I don’t do clichéd kneejerk criticism of record labels. Labels deliver the benefits of scale to artists and handle all the elements individuals usually want to shed in order to retain time to create. Labels are a valuable component of the ecosystem of getting music out. Major labels exist in a difficult industry. Computer games, for example, command vastly higher prices and far higher abilities to garner ongoing income as players pay for upgrades/add-on/extras. Increasingly people are feel (wrongly in my view) that music should be near free, then feign outrage when asked to pay more than a token amount, while shelling out far greater sums on clothing brands and tech accessories. Music is a volume business. By that I mean there’s vast competition (anyone can start a label), a high supply of ‘product’ to the market (anyone can make music and distribute it to some extent), high commodification (it’s ultimately no different than buying inexpensive underwear – pick one, pick another, there’s always another ‘brand’ to suit your taste and no reason to be loyal to a particular label) and low predictability of success.
The only way to survive is to keep cost low (minimize advances and upfront expenditure), keep risk low (invest in artists with a sound/style/approach – i.e., product – that’s similar to what has succeeded before), then blast out a range of material in order to see what ‘wins’ – before pumping support in behind the winners while letting the ‘also-rans’ sink naturally. It’s simple logic of survival and it’s precisely what happened with Nirvana ‘Nevermind’ – 50,000 copies of the record pressed initially, tour plans involving mid-sized venues in Australia and the Far East, all designed to gradually build the band’s profile and turn them into another ‘Major-indie band’ selling a couple hundred thousand at most (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., etc.) The pressure has simply increased.
I spent last week from 9am Monday through early afternoon Friday (including two exams and a couple hours of homework a night) being trained on the ‘Managing Successful Programmes’ (MSP) methodology. Ignoring the consultant-speak and corp-language, the underlying point of it is to say that when you’re trying to deliver an objective, there needs to be a carefully critiqued initial plan, with numerous checkpoints permitting observation of the plan from multiple angles in order to allow people to shout out “this isn’t going to work like this! We need to change!” There’s been a massive failure of proper management at Universal in relation to the ‘Montage of Heck’ release.
I’ll go further and say that Universal, on a professional level, should feel pretty ashamed of the work done around ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – the Home Recordings’. It’s no secret I’ve hugely enjoyed the 31 track full release as envisaged by Brett Morgen. For me, in my view, it’s a good record. But my personal enjoyment is pretty irrelevant; it isn’t the same as commercial success or satisfied audiences. Reports last week claimed negligible sales and one of the lowest ever charting positions for a Nirvana/Cobain release and, I feel, the reasons have very little to do with the music on the release and almost everything to do with choices taken at Universal.
Firstly, I’ve said this before, the film this release is accompanying came out in January-April 2015 – that’s where the peak of affectionate, warm, widespread coverage took place. Releasing the associated soundtrack over six months later meant there was no way to sustain that peak – the audience and media alike were weary after an entire year of Cobain/Nirvana coverage related to the film. It meant having to attempt to ‘re-heat’ interest after only a short break. It also relegated the soundtrack to an after-thought, something with no greater status than the DVD/Blu-ray issue of the cinema/TV film – a secondary product. On the PR/Marketing front Universal has successfully executed a strategy designed to ‘strike’ only once they’ve deflated the sense of excitement, positivity and expectancy around ‘Montage of Heck.’ Timing matters and this was foolish.
Why have they done so? Well, in my opinion, it’s about the ‘Christmas market.’ The decision was taken to wedge what – until now – has been a solid, reliable source of high revenue into the final quarter of the year (same as Nirvana’s ‘Incesticide’ release in 1992.) The commercial choice to schedule the release independently from the best moment in terms of PR/Marketing has undermined their goal. This suggests a senior-level decision imposed on the teams responsible for executing the release itself. With no one empowered to question the intelligence of that choice, all the teams could do is react to a fait accompli. What has the result been? They’ve apparently decided to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the release while failing to recognize or value the crucial point of a music release – content.
One approach visible is an appeal to specific music-buying demographics without taking the time to gain real comprehension of those audiences. The key exhibit is the release of the cassette edition cottoning on to the ‘indie-cool’ trend of the month. Yet they failed to understand the cassette trend is mainly about getting a short-run souvenir of one-off live events and happenings, having 1 of 200 copies all handmade and hand-designed by a lo-fi one-person operation – it’s about uniqueness, rarity and personal touches. The ‘Montage of Heck’ cassette, by contrast, is a zombie resurrection of mass-produced, generic pre-recorded cassettes and thus has nothing to do with what people are buying cassettes for. The decision to release a cassette – aping a low-selling minority trend – would be a bizarre decision on commercial grounds, which suggests that it was a move driven purely by a desire for publicity. It’s a bad move by the PR/Marketing team based on low intelligence regarding the market or the trend they’ve copied. It also failed to garner any significant notice from media sources because ultimately no one cares about a novelty feature.
The cassette reinforces a sense in which the music is being deliberately treated as an irrelevance to this release. The cassette is a ‘trinket’, a toy. The focus has been on format. For some reason, someone took the lesson that it was the magnet on the front cover of the ‘In Utero’ box-set or the prettiness of the ‘Nevermind’ box-set that made people buy it. Dead wrong. Music products are purchased for the contents which, in the case of the ‘Nevermind’ and ‘In Utero’ box-sets were the CDs of ‘Live at the Paramount’ and ‘Live and Loud’ respectively, each accompanied by substantial, high gloss and well-done supporting books in each case. There was a further deeply odd attempt to wrap ephemera around the release. If you ordered the CD direct from Universal then you could get a ‘limited edition’ art print of one of the record covers – which translated as something I could do on the top-of-the-range printer at work.
The format issue rears its ugly head again when confronted with the ‘standard’ and ‘super-deluxe’ editions of the ‘Montage of Heck’ release. The ‘Standard’ release is an utterly arbitrary slicing n’ dicing of the 31 track edition – it’s neither fish nor fowl. It mostly removes the audio experiments, but it also hacks off ‘What More Can I Say’, ‘Bright Smile’, ‘Burn the Rain’, ‘Rehash’, ‘Do Re Mi’, ‘She Only Lies’ turning a one CD set into…Errr…A one CD set? It spoils the montage effect of the ‘Deluxe’ for no apparent reason except to make it shorter with a lunkheaded “well if it’s half as long then we’ll charge this – if they want the other half then…” mentality.
The ‘Super-Deluxe’ meanwhile is entirely redundant. Again, a note has been made of the ‘record collector’ demographic without understanding that the audience in question will purchase something because of rarity value (a quality the ‘Montage of Heck Super Deluxe’ doesn’t possess), because of the presence of content that’s otherwise hard to get, historical value and at a specific sensible commercial price point. I’ve bought one record this year costing over £100 and I did so because it’s one of only 100 copies in the world, it’s a Thurston Moore record and I collect his stuff avidly and it also supported the equipment fund for the Café Oto venue so I didn’t mind seeing it as a donation. The ‘Super-Deluxe’ bells and whistles are not what a record collector looks at to justify a purchase and it would have to mean more than “a puzzle with collectable storage container, movie posters, postcard and bookmark”. These extras appear to have been chosen to keep costs down while allowing for mass production hence just as the cassette made this look like a novelty, the ‘Super-Deluxe’ extras make the release look cheapskate, miserly and penny-pinching.
Ultimately, all music released in exchange for cash is a commercial product – there’s a compromise all the way down the line. In this instance there’s been a major miscalculation of price point for the U.S. market. To make a comparison, the Bob Dylan ‘The Cutting Edge’ archive release recently came out in three versions which, on Amazon U.S., are currently: 2 CD for $16.59 ($8 per disc), 6 CD for $106.39 ($17 per disc), then there’s the 18 disc limited edition at BobDylan.com for $599.00 ($33.00 per disc.) The step-up in quantity of music understandably leads to a step-up in the price point – likewise, the associated bits and pieces step-up with the 18 disc version containing a 170 page book unavailable anywhere else (as opposed to the 6 disc version’s 120 page book), 9 mono 45 RPM 7” singles, a strip of film cells from a print of the ‘Don’t Look Back’ film. There’s a logical increase and the quantity of music rockets each time; 36 songs, 110 songs, 379 songs. For the ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ soundtrack U.S. audiences are being expected to pay $11.29 for 13 songs (not unreasonable) but $117.99 for 31 (deranged.) By contrast, in the U.K., the 31 track CD is £10.29 ($15.51) on Amazon. The price points are utterly illogical and are, understandably, deeply upsetting to U.S. fans. The removal of the ‘deluxe’ option from the U.S. market has destroyed the incentive for purchase, forces fans to order on import from abroad – or more likely has turned them off so much that they’re not willing to bother acquiring it legally because the price point makes the release look like a scam.
The issue with the ‘Standard’ is that it chops the music in half for no discernable reason – cherry-picking 379 Dylan songs down to a core of 36 makes rational sense; releasing ‘Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’ in a two disc edition with a live show then a three disc with a load of studio demos has a logic; releasing a five disc version of Soundgarden ‘Superunknown’ with demos, rehearsals, 5.1 sound version, then a curtailed two disc set makes sense. In the case of ‘Montage of Heck’ where’s the justification in turning 74 minutes of music into 40 minutes of music? Great albums are underwritten by a logic of flow, message, storyline – it’s as if people read musical statements in the way they would fiction. The same goes for compilation, a simple, easy to comprehend division of music is necessary – something people understand when making a quality judgment on a purchase.
The ‘Super Deluxe’ suffers the same fault – the step up in musical quantity from 14 to 31 tracks doesn’t justify a price point that jumps ten-fold. Likewise, in an era where many DVDs are already packaged with the Blu-ray (and vice versa), the presence of both the U.S. DVD and Blu-ray release doesn’t advance the case for the ‘Super-Deluxe’. Nor does the presence of a threadbare set of extras to the DVD. Nor does the presence of a book that’s already been released and purchased by anyone with sufficient fan urges to want it. The ‘Super Deluxe’ is a mess. Cassette, but no vinyl – why? DVD and Blu-ray when anyone buying the latter already feels the former is redundant while anyone wanting the former feels the latter is unnecessary meaning everyone who buys the release is getting something they don’t want. A book that had already been seen six months earlier. There’s nothing here justifying the egregious price-tag given the DVD/Blu-ray is just $14.70 and the book is $23 – the idea that the cassette, ‘Deluxe’ CD and extras make up $80.29 of value is ludicrous and can be seen as such by anyone with a calculator and third grade math skills.
Having made errors of timing, audience, format and pricing Universal have compounded them all by deciding to miscommunicate and mis-sell the product. It’s been notable that, in recent interviews, Brett Morgen makes clear that the ‘album’ he’s referring to is only the 31 track release – that’s what he created. Other decisions were taken by the record label to cash in on what could have been a solid-seller. Morgen spoke to near every newspaper, culture supplement, music magazine and online source six to twelve months ago regarding the film meaning that hauling him back out to act as spokesman for the release – which he then makes clear has been festooned with baubles and chopped in half completely independently of his involvement – is odd, who was left he hadn’t already spoken to? The sense of weary repetition, in a fast-changing music news landscape was a poor choice by Universal’s PR team. It would have been better to go with press releases and new statements from the label (in the same way that the inlay of the ‘Deluxe’ release has been written by someone within Universal).
There was a quite bizarre failure to comprehend that music fans now operate on an international level when it comes to the consumption of news even if they mostly still buy music at a national level. Fans across the world were confused by the emerging messages; “no ‘Deluxe’ edition in the U.S.,” “no ‘Super-Deluxe’ outside of the U.S.” The same week the release was coming out I was contacted by a fan from Europe who still thought the only way to get the full 31 track release was on the ‘Super-Deluxe’ and that he’d have to import it from America. I did exactly the same and initially ordered the ‘Super-Deluxe’ from Canada before cancelling it once I realized that the 31 track was available in the U.K. but not in the U.S. I made clear back in January that I was definitely going to buy the cinema tickets, the DVD, the book, the soundtrack – that I’m the kind of obsessive who would buy anything they put out – but even I spent two weeks deflated and a bit despondent because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get the 31 track without going to massive expense to buy a box of junk from another continent that I didn’t want. I buy from abroad regularly, but only for things that are hard-to-find or difficult-to-get. To know that the only reason I would/would not receive a part of the release was because of a management decision at Universal felt like a slap in the face.
So my heart goes out to fans in the U.S. who really have been shafted by Universal. The decision to simply eliminate the ‘Deluxe’ in that market leaves U.S. fans with just the ‘Standard’ (half pack) or the egregiously expensive and unnecessary ‘Super-Deluxe’. It’s an actual insult to music fans forcing them to either order from abroad or to just give up and refuse to be taken advantage of by a record label with such a fundamental lack of respect or courtesy for them. I can understand why the release has been so poorly received when people have had the option of simply and easily purchasing the core music at a fair price. To ask them for over $100 for just 17 more tracks (35 minutes of sound) while trying to force them to buy a second copy of a book they already have and two formats of a film (so one of which they won’t want), plus some card/paper ephemera…Wow, now that’s gross. European fans, meanwhile, are unable to get the DVD extras thanks to another arbitrary choice within the management chain.
I’ve got two degrees from Cambridge University and I still found Universal’s communication strategy confusing and the market segmentation offensive. It managed to turn someone who genuinely liked the film and was feeling pretty positive about the whole ‘Montage of Heck’ campaign into someone unsure whether to bother at all. The effect on fans less friendly toward the film and soundtrack has been to stoke irritation and outright anger, again, serving to undermine the good will and good spirit that stokes sales and makes people want to part with their cash.
Finally, I mentioned mis-selling? I went into four or five music stores in the last fortnight and not one of them is stocking ‘Montage of Heck’ in the Soundtracks section. It has been pitched as one of the most major releases of the year when it’s explicitly (and very effectively) an audio accompaniment to the film. Instead of allowing it to be measured against other soundtrack releases, it’s being measured against major living artists’ key statements to the detriment of the originality and generosity of the soundtrack. Most soundtracks are a hodge-podge of previously released music maybe with some ragbag demos or live material tossed in (re: the ‘Amy’ soundtrack accompanying the Amy Winehouse documentary this year.) The ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – the Home Recordings’ soundtrack is a fully conceptualized collage combining multiple forms of Cobain’s creativity into a single cohesive statement. It’s generous in terms of length; presence of truly unseen, unheard and unreleased material; freshness of its take on the subject’s work. It’s head-and-shoulders over most soundtracks. But saddled with undue expectations, the kind of release formats reserved for all-time classics, the treatment and release schedule intended for a modern artist’s magnum opus – it has garnered unfair criticisms of sound-quality and pop-quality. A low-key treatment emphasizing that it was a soundtrack – or timing so that it was seen more clearly in the context of the film – would have been of huge benefit to the release. Instead the over-pitching and over-selling has helped kill it stone dead. Nice one Universal.
So, smart-arse that I am, it’s easy to poke holes in something – what would I suggest would have fixed it? OK, well, the ‘Montage of Heck’ campaign running from late in 2014 through the release of the book in spring 2015 had an underlying coherence – the soundtrack should always have been a part of this. The TV and cinema showings worked because they offered legitimately different ways of experiencing the material. The book was fine (though not outstanding) and, again, made perfect sense. The Soundtrack should have been released in April 2015 thus making it an integral part of this multifaceted project. This would have had the advantage of piggybacking on the massive amount of media coverage, almost all extremely positive, garnered by Brett Morgen’s extensive interview load. The release should have consisted of one thing only; the ‘Deluxe’ 31 track disc exactly as it is – nothing more, nothing less. A single worldwide format, a single worldwide release date with the simple low-key visual image Morgen was right to emphasize; the sensation of a quiet day in the tiny town of Olympia, in a cheap apartment, with an ambitious and artistic guy who loved making music and having fun with the possibilities of sound. If there was a determination to create some kinda ‘uber-package’ at a higher price point then it would have needed (a) an exclusive book, perhaps a large-scale art volume purely showcasing Cobain’s artwork to allow it to standout versus the mash of interview/film art/Cobain art present in the existing book (b) additional music content. A version with an exclusive book would have allowed for a small rise in price to cover CD and book. To jack it any further there would need to be something unique only to the deluxe – not a clue what. A DVD with no interviews consisting solely of self-filmed material by Cobain? A compilation of pre-released Cobain home demos all compiled into a single disc? A compilation of Cobain’s non-Nirvana forays with other artists and labels (e.g., his work with The Go Team, the Burroughs hook-up, the material with Earth, his minor contributions to the Melvins, the Lanegan version of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ from 1989…)…? Ultimately the 31 track disc works and it’s good as it is – I’d have left it there.
Addendum: Spoke to a friend in the U.S. who, on the day of the release, drove round Best Buy, Target, Wal Mart, an independent record store and Barnes and Nobles only to find that none of them were stocking the Super-Deluxe so, even though he was willing to pay the $130 dollars, he couldn’t get it anyway. Eventually someone told him he could only get it online. Another disappointed customer left with a sour taste in his mouth thanks to truly poor communication and bad distribution from Universal. It’s just so sad. I love the ‘deluxe’, well worth what I paid, delighted to hear it…But all of this poor management? Groan.