The Mess of The Rolling Stones Back Catalog

Yesterday, Kassia took issue with a Wall Street Journal article that trumpeted the fallacy that closing off a major avenue of music distribution was somehow a good thing.

One of the examples that the article used to show that selling a lot of music on iTunes was somehow a bad thing was the fact that while The Rolling Stones have sold 6,000,000 songs digitally since January 2006, they’ve sold the fewest amount of back catalog albums among the six top-selling catalog artists.

This, of course, is one of those made-up stats that purports to mean something while meaning very little. How is it not not a good thing to be among the top six selling catalog artists of the past two years? Or sell six million songs, many of which go back decades, and many many of which you’re no doubt reselling to some of the same people you’ve previously sold them to?

However, by using the high songs / low album sales as an example as how digital distribution can harm an artist, it totally ignores two very very important facts about The Rolling Stones.

  1. Since the very start, they’ve been marketed as a singles act.
  2. Their back catalog is a confusing mess, which is a huge factor to its relative — relative! — paucity of sales.

First off, let’s stipulate this — there are at least a dozen Rolling Stones albums that are absolutely all- time classics, many of which I have totally and utterly memorized. I can sing them for you if you want. That said, their first singles album came out in 1966, two years into their recording career. There have been nearly a dozen since, many with the exact same songs.

That’s because they’ve recorded and released — and re-released — dozens and dozens of amazing, colossal singles, even from their weakest records. So clearly, the pushing of individual songs onto the public has always been part of how the Stones have been marketed. Is it any wonder that — after four decades of this strategy — the marketplace responds by downloading individual songs?

But that’s only part of it. Even more importantly, their 1960’s catalog — the music controlled by the evil genius Allen Klein — is an absolute and utter mess.

Obviously, The Rolling Stones aren’t the only major British Invasion band to have to deal with the 1960’s weirdness of differing U.K. and U.S. releases. But they seem to be the only one who hasn’t resolved it in the digital era by offering a single release containing all of the key songs from that era.

Instead, the latest round of reissues went with both the U.S. and U.K. versions of every album up through Their Satanic Majesties Request . Essentially, they decided to let the fans sort it all out and figure out which version of each album to buy. Or buy both versions, which might be the point if you want all of the songs, but is such a cynical money grab it’s no wonder that the sales have lagged.

Even for someone like me, who’s been a Stones fanatic for years, trying to figure it all out can rearrange your mind. For example, take Out of Our Heads, which — at least in the U.S. version — is their first indisputably great album.

Here are the track listings:

U.S. U.K.
Mercy, Mercy She Said Yeah
Hitch Hike Mercy, Mercy
Last Time Hitch Hike
That’s How Strong My Love Is That’s How Strong My Love Is
Good Times Good Times
I’m Alright Gotta Get Away
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction Talkin’ About You
Cry to Me Cry to Me
Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man Oh Baby (We Got A Good Thing Goin’)
Play with Fire Heart Of Stone
Spider and the Fly The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man
One More Try I’m Free

Each version has 12 songs, but they only share six, meaning that there are 18 songs released under the name Out of Our Heads, but even though they’d fit onto a single disc, you’d have to buy it twice. Compounding the confusion is that the U.K. cover is the same picture as the U.S. cover of December’s Children (and Everybody’s), which, BTW, shares some of the songs as the U.K. version of Out of Our Heads.

Confused yet?

The point here is that there is almost no way to get complete on the Rolling Stones without downloading their music song by song. And you’d need a database — or at least a spreadsheet — to do it.

So what’s a poor boy to do, but only download the songs that he loves?

It might already be too late for this, but if The Rolling Stones really wanted to goose the back catalog sales, they’d make choices between the U.S. and U.K. versions of the early records, and put the extra tracks on the disc as bonus cuts.

I also think that it’s time we saw a deluxe edition of Beggar’s Banquet that included “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Child of The Moon,” and a deluxe edition of Let It Bleed with “Honky Tonk Women.” Each of these deluxe editions would also include the plethora of outtakes and bootlegs that have been circulating for centuries. One disc for the original album, the other for the singles and outtakes. Duh!

Finally, pull the redundant greatest hits albums from the mix. Aging boomers might protest that they need Big Hits (High Tides and Green Grass), but not when nearly song from that is on Hot Rocks. or 40 Licks or the Complete London Singles At this point, some kind of logical consolidation would be appreciated.

BTW, if the Stones would like to hire me to sort this all out once and for all, that would be great.

In any event, given all of this, it’s actually a blessing for the Rolling Stones to be on iTunes or Amazon’s .mp3, because at the very least, their fans can get what they need.

5 Responses to “The Mess of The Rolling Stones Back Catalog”

  1. Tim says:

    I’ve been pushing for a spreadsheet here for years with a song by album by song analysis.

    I’m throwing Jim’s name into the ring.

  2. Jim says:

    The other mystery, which I totally forgot to write about, was exactly why eMuusic was forced to take down those ABKCO recordings after posting them earlier this year.

  3. Tyson says:

    This sounds like a job for a librarian!!! (Anyone know any?)

  4. Kirk says:

    Yep, I bet Jay could do it.

  5. Jim says:

    Hey anybody else who happens to come across this,

    Had to close the comments because for some reason this post was being targeted by spammers who where getting past the normal filters.