nteresting read from Jeff Rougvie, (a music-industry veteran formerly of Salem indie label Rykodisc, regarding the new Bowie box set! http://www.jeffrougvie.com/
"As many of you have no doubt heard (or experienced first-hand) the latest release in Parlophone's series of Bowie box sets, an 11 CD or 13 disc vinyl set covering the "Berlin"-era is causing Bowie fans unprecedented agita.
Not that it doesn't have fans - it truly does. I think everyone would agree the packaging is of a high standard. No one doubts the quality of the music. But the way that music has been handled this time is causing controversy and the excuses are raising eyebrows, including my own.
The sheer volume of negativity "A New Career In A New Town" has generated is so significant, Amazon UK has stopped selling it (an Amazon practice that kicks in when customer complaints and return requests flags a product in their system as having issues). It has 2.1 stars on Amazon US and is still for sale there as of this writing (despite using the same masters as the UK versions). A remarkable 54% of Amazon reviews are single stars, many quite harsh, some including tales of partial refunds to appease angry buyers. Steve Hoffman's infamous audiophile forums have 213 (!!) pages devoted to the box. Henry Rollins has warned fans to avoid the release. With the internet's ability to turn a spark into a wildfire A NEW CAREER IN A NEW TOWN is taking a brutal critical beating the previous boxes avoided. The (by comparison) nitpicking complaints Parlophone got about the earlier boxes must seem like a beautiful dream. Under this kind of fire I'd imagine they are significantly panicked.
To wit, they are freaked-out to the point that Paul Sinclair of the excellent reissue website Super Deluxe Edition was called in to the London Parlophone offices to have a nearly two hour sit down during which the label attempted to explain away the problems with a mix of curious, and at times, conflicting, reasoning. This was followed by a press release from Bowie's team. Neither gesture has seemed to quell the unrest and it's not hard to see why.
The box retails for between $120-$200 depending on which physical format you choose. From Parlophone's perspective, they have considerable money invested in just manufacturing. Plus, this is a product they've got a high expectation to generate significant financial rewards, especially in the crucial holiday period. And before everyone piles on about commercialism triumphing over art, realize this is a company that has an obligation to perform both financially and artistically at peak, especially in an industry with significantly diminishing returns. Making money isn't evil and no one is forcing anyone to buy anything. That said, I still have many reservations about what I view as fan-predatory practices of the program to date, going back to the initial, bonus track-free versions of 1999.
I've been on both sides of this equation, so before I go deeper, let me say that a project of this scale, by an artist of this stature - especially when it features music many of Bowie's hardcore fans hold particularly dear - is an enterprise not undertaken lightly or without fear of fan wrath. These boxes have been coming at a steady rate and there's no doubt many inside the walls of Parlophone - no matter how big a Bowie fan they may be - are human, and may be, at this point, somewhat Bowie-fatigued. After going through so many reels listening to and cataloging the vault, I certainly was.
In short, I'm sympathetic. The Ryko titles contained mistakes. We were lucky - when the Ryko releases were prepared, David was alive. He signed off on all the re-masters we created, so we could safely deflect to him, regardless of who was initially responsible for any slip-ups. And, thank God, they came out before the internet was a thing, or I might've offed myself while reading comments.
Since the fuss started, I've discussed the issue with a range of people who've spent time with ANCIANT, from fans to renowned re-release producers. This has provided interesting fodder for my own thoughts.
Parlophone and Bowie's publicist categorically deny any of the issues are unintentional. In fact, they claim these perceived problems are absolutely critical to the concept of this particular box. Yet that pretense conflicts with the apparent logic behind the previous boxes.
I hate it when people presume to know what my thoughts are or were without asking directly, so I'm hesitant to state categorically that the first two boxes were intentionally envisioned to be at odds with NCIANT, but logic follows that if you've set a standard, you ought to maintain that thread throughout the campaign.
Conversely, if you're planning a deviation, that should be clearly communicated prior to release. Otherwise, well, here we are.
The brick walled mastering is unfortunate but not uncommon. While audiophiles balk, many consumers DO prefer it because it is LOUD. If you don't brickwall, your release sounds quiet next to a contemporary pop album - and this was especially obvious during the MP3 heyday when 1989 CDs dumped into iTunes didn't sound as loud as 2005 CDs did - resulting in jarring volume disparity. I'll admit that, on occasion, depending on the music, I can enjoy brickwalled mastering.
But this is some of Bowie's most complex and cleanly recorded work from his Great Decade, and the mastering choices aren't compatible with the music. Yes, Visconti was there for the recording and certainly knows what at least he (if not David, or Eno) was after on the original sessions.
On the other hand, David signed off on the Ryko masters and we never got any notes to boost the bass, which we could've (and would've) done if requested.
It's worth noting Tony's work has become increasingly bass-y over the years. Maybe this is by choice or perhaps he's (understandably) lost some hearing range as he ages. Maybe the fact that he's a bass player is a factor.
All this considered, mastering choices are subjective and driven by many factors including source material and end goals. So let's agree that maybe you don't like the choices made, but someone had to make a choice somewhere.
This might seem like a brush-off of a fairly significant issue, but I am moving past this it because it's wholly subjective, and therefore least problematic, IMO. FWIW, I think the "Lodger" remix is excellent, a real improvement (unlike the "Ziggy" remix, which didn't have the ferocity on the basic multitracks Bowie hoped for). Conversely, I do not like the "Lodger" remaster, and neither do the fans.
Even so, I find throwing Tony under the bus an odd move considering the label must have heard the box before it was manufactured. One assumes this would give them an opportunity to reconsider.
Or it's not out of the realm of possibility that quality control just failed / dropped the ball.
Sinclair details accounts of a mind-boggling number of test pressings, so the final approval process must've taken months, at least.
This indicates there was trouble early on in the process, but it's also important to remember that listening and re-listening to the same music, slightly modified, over and over, will cause a listener to develop ear and / or material fatigue and possibly lose the plot on the entire exercise, forgetting the original goal.
Maybe whoever was in position to pull the trigger finally threw their hands up in frustration after the 50th test pressing hit their desk - "I just can't tell anymore! Make the damn thing!"
Labels are businesses. They have annual sales goals. That's not inherently an indication there's malicious foul play afoot. It's in everyone's interest if most fans like the final product, at least enough so they don't try to word-massacre it online.
But the rationale behind the "Heroes" flux is..... not well thought out, to say the least.
Which brings me to my next point; it's flat out fucking bizarre that, all of a sudden, they've decided to use ONLY original (un-EQ'd, I assume) master reels as the source material, warts and all. This MIGHT make sense if they were touting these as flat transfers, but instead they've remastered them drastically, altering the sound of the original recordings.
Again, we shouldn't be so quick to blame Parlophone. It may not be the label's fault. Perhaps this was the deal with Bowie prior to his passing; leave the job to Tony and release what he delivers, no compromise.
In my view, the sole point of using un-EQ'd master tapes is to get the best possible sound quality, period. Those tapes, presumably, are the closest to what the artists and producers played back in the studio and signed off on before some mastering guy EQ'd the record for whatever format was active at the time. This is indeed the right place to START, but not necessarily the source material you WANT to use throughout.
When Ryko handled Bowie's work, Toby Mountain, his team, and I vigorously reviewed ALL the source material at hand, including multiple safety copies, reels made for cassette duplication, different territories, etc, etc.
Using the un-EQ'd master tape wasn't always desirable because some masters WERE damaged and wouldn't have provided the purest reproduction. In those cases we'd review all tapes containing the damaged songs. Once we found and agreed on the best-sounding version, we'd use it. This generally worked, but also led to our snafu of using "Gouster" mixes of "Young Americans" tracks, without realizing they were slightly different. I do NOT recall the "Heroes" master having any issues, but that was 25 years ago. I may have forgotten, or it may have been damaged since.
Previous Parlophone Bowie boxes may not be mastered to everyone's liking, but this is an impossible result, despite insistence to the contrary by hardcore audiophiles - there are no absolutes in art, boys! But it's reasonable to say were generally well received.
Now, if the label's being honest, when they included Romanian-only single edits or similar on recent comps and boxes in the interest of serving / praying on the completist, they were rarely (if ever) sourcing what are most likely long-lost master reels of regionally mutilated single versions from the 70's. Instead they're very accurately re-creating an edit they've heard on a 7 inch 45, using far more reliable tools than a reel of oxidized plastic, tape and a razor blade. Mastering studios have significantly better gear now than we did in 1989-92 when the bulk of Ryko's Bowie titles were mastered. Even by 1996, mastering software had made huge leaps and bounds, prompting us to remaster in 20 bit for the gold AU20 series.
So why is master tape purism suddenly the be-all-end-all with box #3? We can only guess.
If it's not bullshit and they're deliberately deviating from the process and standards established by the previous boxes, don't fans who are most likely $250 to $400 into these sets already deserve a friendly heads-up instead of a "this was intentional" excuse after they've already laid their money down? I'd think so.
Again I can only guess at the kind of snafus that'd create such a derided product. The hiss, the flutter, the unintentional clipped fade-in; all would probably be forgiven with the explanation the label has offered.
It doesn't MAKE SENSE, but fans would probably accept it.
But the "Heroes" dropout? That's a mistake, plain and simple. You can fix that within minutes in a digital studio while still maintaining the integrity of using the original source tape barring a few seconds. WHO WOULD NOTICE? WOULD VISCOUNT BE UP AT NIGHT TOSSING AND TURNIG BECAUSE OF THREE SECONDS FLOWN IN FROM ANOTHER SOURCE? HAVE WE FALLEN SO FAR THAT FANS WANT TO HEAR ALL THE DAMAGED TAPES? Of course not. For Parlophone to insist otherwise is a little insulting.
I've maintained all along that the current spate of re-releases is designed by trainspotters to serve trainspotters. The packages are nice, but what "new-old" content are they adding? "The Gouster"? Please. Remixes? Edits? Spare me. I like the "Lodger" remix, but let's not pretend it's anything but bait on a hook as the catalog takes a final (?) victory lap before physical product fades from the mainstream.
Again, I'm not an anti-capitalist. If Bowie and Parlophone want to milk the catalog, without offering anything significantly new to the fanbase, that's their right. But this approach and the poor QC displayed on ANCIANT may have finally gotten us to the the point where even the most fervent completists feel they've been taken advantage of.
That 80's box just became a significantly harder sell."