Sound + Vision Final Wrap Up
As I’ve mentioned before, the deal for the catalog was completed later than anticipated, but we still wanted to make a September 1989 release, so I was hustling to assemble the box. We had no preconception of the box from either a track list or packaging standpoint. The proposal sent to Bowie referred to it only as “…similar to Bob Dylan’s ‘Biograph.’”
In addition to conceptualizing the track list, we simultaneously started brainstorming the look of the box with Bowie’s designer, the wonderful Roger Gorman of Reiner Design. Gorman, a British ex-pat based in lower Manhattan, was a delight to work with. Always in a great mood, Roger was adept at tightwalking a line between his two clients, the label & artist.
Roger came out to the storage facility in Massachusetts with Alicia Miles from Isolar, and we went through the materials to pick out stuff for the packages.
When they wanted a bite to eat, I was mortified to discover the only option to host these sophisticated folks was a “99” restaurant, a low-grade local chain. Think “Chili’s” but not that good. They choked it down with good humor. Although it wasn’t my fault there weren’t better, restaurants nearby, I still feel bad for taking them there. The good news is they lived!
As a CD-centric company (format-wise, the music always came first!), Ryko was primarily focused on the CD set. Most importantly, we were committed to spending the money necessary to make the product worthy of the artist, visually unique and special to hold. We wanted it to be an object of desire.
Gorman conceived a 12x12 shadowbox package, similar to the final product, with the repeating image of David picking up through three “layers”; the lid, the format itself and the box bottom. The iridescent ink on the lid was there from the start, but Roger, perhaps expecting push back on the cost of executing his vision, had imagined the lid would be made out of a plastic similar to that of a men's shirt box – a relatively thin, flimsy plastic.
When he told me this, I think I surprised him by saying we needed something of higher-quality and more durable materials.
With a sturdier lid, the curb appeal wouldn’t improve, and although sales wouldn’t be positively affected, I didn’t want fans to lift up the set and think, “this is chintzy.”
We started looking for a manufacturer that could deliver a heavier lid. The tiny Ryko production department was getting shut down at every turn, and it looked like we might have to go with the shirt box after all. Undeterred, I opened the Minneapolis area phone book and starting dialing.
To everyone’s surprise (including my own), I found a company in the Minneapolis ’burbs that could make the lids out of a thick plexiglass. I drove out to see them and they explained how they could achieve our desired lid. They would screen print a large sheet of plexi with multiple lids, which would then be diecut into a flat shape (pic coming below).
The image was screened in reverse on the inside of the lid, to minimize scratching the ink and marring the print in assembly. That cut piece was heated up and folded over a platform that mimicked the box bottom in size and shape. No one could believe we’d found a vendor at the last minute after weeks of searching. Hired!
This was a totally new and complex design for a music package, which translated into a high cost per unit, but we felt the increased price would be justified by the quality of the goods.
When the box won a Grammy, Roger thanked us for indulging what was a very expensive package design.
As a CD based company, there wasn’t a ton of enthusiasm for cassettes and LPs, but when I explained we could package all formats utilizing the same outer box as the CD set, it made sense from a cost standpoint. For the cassette and LP versions, I devised the modifications that were ultimately produced – a unique tray insert for cassettes with re-use of the CD sized booklet and all the text (if not all the pictures in LP gatefolds).
We also color-coded the “obis” or “corner boxes” (how many of you kept these, I wonder?) for each format, which also displayed the UPCs – which we always tried to keep off of the permanent parts of the packaging. We barely notice a UPC now, but back then they seemed ugly and intrusive. We proceeded.
David hand-picked Kurt Loder to write the essay in the 72-page book. We reached out to Kurt, who accepted the assignment, despite a short deadline. He immediately recorded the innovative “CD Press Release” some of you may have in your collections. It consists of Kurt reading a press release about the box and series, and the Ziggy-era b-side “Round And Round”, a Chuck Berry cover.
We announced the series at the New Music Seminar in the summer of 1989, and our marketing staff slid the CDs under the doors of every room at the Times Square hotel where the NMS took place. Their backs were sore for days.
You’d think this would be greeted as innovative marketing by the all Bowie business partners, but EMI, who were about to launch Tin Machine, threw a hissy-fit, saying we’d hijacked their campaign, releasing a “new” David Bowie song when they were trying to launch Tin Machine.
Looking back at it now, I’d guess they were unenthusiastic about Tin Machine (a project they never seemed to understand) and were looking to displace blame for a failure they anticipated.
Kurt, besides being a fine writer and gentlemen, was also the face of music news at the time, manning MTV’s news desk. In this role, he had the misfortune to travel to Russia to cover the “Moscow Music Peace Festival” – essentially the last big hair metal party, disguised as a benefit for the Make A Difference Foundation, an anti-drugs organization. The gig was organized by legendary manager Doc McGhee, who’d been accused of trafficking.
Cinderella, Skid Row, Scorpions, Motley Crue , Ozzy and Bon Jovi all played. Apparently the accommodations were horrible and the bands were at each other’s throats. All parties questioned why they were there. It got so bad that both Bon Jovi and Motley Crue fired McGhee as a result, either in Russia or on the plane home.
I had no idea Kurt was suffering this indignity in Russia, I just knew his notes were late and he wasn’t answering his phone.
After days of frustrated calling, I devised a plan to get his attention. These were the late 80’s, pre-e-mail and at the height of fax madness. I wrote a letter, made four copies of it, taped them together end-to-end and fed one end into the fax feed, dialing Kurt’s fax # at the MTV offices. After the squeak and squeal signaled the machines had connected, the first sheet in the fax centipede fed into the machine and I taped the end that came out the other end to the one that had yet to enter, creating a giant loop. This was an infinite fax, one that would certainly use up all of MTV’s fax paper and hopefully create an event of enough significance that would Kurt would be motivated to take note and call back. I walked away from the machine and left it to do its work.
About 15 minutes later, the phone rang. It was someone at MTV begging me to stop the faxes - Kurt wasn’t there. After they explained Moscow, I relented, but not before they promised to let Kurt know we were looking for him as soon as they were in touch.
When poor Kurt got home he called to tell me the whole story, and it sounded awful. On top of the misery of the festival, his father had passed away during the trip, but poor Kurt couldn’t get home. Communications in Russia were lousy, so contact with his family was difficult. I felt pretty bad about the fax thing and some angry phone messages, but he didn’t tell me he was leaving the country, so how was I to know?
In any case he did deliver his wonderful piece - but late - and the package was slightly delayed as a result, to the end of September.
Because Bowie was a real artist, a limited “museum edition” of the box was suggested, but deciding what this should be was not easy. The “basic” version of the box was a pretty nice object already. After much debate, we settled on a birchwood version of the CD set with a signed certificate of authenticity.
Before I was full-time at Ryko, I worked for Ryko co-founder Rob Simonds’ East Side Digital distribution company. Rob’s operation was the first in the country to switch exclusively to CD and he hired me to open CD-only stores. There were ultimately four of them, St Paul (the first), Minneapolis, Boston and San Francisco.
As a trailblazer in the world of CD (he later led the coalition to get rid of the remarkably wasteful longbox packaging), Rob understood buyers wanted shelves designed specifically for their discs. He found a local woodworker named Duff, who built shelving units we sold via retail and wholesale.
Our man stuttered slightly and was affectionately referred to as “D-d-d-duff.” His shop was hired to make all the Bowie limited boxes – 350 of them, all told. These were sold out in advance of release. I’m not sure how we decided 350 was the right number – maybe it was the number of certificates we could get Bowie to sign! I can’t even remember how we let people know they were available.
The certificates arrived on my desk from Roger’s office, beautifully wrapped and boxed, individually hand-numbered from 1 to 350. It was pretty amazing to hold this stack, which I passed on to the factory where the sets were assembled. My birchwood set is still sealed in the box.
At some point, probably early September of ‘89, I hit the road with our sales and marketing guys, Jim Bradt and John Hammond, respectively. With the help of our then-distributors, we held events in LA and Seattle, and certainly some other cities, to explain our Bowie pitch to retailers, press, and anyone else who’d listen. The box was not out at this point and we had promos to dole out. This made us a lot of friends.
When “Sound + Vision” was first released, the bonus CD-V disc was a real novelty and a relatively new format, which played into the cutting-edge nature of our product. As time went on, the CD-V format went the way of the dinosaur and it made sense to switch out the CD-V with the more contemporaneous CD-ROM. This revised 4th disc made its first appearance in the last iteration of the 12x12 inch box, around the same time retailers started griping about cost and space issues associated with the large box.
Most CD boxes were being released in CD-sized slipcases, not in big square boxes or even 6x12inch boxes. More importantly, David agreed to let us reduce some of the list prices to “mid-line+ pricing (this is exactly what it sounds like, although back then a mid-price CD would have a higher list price than the new Adele album).
The S+V box was downscaled and reconfigured into a smaller, slipcased version, including the CD-ROM and the book, at a reduced price. Finally, it lost the 4th disc altogether, keeping the book. The slipcase was made just a little smaller, as was the price. This was the last Rykodisc version of the set, and a change few people noticed at the time.
The set was a huge success. Although EMI had finally closed their deal with David, they unwisely flat-out refused to release it in their territories (the world ex-North America). One factor was their more complex logistical lead-time, which proves a theory of mine – in the music business, trust yourself and make up your own rules. In other words, play by the seat of your pants & things will work out. When you try to constrain art with rules and systems, instead of following your gut, it will go wrong.
Anyway, EMI’s hamstrung rules meant a lot of demand in various territories would not by met by a locally-based label. Although Ryko couldn’t sell the box directly into those territories, there was no way to prevent our customers from selling it to anyone they wanted to. Thousands and thousands of copies were sold worldwide - all Ryko sales - a delightful, unexpected boon for the company. Oh, how we laughed.
Around the time the box came out, as we were working on the first set of album releases (Space Oddity, Man Who Sold The World, and Hunky Dory) we were invited to New York for a meeting with Isolar. This is when we learned about the an upcoming London press conference to announce the S+V Tour.
Our plan had been to release Changes at the end of the chronological release of the rest of the albums. But now, with a massive “Retiring The Hits” tour, refusing to release a “Best Of” tie-in would've been foolish, and we were told as much.
Updating “Changesone” seemed a wiser choice than creating a whole new comp. While the idea of releasing another collection so soon after the first one irked me, I couldn’t fault the wisdom.
I put the track list together (easiest thing I ever did) and David signed off immediately.
I went to London the weekend of January 20th for the conference. Weather-wise, London in January is a nice break from Minneapolis in January.
As I made my rounds of London record shops, I was stunned to see huge stacks of “Sound + Vision” boxes everywhere. There must’ve been 50 copies each at the Piccadilly Tower, Oxford Street Virgin and HMV stores, and on that Saturday I watched them briskly sell.
Alicia Miles & I connected (on Monday the 22nd, I think) and I got my pass for the conference. At Isolar’s request, we’d sent over copies of the box for the post-conference conference. The Rainbow Theater, a famous London Venue that had hosted rock royalty from the 60’s through 1981 (including the last Ziggy show) was specially hired out for the occasion. The marquee cryptically displayed the dates of the original gig and the day of the press conference.
When I got to the venue that day, I had no idea what to expect. It was wall to wall with seasoned rock journalists from all over the world, but when the lights went down, they hooted and hollered like teenage girls at a boy-band show.
David made his entrance from the left side of the stage, which was made up to look like the cover of Ziggy Stardust, “K West” sign, stairs, garbage bin and all. An apparently retrofitted conservative men’s clothing store store mannequin was kitted out as Ziggy (pretty terrible, honestly) by the entranceway. Although Bowie strolled out in an elegant black suit with an acoustic guitar, it was very clear when he put his leg up in the Ziggy cover pose, this was about the past (in his mind, I think, it was about burying it).
The tour announcement David made was brief, and many questions were asked, often repeatedly. Tin Machine was - also repeatedly - defended, and the concept of playing his best-known hits and retiring them from his live set forever was firmly stated (snicker). The Changesbowie track list was discussed (it had been finalized by December at least) and after an acoustic version of Space Oddity, it was all over.
Amazingly, you can the whole thing in a somewhat hazy 1990 audience video recording here in 4 parts; it was actually much longer than I recall (I can be heard jabbering to someone at the end):
“I have a lot of faith in Ryko. I think they’re an extremely good company. They really look after the work that they’re doing.”
When it was over, poor Alicia had to go deal with the press, answering further questions. She later told me she’d nearly been stampeded after announcing she had copies of the box to give away.
Luckily I avoided bodily harm, even though my bag was full of copies of the next three releases in the series, scheduled to be released the following week. More on those later.
Bowie cut a new worldwide deal for his catalog with EMI in 1997, driven by his revolutionary bond offering. Accordingly, the Ryko box was deleted and EMI made a bunch of bad (by their own admission) decisions with Bowie’s catalog, abandoning all the Ryko bonus tracks and re-starting with unadorned albums and poorly conceived compilations. Isolar called us well into the EMI deal to see if we had spare promos – David preferred giving the Ryko versions to friends.
In 1998, Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures bought Rykodisc, renaming it a few times before settling on Rykopalm. As Blackwell learned the hard way, Ryko had more marquee value than the then-unknown Palm Pictures. In 1999, I left the label.
When I returned to Ryko in 2003, our rights to Bowie’s material were six years expired. My then-boss, Joe Regis, asked me to put together a two CD Ryko 20th anniversary set. Because Bowie was so important to the label, and because the spoken intro to the demo version of “Space Oddity” is a perfect intro to any box of treasures, I spoke to Bowie’s management to ask if we could use it.
They agreed but we had to clear it with EMI. I called the producer to discuss and he explained they were about to release an updated S+V box (this was the first I’d heard of it).
They made some effort to retain elements of the original award-winning design, but the EMI version is a shadow of its former self. And postcards! Well, that’s value for money! Postcards!
Anyway, because they thought our use of this one track on a various artists package might negatively impact their sales, Mr. EMI refused to let Ryko use the demo “Space Oddity.” We used the studio version instead, and that 20th Anniversary package was the last Ryko release containing Bowie material.
Next time I’ll talk about the first releases in the ongoing album campaign. It’s not over, no matter how hard you wish it would be!