compelled to release things they’d rather not to protect their copyrights, they have my pity. But those circumstances don’t justify making poor value-for-money products. They don’t justify taking advantage of hardcore fans. As stated earlier, these people know how many dedicated Bowiephiles will shell over their hard-earned cash. They’re punishing David’s most loyal supporters, which is awful.