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Friday, February 03, 2006

Handle With Care

In honor of Jeff posting The Traveling Wilburys' Volume One in the MP3 format, I bring up a very interesting thing about out-of-print titles: the ridiculous prices people ask for them on CD.

When I last checked, Volume One goes for an average of $40 on places like Half.com, Amazon.com and eBay. These days, that kind of money will buy you a handful of used CDs or even an entire box set. Asking that much really presses the customer into how much he/she really wants it. Sure, you can find so many out-of-print titles on the Internet, but for people who want the actual CD, the liner notes, et al. you have to be willing to pay up big time.

It seems like a distant memory now, but there was a time when Jawbreaker's Dear You was out of print and a hot item on eBay. Auctions after auctions would end with the winning bidder forking over an average of $50 per copy. I was never lucky in winning one of those auctions; I found a copy from an Internet retailer in Canada, but I had to pay a total of $27 after taxes and stuff. Why would I pay so much for a single CD? Because there were definite concerns that the album would never see the light of day again on CD.

In the case of Dear You, the album's sales were a very big disappointment for a major label artist. I've heard conflicting numbers, but somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 copies were sold. While there are indie artists that would kill to sell that many copies of a record, for a band throwing their hat in the big leagues, Dear You was a flop.

However, proving once again that sheer numbers do not equate quality, Dear You would find an audience for people that missed out on Jawbreaker back when they were around. People coming late to the band probably weren't aware of the fan backlash of the band signing with a major label (after years of saying they would never do so). They let the music do the talking.

Sure, Dear You is a big and glossy record, but it's probably one of their best albums. When people realized this and knew that Geffen had ceased printing copies of it, a huge demand was born. Apparently Jawbreaker owed Geffen a ton of money, so you really had to scramble to find your own copy of Dear You.

Back in '99, CD burners and peer-to-peer networks weren't as user-friendly as they are now. Trying to get all of the album tracks in CD-quality and burn them onto CDs that could play in any player was a crapshoot. For me, my friend Gabe in Oxnard burned me a CD-R copy to listen to. However, I wanted the full deal, so I plunked down $27 for it.

Thankfully, Jawbreaker drummer Adam Pfahler's Blackball Records reissued Dear You a few years later with some smokin' bonus tracks (including the unreleased studio version of "Shirt"). While Dear You has a happy ending, The Traveling Wilburies' Volume One remains a hazy cloud of questions.

I don't know the story about why the record is out of print, but there are probably most definitely entanglements with rights and ownership over the group's back catalog. Volume One boasted a hit single with "Handle With Care" and the song is still popular today. Jenny Lewis from Rilo Kiley recently covered the song with help from Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes and Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie/Postal Service, thus adding even more attention to the original.

Usually, supergroups made out of well-known artists sound good on paper, but they rarely pay off. Expectations are so high because of the individuals' previous work, so putting them together with other heavyweights is like putting ice cream on pizza (great separately, but not great together). For a group consisting of Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne, The Traveling Wilburys were an exception.

Volume One is worth hearing, but I'd much rather listen to Jeff's free MP3 upload than fork over $40 for it. And you wonder why people are so annoyed with the prices of CDs that they turn to downloading . . .

1 comment:

Eric said...

...and then there are the geeks like me that own both the original and reissued versions of Dear You. I'm a sucker.