At the end of last year, Paul McCartney released a new album. McCartney III caused a certain amount of excitement for being the third in an unofficial trilogy, spanning half a century, on which the former Beatle played everything. But the fuss was also for entirely unmusical reasons: the album was a dream for those record-buyers who fetishise rarity.
McCartney III came in an array of editions so wide as to drain the bank accounts of his fans. There was the “333 edition”, released on yellow-and-black vinyl on Jack White’s Third Man Records, and limited to 333 copies. That one sold out instantly, and copies now fetch £3,000 on eBay. Then there were two red vinyl editions, one limited to 3,000 copies; other coloured vinyl versions available only through specific retailers; a standard black vinyl edition; CDs with differing covers, and a cassette.
That’s the world Steven Wilson is highlighting with the special edition of his new album The Future Bites, which is limited to one copy priced at £10,000 (if you want to buy it, you’re too late).
“Being someone who’s been very involved in the world of deluxe edition box sets, doing a lot of the remixing on legacy albums, I’ve seen the physical market for music move towards the inflated, deluxe edition box set,” Wilson says. “It’s more about box-ticking than it is about the music. It’s people buying box sets so they can say, ‘I’ve got the seven-inch edit that only came out in Guatemala for one week in 1972.’ That’s fascinating in a way, in making music a mark of status rather than utility . . . I thought: wouldn’t it be interesting to do the ultimate limited edition? A limited edition of one.”
Rather than just being an act of vanity, Wilson’s one-off has a purpose — the proceeds will go to the Music Venues Trust, to help save grassroots venues whose existence is threatened by the pandemic. The same purpose is behind another new piece of music that comes in an edition of one, a seven-inch single called “I Sold My Soul On eBay” by Swansea Sound, which was sold on the auction site on January 22 for £400. Its price is owed to the cult status of its makers — Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey, once of the band Heavenly, and Hue Williams of The Pooh Sticks, whose own old singles sell for small fortunes.
“It’s a statement about exploitation by the streamers and the fetishisation of vinyl by collectors,” Pursey says. “I love the vinyl market, but it’s overrun by collectors who make vinyl more expensive than it should be. And then there’s streaming, where you’re on the end of corporate piracy” — by which he means the derisory sums that most musicians earn from streaming services. “During the pandemic, the lack of earnings for musicians has become pretty chronic.”
The market for extreme rarities developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to Derek Oliver, a longtime music industry executive and dedicated record collector. That was when private pressings of records, often in batches of fewer than 100, became relatively commonplace.
There were two reasons for this. First, artists who couldn’t win any attention from record labels — almost always for good reason — would make records to send to writers, or anyone who might help give them a leg-up. Second, there were tax reasons: records pressed in very limited runs weren’t subject to purchase tax. Some were what Oliver calls “tax scam labels”.
“They made records with no intention of releasing them. They just destroyed them, but the cost of making them could be written off against tax. Often the artists didn’t know what was happening. But you would get handfuls that would make it into second-hand shops and people would pick them up and wonder, ‘Where has this come from?’”
The new wave of official super-rarities is also driven by financial imperatives. As artists have seen their income from recordings dry up, they have had to find new revenue streams. And they have done so by charging premiums for different editions of their music. (Clearly this is not the case for McCartney; industry speculation has it that he was so desperate to have a number 1 album after many underperforming records that he hoped fans would buy every format and propel him up the charts).
“When you do a physical edition, you make more money than you do from streaming,” says Ian Shirley, editor of the Record Collector Rare Record Price Guide. “And so they’ll do the special edition. That market is mature, and now there’s a risk of biting the hand that feeds it, and I don’t think that’s morally correct, in some ways . . . If you put out too many of these things, you can overload the market.”
But the fact is there are fans who want to buy these editions. The problem, for musicians at least, is that you can’t be sure who’s buying them or why. Pursey finds it “grotesque” when he sees people buying his old records solely to own them. “They’re meant to be played; they’re not artefacts,” he says. “You want people to buy the record because they like the song. Waiting for the value to increase is the most un-rock ’n’ roll thing ever.” Hence their single also being made available in digital form for £1 on Bandcamp.
There’s also the risk, if you make just one copy of a record, that it might end up in the wrong hands. Take Wu-Tang Clan, who made a single copy of the album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, and auctioned it. Martin Shkreli paid $2m for it, shortly before being condemned for hiking the prices of prescription drugs made by companies he owned, then being imprisoned for securities fraud. Even then, though, the Clan didn’t regret it. They made the album as a statement about the value of music.
RZA, the mastermind of Wu-Tang Clan, told me in 2017 that Shkreli had sent a great comment. “He said: ‘I bought this record from Wu-Tang Clan as a gift to them.’ I’m paraphrasing. ‘Now I want to see who else values music the way I do.’ And when it came in at 10 grand, 35 grand, I was like, ‘Ohhh.’ But within four days it was up into the half a mills, and before he got locked up it was over a million dollars. We proved the theory. If it had been left a bit longer, no telling how far it would have gone.”
Wilson notes the comparison, and says he doesn’t mind who buys his record since the money is going to a good cause. “The Wu-Tang thing was on a whole other scale — Francis Bacon compared to my little local guy who does watercolours,” he laughs.
‘The Future Bites’ by Steven Wilson is released on January 29 on SW Records (in a non-limited edition). ‘I Sold My Soul on eBay’ by Swansea Sound is available on Bandcamp
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