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Inside the fascinating world of reissue labels

With increasing appetites for old, ‘undiscovered’ music, reissue labels have seen a boom in recent years. Running a reissue label is a tender, laborious process, with extraordinary stories of finding lost artists and documenting a release’s context. But it’s also a process ripe for misappropriation, and with changing music markets, artists risk being treated unfairly. DJ Mag speaks to label owners about the appetite for reissues, how the labels work, and the weird and wonderful experiences they’ve had

In 2014, Matt Sullivan, founder of Light In The Attic Records, travelled to Canada on a wild goose chase. He was searching for Lewis, real name Randall Wulff, hoping he would grant permission for Light In The Attic to release the artist’s privately-pressed second album. Former acquaintances describe Wulff as an eerily charming conman, who’d changed his name and his hometown to escape his dodgy past. Handing out ‘Have you seen this man?’ posters around Wulff’s last known location, Sullivan used the ‘L’Amour’ album cover as an identifier. Pictured shirtless with coiffed blonde hair, Lewis appears as suave as described. 

On the penultimate day of the trip, Sullivan did a double take as he drove down the road, spotting some coiffed hair outside Starbucks. It was him. After introducing himself and explaining why he was there, Sullivan offered to pay Wulff for the rights to his second album. Wulff had no interest in the prospect. 
 “I wish you guys all the best, but I’m not looking back,” he said. 

The world of reissued music is full of weird and wonderful stories like Lewis’s. This one was told to us by Hilary Staff, a former member of the team at Light In The Attic. Though she now works as a freelance music supervisor, Staff describes herself as a “paleontologist for music”. 


“The music is like dinosaur bones,” she explains to us over Zoom. “You dust off the bones, and you put them in a museum. That’s what reissue labels do, they help to put these wonders of the world on display.”

Such wonders come at a price, though. They are often looted in times of unrest, and misappropriated for the benefit of institutions. There’s a risk of misappropriation when it comes to reissued music, too, especially with the contemporary demand for ‘undiscovered’ sounds. “With increased demand comes increased supply,” says Quinton Scott of Strut Records. He believes there are well over 100 reissue labels regularly releasing music today.

With the help of Scott, Staff and representatives from labels such as Music From Memory, Soundway, Hello Sailor, Analog Africa and Time Capsule, we explore the rise of the reissue: why the appetite for reissues has grown, how reissue labels work to preserve the context of original works, and the extraordinary stories of artists whose music has been given a second lease of life.

NOSTALGIA AND CARE

“Humans naturally gravitate towards nostalgia,” says Alice Whittington, label manager at Soundway Records. Launched in 2002 by Miles Cleret, after time spent in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, the London-based label showcases “the way that migration has pollinated different musics”. Whittington thinks the appetite for reissued music can be attributed to a desire for organic sounds, and as a means to reconnect with ourselves.

For Staff, streaming culture has made our appetites insatiable — we want to hear more, and we want to know more. “People take pride in obscure knowledge or bringing something new to someone’s attention,” she says. “Everyone wants to be a tastemaker.”

In 2006, as digital music piracy became widespread, friends felt that Tunisia-born Samy Ben Redjeb’s decision to launch a record label, Analog Africa, was ill-advised.  “But as they say, if you can’t beat them, join them,” Redjeb writes to us. He launched the label in March 2007, with a debut release from The Green Arrows of Zimbabwe. Though he’s got his own stories about tracking down artists, Redjeb insists that the labour of the search should not be a selling point, but simply due diligence. “In finding the musician we are not doing something extraordinary,” he says, “we are doing something obvious.”


In 2009, Analog Africa released the compilation ‘Legends Of Benin’, a project dedicated to four artists from the Benin Republic: El Rego et Ses Commandos (“Godfather of Benin Funk”), Gnonnas Pedro et Ses Dadjes (“King of modern Agbadja”), Honoré Avolonto (“creator of Afrobeat masterpieces”) and Antoine Dougbé (“The Devil’s Prime Minister”). Recorded between 1969 and 1981, ‘Legends Of Benin’ comprises 14 tracks — and a 44- page booklet, filled with biographies and rare photographs — of danceable Beninese sounds. In getting the compilation ready for pressing, Redjeb hit a wall — one record was so scratched that it was impossible to restore. Dougbé’s song ‘Ya Mi Ton Gbo’ was missing.

“I knew I would never forgive myself if I released the compilation without that song,” he says. Redjeb travelled to Cotonou, on the south coast of Benin. When he arrived, he placed an advert in a local newspaper with a picture of the record’s cover. Two days later, he received a call from someone who had two copies, and ‘Legends Of Benin’ was complete.

PERSONAL DISCOVERY

Facebook often plays an effective role in locating long-lost musicians. It’s how Jamie Tiller of Amsterdam-based label Music from Memory made contact with Italian composer Gigi Masin (for 2014’s ‘Talk To The Sea’ and 2016’s ‘Wind’), and how Renata Do Valle of New York-based label Hello Sailor found an artist due to feature in their popular seven-inch series. Do Valle eventually managed to track her down, to discover she’s now performing as a wedding singer. Often, Do Valle explains, “These artists are surprised to hear from you, thinking of their bygone work as just that”.

In the case of the late Johnnie Frierson, whose gospel record ‘Have You Been Good To Yourself’ was released on Light In The Attic in 2016, a friend of the label stumbled upon his self-recorded cassette tape in a Memphis thrift store. To get a contract made, each of the heirs to Frierson’s estate needed to agree to the terms — and Frierson was survived by 15 heirs. “It involved some detective work,” Staff remembers. “In some cases, these people didn’t even know this music existed.”

There are mammoth, cross-continental stories, too. When Kay Suzuki of the label Time Capsule heard a piece of music during his first ayahuasca experience, he went to his shaman for a track ID, and then searched around India to find the artist. Suzuki released Bombay S Jayashri’s ‘Shravanam’ on Time Capsule in 2019; ever the audiophile, Suzuki flipped the pressing so that the record plays from inside to outside, allowing more space for the most dynamic parts of the composition.

When Miles Cleret of Soundway Records met Sir Victor Uwaifo during a trip to Nigeria, he was invited to visit him at home, a home in which Sir Victor built a museum dedicated to himself. Whittington tells DJ Mag there’s also a “chamber of horrors”, and a life-size concrete aeroplane attached to the house. With a piano in the cockpit and easy chairs in the fuselage, Cleret was instructed to sit in the plane and listen to the record in full before he could sign it. All went smoothly from there, though: ‘Guitar Boy Superstar’ was released by Soundway in 2008.


A decade later, Soundway released ‘Onda De Amor: Synthesized Brazilian Hits That Never Were (1984-94)’, after a years-long effort to locate the licensors. There’s a track on the record by Grupo Controle Digitale, a duo who became one shortly after the release of their first album, when Gel Valiery sadly passed away. Billy Jaguar, the other half of the duo, ended up living as a priest in the Brazilian mountains. By locating Billy, and releasing Grupo Controle Digitale’s record ‘A Festa É Nossa’ a few months after ‘Onda De Amor’, Soundway have been able to help foster some deserved (if belated) success for him. For Whittington, it’s that sort of remuneration that makes Soundway’s work valuable.

For Quinton Scott of Strut Records, one of their most extraordinary experiences came early on, when preparing to release Larry Levan’s ‘Live At The Paradise Garage’. It took a while for them to reach the “inner circle”, Scott explains, but when they did, “all of the great DJs like David DePino, Joey Llanos and Danny Krivit had endless, amazing stories. It was two unforgettable, sleepless weeks for us, immersed in New York’s nightlife, past and present.” 

Among the characters were West End Records’ Mel Cheren, a fountain of juicy club gossip who showed Scott the basement where he keeps Larry Levan’s ashes in a small shrine, ballroom icon Willie Ninja, who gave a slick vogueing performance while balancing a burning candle on his head, and Loose, one of the Garage’s original dancers, who launched into an impromptu routine on a Manhattan sidewalk for a photo shoot.

EXPLOITATION

Though the influx of recent reissue labels has benefits, like greater opportunities for music discovery and new revenue streams for artists, Jamie Tiller worries that the race to find “the latest YouTube sensation” could mean that labels cut corners to get ahead, which could lead to failing to do due diligence.

“Some people can get protective over something they think they found first,” Whittington says, in agreement. “There could be some pretty aggressive competition out there.” When you consider that many of these older artists might have a limited understanding of how contemporary music licencing works, this can leave room for exploitation.

“The music industry changes all the time,” says Suzuki. “You have to be on top of it and you have to be connected to the right people.” But being industry savvy is a stretch for, say, an artist who hasn’t made music for decades and now lives an entirely different life.

The onus is on the label to do right, but as Tiller explains, “sometimes the music is owned by pretty unsavoury people who basically screwed musicians over with terrible deals,” he says. “You want to release the music, but doing so would only be lining the pockets of someone who still has a stranglehold over that musician’s work.” In some cases, a major label or nefarious rights-holder might have gone so far as to own the artist’s recording name (often their birth name), which makes releasing anything new a predicament too.

Once the licensors have been found and the licencing for a reissue agreed, matters of contextualising and compensating come to the fore. For Suzuki, contextualising is what Time Capsule is all about: “We research extensively, and always add liner notes.” He uses their recent release of the late Gabrielle Roth’s 1996 album ‘Endless Wave: Vol 1’ as a case in point. Roth was the founder of a method of dance meditation called 5Rhythms. To put together the liner notes, Suzuki immersed himself in Roth’s world; reading her books, watching her classes and speaking to her family.


Staff finds it troubling when reissued music is released with little context. “There are some labels where the music itself is incredible,” she says, “but they are so shrouded in mystery, devoid of detail and history.” Whittington agrees this can be problematic: reissue labels profit from someone’s artistry, so they should be committed to fair contextualising and compensation.

“We want to preserve as much of the story around the release as possible,” she says of Soundway’s processes. “It’s important to ensure the music’s longevity, and part of that is ensuring that people understand this music is not just important because of how it sounds.”

For Analog Africa releases, the liner notes tell not just the story of the artist, but of the climate in which the music was made. “It’s the essence of the music scene from that country during that time,” Redjeb explains. “We sometimes include biographies of the producers or the designers who worked on the [original] cover art.” It’s a responsibility, explains Tiller; he sees Music From Memory as giving music from the archives a renewed context, much like a retrospective.

“As a rule, I do think that most reissue labels present their albums with good, detailed sleeve notes these days,” says Scott, “and buyers generally respond best to an authentic, well researched release and a label’s reputation for quality.” 

Do Valle agrees; consumers are becoming more knowledgeable, and are digging deeper into the cultures of the music they’re consuming. Do Valle’s Hello Sailor operates in a different way to most reissue labels. They specialise in edits and run limited pressings with little margin for profit; sometimes, Do Valle says, as with 2020’s ‘Vem Viver Pra Mim’, by Silvanna and A Máquina Do Tempo, “it becomes truly a collaboration between artists, and our shared passion. I can’t speak on behalf of other labels, small or big, but I try to do my part as an independent label.”

With the onus on the label to do the right thing, there are inevitably instances where the rights of the artist slip through the cracks. Whether consciously or unconsciously, says Whittington, record labels can be negligent. Labels sometimes fail to submit full metadata for their releases to mechanical collection societies; if the information isn’t full and accurate, the artist won’t be able to claim the money they are due.

NEW PLATFORMS, NEW PROBLEMS

In the last few years, Whittington has observed a surge in reissued tracks from Africa and Latin America being sampled in club tracks. “It’s music that can transform a dancefloor,” she says, “the rhythms speak to the soul and make you want to dance, so I get why people want to use that in their music.”

Unfortunately, Soundway has encountered artists that have sampled their works without obtaining permission or paying royalties; not only is the music taken out of context, but the artist is not compensated either. “It’s a shame that someone who potentially never got paid for their work, who might have died in poverty, would then have their music used in a non-respectful way,” says Whittington.

Breaches of copyright that crop up on dancefloors and on unofficial remixes are difficult to police, but platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud are steadily improving their processes for flagging incorrectly licensed samples. Staff agrees that these systems are becoming increasingly effective: Light In The Attic were recently notified that a Supreme Jubilees track had been sampled in a hip-hop track uploaded to YouTube. Beyond that, says Whittington, it’s a case of dance music culture encouraging a wider understanding of publishing and licencing rights, and of asking dance music DJs and producers to attribute more value to this music; to understand it’s not just a free-for-all.

As Whittington sees it, there are two main ways that an artist’s work can be misappropriated: if the artist isn’t credited at all, it’s an appropriation and erasure of the musician’s identity and culture. But even if you do credit the artist properly, how do you offset the fact you’ve re-contextualised the music for a contemporary dancefloor? “I guess it’s about whether you make any attempt to make any kind of social impact on the original artist’s culture or country,” muses Whittington, “or whether you want to educate people somehow, and interact with the original work to show that level of respect.”

Worldwide FM resident Esa is Soundway’s dance music champion. Twenty-nineteen’s ‘Esa Presents Amandla: Music To The People’, which Whittington describes as “a deeply emotional project that felt like helping a mother bird release her chicks”, is a Soundway compilation, compiled by Esa. It connects the dots of his musical journey from South Africa to Brazil and beyond, offers a platform for fair compensation, and is a collection of records that he would play in his own, eclectic DJ sets. 

But for reissue labels to work fairly with dance music producers and DJs, they also need to work with digital markets. In a niche of the industry that is so focused on the physical product, adapting to a preference for streaming is challenging enough without major labels digging their heels in, too. It’s what happened with the Serge Gainsbourg ‘Histoire De Melody Nelson’ reissue on Light In The Attic, Staff explains. After Light In The Attic worked on the pressing, packaging and publicity, with the record ending up on many of the year’s “Best of...” lists, the major label that owns the original licence retained their digital rights; for every stream and every download, the major label receives the revenue, not Light In The Attic.

When a label like Light In The Attic — or indeed any of the labels that have spoken to DJ Mag — functions as a caretaker of these artists’ stories, how is this sustainable as society moves increasingly away from vinyl sleeves with liner notes, and towards playlists and algorithms? Of course, the vinyl record collectors are the exception to this rule, but streaming technologies that choose your listening habits for you are increasingly the norm — and really, what’s the likelihood that you’ll seek out the music’s backstory when you’re asking Alexa to “play music for a dinner party”?

 
"Many people will listen to the music digitally, not knowing where it came from in the first place,” says Staff, “so all I can do is maintain my integrity and support the companies who do their due diligence.” On the flipside, Do Valle believes in the value of the collectible keeping these labels going, and in an intuitive desire to disconnect from the internet, even if just for a moment.

“It’s a part of our ritual,” she explains, “just like I like going to a bookstore and buying a physical book.” Redjeb agrees, seeing Analog Africa as an opportunity to “swim against the digital tide and return to something more organic”.

And yet, it’s a question that keeps Staff up at night: how do you encourage people to care about the story behind the music if they’re listening by chance, courtesy of a DJ or algorithm? “If you asked a million people if music was important to them, I bet almost all of them would say yes,” Staff says, “but there’s this cognitive dissonance, because everyone wants music in their lives but no one wants to pay for it." 

These labels are providing such a cultural gift to our society, but it’s hard for me to see a future where a lot of them can continue to function financially.” Despite the issues facing these reissue labels, the ever- growing audience for these “cultural gifts” doesn’t seem to be waning — and hopefully, that audience is enough to keep those dedicated to the process going strong, until the wider industry provides better answers.

Want more? Read about how vinyl has survived during the coronavirus pandemic here

Katie Thomas is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @katietweets26