Thursday, December 30, 2010
I've been thinking about the concept behind the "greatest hits" album as a consequence of my previous post on the reissue. As I indicated yesterday, while Milt Gabler pioneered the reissue in 1934 by licensing from the American Record Company the masters of early jazz records for his independent (as opposed to "major") Commodore label, it was George Avakian at Columbia Records--incidentally, it was he who apparently signed Johnny Mathis to Columbia in the mid-50s--who with a series of reissues beginning in 1940 provided the first outline of a primary jazz canon that influenced the writing and thinking on jazz for the next several decades. Having thought about the idea of the reissue for the past couple of days, I have concluded that the "greatest hits" album is merely another name for a reissue: like the reissue, it is both a retrospective and also promises nothing but the canonical recordings--the proverbial wheat separated from the chaff. In the case of Johnny's Greatest Hits, it cost Columbia Records nothing to (re)issue and had the additional benefit of making the company pots of money. Obviously the music industry is a complex, profit-oriented institution. Executives at Columbia Records learned from the earlier Hot Jazz Classics series of reissues that rather than to ignore its back catalog and lease those masters to indie labels, it should transform its back catalog into yet another revenue stream--but call it "greatest hits" rather than a reissue. True, "greatest hits" suggests a form of endorsement by the tasteless mob ("popular") rather than the "critical" form of endorsement coming from an informed "specialist," but the latter form of approbation suggests the elitist judgment of the snob, to be avoided at all costs. A "greatest hits" album thus has populist appeal. Moreover, a "greatest hits" album has the added advantage of thinking for, and then fulfilling, the desire of the masses for a definitive collection: in a "greatest hits" package, prescience is combined with efficiency. Rather than a disorganized mess of scattered and noisy 45s or a bunch of LPs, the "greatest hits" album collects the canonical songs--all the songs "that matter"--into one slick, convenient, inexpensive bundle.
Ruminating on the "greatest hits" album allows us to conclude the following about the music industry:
1. The past and present catalogs of all of the major music labels are one vast (but hugely intimidating) database. Apple's iTunes recognizes this to be true, and has exploited it for profit. The iTunes database holds the promise of someday being like the mind of God, holding all possible musical tracks within it, the sum total of all music ever recorded, and hence the potential of fulfilling every potential desire. Scarcity (rarity), a sad indicator of corporate inefficiency, shall someday be a thing of the past.
2. We must acknowledge that music, like bricks, is the result of sophisticated technology subjected to human will, an industrial product, and hence is a commodity that is manufactured and sold. Apple's iTunes also recognizes this to be true and holds the promise of (someday) holding the largest possible selection of bricks made, offering all optional colors and textural variations, a veritable cornucopia, the superest of all superstores.
3. All human technologies seek to perfect ("improve on") nature. Bricks, made to be sold, are stone perfected. "Greatest hits" packages improve on the imperfect state of nature, offering the typical (the non-specialized) consumer a basic set of solid, widely-endorsed, time-proven bricks at a reasonable price. Even "Greatest Hits" albums are available on iTunes.
Addendum 12/30/10 5:07 p.m. -- According to Adam White, The Billboard Book of Gold & Platinum Records (1990), Johnny's Greatest Hits was certified " Gold" on 6/1/59, and certified "Platinum" on 11/21/86.