Sunday, June 23, 2019

Compilation Contemplation: Inclusion Decisions and Feeling Like The Whole Idea Is Bad and Wrong

A relative asked me a simple question a while back, something along the lines of "what are your best songs?"  Fair enough, but so hard to answer.  I thought hard for longer than the normally expected pause duration, like a full 20 seconds, with some head scratching and "hmmms" along the way to finally buying myself a little more time by saying something like "wow, that's so hard...," until finally blurting out, "Shoreline Miles is a pretty good one I guess."  Then I thought out of courtesy I should tell her which album it was on, and so I did (Lakeside Landing, my 2006 release if you didn't already know and were curious).  One was all I could muster, and I'm not sure at all if that's my best song, and now in retrospect I'm even less sure.

She had been making polite conversation with me at a family gathering, and as one does, asked me about something she knew I was interested in.  You make rounds at family gatherings, try to get to everyone if you can, try to be sincere yet keep it brief in the interest of time.  So, I knew a part of her motivation to ask me was simply that.  Much later on, of course, as I was recapping who said what with my wife on the way home, she asked the inevitable "I saw you talking to so and so (I'll just come out and admit here, in this particular case, it was my cousin Mary) in the other room, what did you two talk about?"  I told her what I've now told you about the encounter, and in doing so, wondered aloud to her if Mary could've actually been asking because she sincerely wanted to later go online and check it out.  "Maybe" my wife and I both agreed, but you never really know for sure unless you directly ask, which I had not done.  So, I have thought it was a mistake ever since.  In case she sought it out and listened to it, it's not reflective of what I'm all about as a songwriter and musical artist.  It is in some ways, but it doesn't necessarily define a signature style.  You don't want people to get the wrong first impression! 

If indeed it was her first experience listening to one of my songs, which she did not indicate one way or another, and if she indeed was genuinely interested in checking it out, I should've provided her with a few more to get a representative sampling or something.  Better yet, I thought I should just give her free CDs next time I see her.  If I did that, however, I'd feel like I'd need to give her a copy of all of them.  If she was just being polite though, that would be bad form on my part.  Personally, when people force something on me unexpectedly like that, I'm even less likely to ever put it in the stereo and hit play.  I gave my sister and my uncle a few of my early CDs years ago, and I highly doubt they ever opened a single one.  It's just like when people give you a book to read, you feel obligated, and that's uncomfortable.  I should point out this cousin is a lot younger than me, so it's highly unlikely any of my music would be her cup of tea anyway.

Then the idea popped into my head:  people want a "best of" album for starters before they dive any deeper, if at all.  As a consumer of movies myself, for example, I do a google search on "best movies of the 1990s" before searching on my cable or Netflix to see if any are available.  People want curation.  Artists typically have a dislike of critics, but they serve a great purpose.  Siskel & Ebert lists, that sort of thing.  It helps you narrow things down and do a little weeding out first before you decide what to watch.  Same is true for music.  When you're young you might like a radio hit, then buy an album, like it, repeat, and back in my day, you'd even make your own "favorites mix tape" by that artist, burn a CD of what you think are their greatest hits, then when the band you like finally comes out with a true greatest hits album, there's always a few songs you love that aren't on there that you would've chosen.  I'm guilty of that scenario, but I've also heard about bands, had them recommended to me, and since they were established in their careers already, I actually started out by buying their greatest hits album first, which sometimes was enough to satisfy my curiosity, in which case I'd never buy a regular studio release by them, but other times, it would prompt me to want more.

In this day and age, everyone pays the ten bucks a month for the online music subscription and then they can cloud stream every song and album ever released by every artist.  The albums don't even matter as much now, it's as if they're all singles.  Unless you're talking about The Dark Side Of The Moon, Tommy, or Sgt. Pepper, and the like, the album experience is only for the old-schoolers or new-schoolers who are into vinyl again after it came back recently from near-extinction, but sadly, they are the minority.  That said, a best-of album is always a good place to start when motivated to try out some music by an artist you're not familiar with that has somehow sparked your interest.  So, if you're like me, you at least think about which songs you'd include on there. 

There is the limitation of the 74 minute playing time duration of a standard compact disc.  You attempt a list of your best, but of course, when you've got 10 albums under your belt already, you can't fit everything on there you would want to include.  Then you figure you should have a Volume I and a Volume II, the former covering your best from your first 5 albums, the latter covering the second 5.  This makes it a lot easier.  Some artists will drop a greatest hits after only 3 or 4 albums, but 5 is a decently reasonable number in my mind.  So, that decision is made, no problem.  Except for the fact that you're going to feel like in the case of my cousin, two whole CDs with 17-19 songs each (maxing out that CD space) will potentially be overwhelming.  A snack-sized EP sampler or two might be a better approach, who knows?

Some artists are on their Volume IV of their greatest hits already.  There are probably a few bands and solo artists out there who have unique record contracts that allow them to never release best-of albums, but not many.  Not many mainstream, major-label acts anyway.  Neil Young, for example, waiting quite a long time (like about 25 studio album releases) before releasing a true Greatest Hits compilation album, which I have respect for.

Another issue I have as a music buyer myself, is that established bands go way overboard with these compilation albums, particularly late in their careers.  You never have one that would match what you'd put on your ultimate mix tape.  They always leave a few off the best-of that are on the greatest-hits, but then that one is missing a couple of your favorites as well.  If that isn't annoying enough (and it's probably the record label companies, not the bands and artists that do this), you get composition album titles like these available for a single artist:
·       The Best Of
·       Greatest Hits
·       The Essential Hits
·       Biggest Hits
·       Golden Hits
·       The Number Ones
·       The Ultimate Collection
·       The Immaculate Collection
·       Anniversary Collection
·       Box Set
·       The Hits
·       The Hits/The B-Sides
·       Gold
·       Archives
·       Anthology
·       Collector's Series
·       Super Hits
·       Greatest Hits Live
·       Chronicles
·       Retrospective
·       The Very Best Of
·       Ultimate Hits

Not to mention the Volumes I-V of each.  You get the idea.  Their ultimate is never quite your ultimate.  But again, in today's landscape, you can stream any/all of it for your $10/mo. and the albums don't really matter.  Release dates don't matter as much anymore either, which is good and bad I guess.  I have the dilemma of deciding I need a Vol. 1 to cover the best of my first 5 albums, and a Vol. 2 to cover the second set of 5 albums, all of which will be previously-released, but the Vol. 1 will be made available after all 10 have already been available.  So, I wish I would've thought this all through after the fifth album was released, which means I should've release the first volume back in 2012, hindsight being 20/20 to throw even more numbers at you.

Another typical thing to do on a compilation is to include a "previously-unreleased" song on the best-of album, an "alternate take" one, a "remix" song, or a "live version,"  but I've decided against all of those options.  I will have enough trouble as it is narrowing down 128 songs to the best 36, or however many will fit.  I don't find those enticing enough to drive me over the edge to buy if I was on the fence about buying a compilation album by an artist.  They're more irrelevant, if not slightly annoying, than they are a major bonus, in my opinion, although some do turn out to include a pretty darned good previously-unreleased track.  I'm fully aware that I'd be basically re-releasing 1/3 of the total released catalog on two best-of CDs that the streaming people already have access to, so it might sound like a pointless endeavor.  People who actually still buy CDs might dig it though, and although I've avoided getting actual vinyl records made due to the cost/benefit ratio, if I was going to offer vinyl, this would be the perfect opportunity to dip my toe in that water of untapped potential.

Back to the curating thing though:  people like the pre-weeding out, the time saving that the careful selection, sifting through and pulling together provides.  So, on the other hand, it will be helpful to people, and maybe even give the appearance of being more established and noteworthy somehow, which could make them more confident in trying out the music and giving it a chance in the first place.  As with songs, it's a "hook" of sorts to possibly sway your decision to check it out for the first time, or to dive deeper into the catalog.  To offer another analogy, when deciding to check out a restaurant when travelling, it's all about reviews and recommendation and best-of lists, isn't it?  It helps.

What to leave in, what to leave out - therein lies your difficulty as an artist contemplating the compilation album.  What to call it too is a decision you have to make.  In my case, I don't have any true "hits" to select, so I can't call it a greatest hits.  Best of will work, but I need to have two of them.  Even so, it won't please everyone.  People are going to be mad if you leave off the popular favorites you get positive comments about and requests for.  There are a couple of mine that I don't think are anywhere close to my best, yet lots of other people love them.  What do you do?  You put them in, but you cringe as you make the decision to do it.  "Can't believe you didn't include Puttin' Up A Pole Barn" is what I can imagine hearing already.

A part of me thinks this whole idea might be bad and wrong though.  It doesn't feel right because it's really up to others to decide what they like the best.  I'm finding it hard to even contemplate myself which are my best.  You create songs, they're like your children, you send them out into the world, and hope they do well, but a part of you wants to not play favorites with them, and instead love them all equally.

Yeah, I'm thinking about it anyway, making those preliminary lists, trying to rate my songs, put them into tiers, etc.  I am guilty of really liking certain songs for certain personal reasons no one else knows about that cloud my objectivity, and I am certain most people would question their inclusion on a compilation, but I might do it anyway, retain and exercise my veto power over the mass appeal.  Not that I actually have any sales charts or any mass appeal at all to speak of.  However, in addition to my personal opinions, and the feedback I've received from actual fans here and there, I also have an online survey going on my web site that has produced some aggregate data.  I also do have analytics from some online music stores, as well as some actual sales data from the singles I've sold downloads of.  The cloud streaming, on the other hand, I have no idea.  All that said, there is some fairly reliable information I will take into consideration if I do decide to release the first two volumes.  I am one of millions of independent nobodies with no real business even having music for sale in online stores to begin with, let alone claim some are hits.  A best-of would be beneficial for the potential fan base out there though, for all the reasons I've stated here, so there's compelling evidence it's not a bad thing for me to decide to do.

I pride myself on variety, and as a music appreciator myself I like variety, but some people are fast-rock only fans who won't want those slow ballads or reggae songs on there, and those with narrow tastes will surely be disappointed.  You can't please all of the people all of the time, it's the nature of the best (notice I intentionally didn't spell that as "beast").  It's premature and unlikely at this point, but I'll let you know when/if, so stay tuned blog readers, and as always thanks for reading.

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