Who Cares When Your Record Was Digitally Remastered?


I’ll admit I’m obsessive about dates in general, and music-related dates most of all. So when I started using the music-streaming service Spotify, I was pleased to see a year listed next to the name of every album in their expansive library—presumably the year when the recording was released, which I consider crucial information. But when I entered “Miles Davis” to see which of his 100+ releases were available there, the list included:

Sketches of Spain (2011)
Sentimental Mood (2011)
Bitches Brew (2010)
Birth of the Cool (2000)
On the Corner (2003)

Since I know that I first heard On the Corner at a friend’s house sometime in the early ‘80s, that Bitches Brew was released in 1970, and that Sketches of Spain dates from around 1960—and in fact that Miles Davis hasn’t been making records at all since 1991, when he died—there was clearly something funny going on. It soon became obvious what that was, because it was the same thing that had been irking me about Amazon for years: These were the dates when each of the CDs was released. Or maybe the dates when the new, remastered version of each CD was released. Useful information—for someone who cares more about when the album was most recently remastered than when it was actually recorded. I’m not one of those people.

As a radio DJ, music writer, and borderline OCD case, it’s likely that I care a lot more about this than most, but record release dates are important, and in some cases they’re crucial. I listen to a lot of Sun Ra, but I’m not one of the four people in the world who can rattle off the name of every Ra record and its original year of release. I’m not even familiar with 3/4 of the forty or so Ra records on Spotify. But Sun Ra’s career spanned about five decades. In that time he released well over 100 recordings, and his relatively straight jazz releases from the ’50s are completely different from his revolutionary “free” recordings of the early ’60s, which are nothing like his experiments with noisy electronics in the ’70s. If “I’m in the mood to hear Sun Ra,” it can’t possibly mean any of the above—it’ll probably be “something like Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy” (a very “out” recording from 1963) or “something like Sun Song” (a big-band recording from 1956). But what I see on Spotify is twenty-some recordings with dates between 2000 and 2011, including The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (actually released in 1961) and Disco 3000 (actually released in 1978). In all fairness, I also see Heliocentric Worlds, Vol. 1 listed with the correct release year of 1965 and Jazz in Silhouette with the more-or-less correct year of 1958, but this just adds to the confusion, since both of these have been released on CD, obviously decades later than 1965 and 1958. Why do these have the right dates? Did Spotify rip them from the original vinyl?

This has nothing to do with knowing the (often unknowable) dates of obscure Sun Ra LPs originally pressed in runs of 50 to 75. Any Miles Davis fan knows when On the Corner and Bitches Brew were released. But someone who’s just starting to explore Miles’s music might find it useful to know that the former was released in the Afro-Funk Year of Our Lord 1972 and the latter was an important forebear of ‘70s jazz-rock fusion, and neither is remotely like his mid-‘50s recordings.

One more example: Let’s say some burgeoning metalhead with a Spotify account is browsing the Deep Purple oeuvre for the first time. What he will see is a version of 1972’s Machine Head with the same tracks as the original LP and a date of 2005, and the 2-CD “25th Anniversary Edition” of the same album with a date of 2003. First of all, the straight reissue certainly hit the streets before the deluxe 25th Anniversary Edition, and second, 1972 + 25 = 1997, which is in fact when the 25th Anniversary Edition was released (not 2003). Let’s assume this isn’t just sloppiness, but that these dates reflect when the most up-to-date remastering/re-release of each CD was done. Who cares? Especially if I’m listening to lo-fi MP3s of these recordings on a laptop or iPod (as I suspect most people are), this doesn’t make a lot of difference to me. And if it’s nit-picking to want precise release dates for these albums, it’s twice as nit-picky to use as a reference the dates when the latest copies were mastered and shipped from the pressing plant.

But it’s not nit-picking to want precise release dates. There’s a slew of differences between 1970 and 1975 Deep Purple, and I’d like to know which of those bands I’m listening to. If I care enough about music to pay $10 a month for a Spotify Premium account, there’s a good chance I’ll want to explore some newly discovered band’s catalog chronologically, or reverse-chronologically.

Take the all-too-common case of a once-great jazz or rock star who hasn’t made a good record since the mid-’70s but continues to churn out new releases, awful almost by definition. I’ve noticed that Spotify lists two editions of Eric Clapton’s perfectly listenable self-titled release from 1970, with years of 2006 and 2010 respectively. If I happened not to be familiar with this record already, I’d never hear it, simply because I personally am never going to click on an Eric Clapton record that was recorded (or appears to have been) within the last six years.

Say I want to listen to some doo-wop-era Sun Ra, or avoid those recordings completely; say I want to listen to the highly influential early work of British jazz-folk guitarist Davy Graham but have no interest in the material he recorded towards the end of his life, in 2008. Is “Broken Biscuits (2007)” really from 2007, or is it an early Graham recording I somehow missed that was reissued for the third time, in a special gold CD edition, in that year?

My personal cutoff date for Frank Zappa is around 1979: Would it kill me to accidentally hear two minutes of one of his terrible Synclavier-based recordings from the ’80s? Not literally, no. But if what I’m really looking for is early Mothers of Invention work—as different from Zappa’s ’80s productions as John Coltrane is from Kenny G.—why should I have to?* Life is short. Hunting and pecking my way through twenty different albums until I finally hit on one from the brief sweet spot in a group’s career is not my idea of a good time. Think about the unremitting downward spiral in quality that almost always accompanies a musical career of thirty or forty years: That’s a hell of a lot of bad records, and having accurate dates would help me weed them out.

To be fair, I’m focusing on Spotify because that’s the music-streaming service I use most these days. But this is a much more widespread problem. As mentioned above, Amazon is no different: I often find I have to sift through their customer comments to ferret out actual release dates. And it’s the same with the streaming site Last.fm: According to them Miles Davis’s 1959 Kind of Blue was “Released 14 Mar 2011,” though On the Corner, bizarrely, was “Released 11 Oct 1972.” Do these companies care about these dates? Do they think they’re arcane historical details that only a handful of trainspotting types over 40 even concern themselves with? Is this an internet-based manifestation of Postmodernism, where not only is everything ever recorded fair game for plundering and mashing-up (which I’ve got no problem with), but history has been flattened to the point where as far as we’re concerned most of the music in the world didn’t exist before ten years ago? Or is the difference between 2004 and 2010 analog-to-digital technology now more important to people than whether a record was made in the ’50s or the ’90s?

Imagine that centuries-old paintings in the Metropolitan Museum were marked only with the dates when they were last touched-up or restored, or a retrospective of the work of a visual artist with a fifty-year career had individual pieces tagged with random years: There’d be rioting up and down Fifth Avenue. But that’s how it feels much of the time on Spotify.

If you want to select albums by closing your eyes and clicking, or rolling a pair of dice, great. Sometimes even I do that. But being forced to view or listen to or choose works of art given no more information than a date that may or may not be off by four decades (and hence, potentially, a completely bogus historical context) is no way to live. Is it that hard to just tell me when the damn album was recorded?
* Note: There are no Frank Zappa records on Spotify, so fortunately this isn’t a problem I’ve actually had to deal with.

Dave Mandl hosts a radio show at WFMU, is music editor at the Brooklyn Rail, and has written for The Wire, The Believer, Yeti, and sundry other publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @dmandl. Tumblr page: http://dmandl.tumblr.com . More from this author →