Due to the echo chamber in the comments section of my last post on reissuing and a post over at Hooded Utilitarian, I decided to touch on what I guess I'll call "ethical issues" or reissuing in hopes to clarify my meaning.
The biggest headscratcher by Hooded's Bill Randall is his frustration with my description of the weird, awkward issues that come up when something is reissued or released for the first time in a new country, time period, etc. We'll ignore Randall's douchey decision to not fix my misspelling of "excitement" because it's the kind of petty aside that this blog has no time for (we overtly insult people we don't agree with), but I'm baffled by his gross misreading of what I said, which was: "the act of reissuing is a mix of hubris, fan boy excitement gone wrong in the best and worst way, and opportunism." That this was taking as some kind of outrageous and malicious statement is weird, that he goes a step further to suggest that this is all a big dumb cover-up for me not liking the design is...well, it's about as insincere as highlighting a typo.
The point of my description of reissuing is that there's a lot of issues, good, bad, and in the middle that come up when someone chooses to reissues another artist's work. On the positive side, reissuing something, at least as a small, undoubtedly sincere company like Drawn & Quarterly goes, stems from an excitement or love of the work and desire to get it out there so more people can read the thing.
However, that doesn't mean problems don't arise and often these problems stem from the same fan-ish glee that moved them towards falling in love with the work and wanting to reissue it in the first place. I'm sure you guys are aware but you know, sometimes when people really like something, they sorta act like they own it or they internalize it and take it over to some extent. And simply put, no matter how great and back-breaking it might be to put out some work of the past--or from another country--that you love, if you got a brain, you feel a little bit icky about the endeavor because you're getting paid or getting publicity or something of someone else's work. This is okay, this is necessary, but it is still true.
To break this down, I'd like to recount the emotions and concerns that raced around in my head when me and fellow writer here, Jesse, went to work on developing a mixtape for a Baltimore hip-hop group called Mania Music Group. This is also good because it moves these issues out of the world of comics...
My interest in developing a mixtape for free download of Mania mainly came from the fact that I felt they were incredibly slept-on in Baltimore and depressingly unknown outside of the city. It was not only their talent that grabbed me but the sense that their style intersected with a lot of what was going on in hip-hop right now and that if exposed to the right people, they would become huge.
I got the chance to meet them at a show they performed and ended up eating burgers with them and even going to a party with the group. The next day, a friend of mine--who organized the show they did--interviewed them on his college radio show. The result was an hour of hilarity and insight that gave listeners a great introduction to the group--the hour even ended with a ridiculous 10-minute plus freestyle. I immediately thought of how, it would be hard to get non-fans to listen to an hour with a group they've never heard, but that snippets of this interview, along with their music would provide an excellent introduction, sampler, primer of the group.
The additional reason for wanting to provide a sampler of the group is that over at their website ManiaMusicGroup.Com, they provide free downloads to all of their albums and EPs. This is both brilliant and a little overwhelming for an uninitiated listener. To be honest, the site is also a bit busy and hard to navigate and I can imagine it at least turns off a few interested internet-ers with poor connections. I decided to take songs from all of their releases and consult a few others to do the same and develop about an hour of their music.
*First Problem: I'm picking and choosing the songs that will define this band to a new audience. My attempt to curtail complete subjectivity was through asking others' input but this is still not the group. I should add, I asked permission from the group about this project and they thanked me and said "Go ahead" but this did not make me less nervous or unsure of my role in regards to defining the group.
No money was made or exchanged in this project but there were a few ways that I was or could be seen as "using" Mania Music Group. The mixtape was going to be a free download on a new Baltimore music website I was developing and so, if the mixtape was passed around at all, it would indeed not only advertise the group but also the website that created the mixtape.
In another way, they could be seen as the first group that I looked to to celebrate over at this website--something of a small honor. At the same time, the mixtape was also posted on my fairly popular hip-hop blog and so, I was handing Mania's music over to my nearly 10K a month readers. Additionally, to a certain group, my name is more well-known than Mania's and so, in one small way, I'm attaching my name to the project. In my eyes, the uncomfortable ways I was using their music to advertise my new website venture was fair and at the heart of it was a sincere love of the group's music.
*Second Problem: Aligning my name and website with the group. Presenting them through my critical lens in a way that's beyond a review or article but suggesting that I'm connected to the group and can restructure and recontextualize their music.
And so, it came to designing a cover for the mixtape. For those unaware, a "mixtape" in the hip-hop world is basically a CD or even .zip file mixed by a DJ or group of DJs and released for semi-official consumption. Many of the biggest rappers of this past decade have made their names through mixtapes, some of which were totally created by fans and outsiders with no connection to the artist. One of the staples of a mixtape is a relatively outrageous, crazy Photoshopped cover, often a parody of a movie or other aspect of popular culture and sometimes just plain nutty. Go here for some examples.
It's important to note that this, like all aspects of hip-hop is very self-aware and ironic, and so these are not the acts of a bunch of morons with a computer but a developed and accepted aesthetic...the same way rappers know why it's really hilarious (and really awesome) to wear big-ass chains, do they know why its awesome and hilarious to parody Hulk Hogan on their mixtape covers as Gucci Mane does below:
Below is the cover for Gucci's Murder Was the Case album (different than a mixtape, obviously) and you can see the differences in design and color and overall attitude. Still, there's a common, and delightful disinterest in conventional aesthetics going on here too. That's to say, it's not exactly perfect-looking or "clean" in design.
In terms of designing a cover for the mixtape I made, this was important because Jesse would be designing the cover and while he knows a thing or two about Photoshop, dude's Photoshop game isn't super-great or anything. This was good because it would mean some of the sloppier or imperfect aspects of whatever cover we designed would not only be easily excused, but work right in-line with the general aesthetic of the mixtape. At the same time though, Mania Music have sought to stick out from the crowd, to not follow any rules or expectations and so...
Third Problem: Would it be totally right to make a typical mixtape for a group like Mania? If they were doing their own mixtape would it ever look anything like Guccimania? Probably not. Why am I aligning their music with an aesthetic that though they're a part of, they also reject?
Below is the cover of Midas from Mania Music Group's EP Live from the Arcade. Now, this is not a mixtape, so the outrageous design of mixtapes doesn't apply, but there's something playful and wonderfully absurd about Midas' EP cover which shows the group's willing to have fun with their design.
The decision Jesse and I came to was that because we were trying to break Mania in some small way to a rap audience nationwide, it would be important that the mixtape signify their creativity but also in some way or another "play the game", which meant: Give this mixtape a typically mixtape cover, but don't make it too outrageous or silly that it might discredit the group. The result is below:
Named after Midas' description of Mania's music (soul food and sushi as seeming opposites, one hearty and comfortable, one clean and precise), Jesse thought of the hilarious idea to present a Baltimore skyline raining down with sushi rolls and fried chicken and ham hocks and stuff. It fit with the absurd expectations of a mixtape but was even more bizarre and batty, fitting Mania's sense of humor. At the same time, we tried to make it look professional and sleek, like the website of some high-power company: Purples and blacks, both Baltimore Ravens colors and undeniably regal.
Fourth Problem: The cover might even be seen as more than a little offensive, as a group of rappers are shown rapping behind a sea of fried chicken etc. Honestly, this wasn't even a debate because we knew it wasn't offensive, that it wasn't intended to be, and that the soul food images are quiet enough to not invoke racial stereotypes. Still, it would not surprise me if others have seen the design as offensive and maybe even members of Mania, who would think it improper to complain to a group of guys making them a mixtape out of sheer fandom. My guess is they're cool with it but honestly, I'd never know unless they complained and since the whole thing was a rap-nerd labor of love, maybe they'd not complain even if it did bum them out because they'd feel like dicks.
I hope I've outlined some of the issues that Jesse and I encountered just in the decision to make a free, downloadable mixtape and you'll see the problems or concerns we worked-out as well as the ones we ignored or justified in one way or another. I'd imagine all of you will have a different impression of whether we succeeded or failed and that's my point in all this: Reissuing or re-releasing something is a precarious balance of a lot of things...when you throw money into it, it only gets weirder.
For anybody interested, you can download Soul Food & Sushi: A Mania Music Group Mixtape here.
While I understand the want or need to get beyond the original covers for literature (pre-copyright books can be published by many so they need to distinguish, some books are thousands of years old), I do not understand why comics have taken the similar approach and hasn't instead followed the "print the original" route that music reissues follow. Pop, rock, and jazz albums are closer in age to comics than literature and it just seems to make sense. Below's an example of one of the few re-issued albums I can think of in which the cover was changed, Shuggie Otis' Inspiration Information:
Notice how the reissue is sort of frustratingly retro, something that's not only absurd but pointless because you can't get more retro than the actual cover that adorned the album in 1974. This reissue was by David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, mostly known for World Music releases and so, in some attempt at label continuity, Luaka Bop's placed "World Psychedelic Classics 2: California Soul" in the corner even though there's really nothing "psychedelic" about Otis' album and that California Soul, besides not really being a sub-genre, wouldn't properly describe this release anyway. Also odd, this reissue added four tracks from an earlier Shuggie album Freedom Flight and makes them sound like bonus tracks or album omissions. Only after you purchased the album and read the liner notes would you realize that Otis had two previous albums and that these four tracks come from his second album. Huh? Why?
My attack on "hipster design" stems from this sort of being the default approach to new design in the 2000s. And you don't really need more of a reduction of absurdity of this than these recent-ish covers for Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, originally published in 1774. The first cover, I recall, came out right around the time of The OC which was arguably one of the biggest pushers of "indie culture" into the mainstream. Read this Pitchforkmedia review for a good thinkpiece on the whole topic. I don't think it's too possessive to suggest that the image of a dude--and I use dude advisedly--placing his mouth on a girl's stomach, along with the candy-stripes is pretty silly for turning the novel into what looks like a Young Adult novel for girls or that a teary Calvin Klein model has little to do with Werther's suicidal love.