Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Shake Off the Heel of Your Corporate Overlords: An Editorial

I've always found the Miles Davis boxed sets Columbia releases to be an iffy proposition. The Devil on one shoulder covets these shiny boxes because of the coolness value and also the supposed re-mastering and copious liner notes. The Angel on the other shoulder says you already have most of this music already on LP or CD in an easier to digest album format - why do you want to wade through 10 alternate takes if each track? But like most Americans, I pay scant attention to the voice of reason and usually pick up the shiny toy. Altruism isn't exactly a value that music companies cherish, and these boxed sets, running anywhere from $60 to $100 take rampant consumerism to a new level.

It's the perfect corporate coup - take the music from a dead musician who can't complain, the music that most jazz fans already own and put it in a bright shiny box with a few unreleased alternate takes that were probably left in the can for a good reason and turn up the hype machine full blast and voila! It's a guaranteed money maker. The music was already hailed as classic in its original form and inducted into the canon, so critics pretty much have to lavish praise on this newly minted holy relic. But wait, the Angel screams, exasperated, - they are selling you something you already own at twice the price! Yet I still walk zombie-like to the computer to pre-order. Must have new shiny thing...

With the foolishness involved with the Miles Davis Complete Cellar Door Sessions, I finally snapped and listened to the Angel. Originally scheduled to be released in September 2005, the set was delayed for three months because of legal wrangling involving the Miles Davis estate, and in particular, Davis' nephew and former sideman Vince Wilbon. According to Davis biographer Paul Tingen:

"A few weeks before the original release date last September he (Wilbon) wanted the credits of Adam Holzman and Bob Belden changed from 'produced by' to 'compiled by.' Understandably, this was not something these two, or Sony, were happy about. Moreover, the Cellar Door set had been more than five years in the making, and Belden's and Holzman's involvement must have been clear for ages, so the timing of the demand reeked of a hidden agenda... There are reports that it's driven by Wilburn's personal resentment against some of those involved in the making of the Cellar Door, including Holzman. My own, entirely speculative, take on it is that Wilburn has a love/hate relationship with his uncle and his music. On the one hand he owes his entire income and reputation to his uncle (what noteworthy things has Wilburn done on his own since 1987?) - on the other Miles hurt Wilburn badly when he sacked him from his band in 1987"

This whole mess just seemed really foolish - if you want people to shell out $100 for music that has been very heavily bootlegged over the years, why push back the release date and miss the holiday gift giving season over something as patty as a line in the credits that few people will read anyway? It smacked of egos out of control and greed running rampant.

I finally relented and bought the Cellar Door boxed set when it appeared on the web site of deep discount e-tailer last week for the much more reasonable price of $35.94. I also picked up a copy of the Miles Davis Second Quintet 1965-68 boxed set at Izzy's Records fire sale for $34.00, again, a much more reasonable price. I guess the moral of the story is that people will shell out for the boxed sets if they are presented at a marketable price, and without foolish sniping amongst the compilers.

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