The very first record I bought with my own money was Elton John’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1., a collection that came out just before Christmas 1974. I cobbled together my earnings from my Star Weekly paper route, marched uptown to McConkey’s store in my hometown and laid down the $4.99 (plus tax) for the record. (My mother was outraged that I would spend good money on such “filth.” I’ve been a disappoint to my parents ever since.)
While that was a lot of money for a kid with a paper route, Vol. 1 was nevertheless a great deal. If had gone out and bought all the singles separately (I think 45s sold for 99 cents at the time; my, how some things never change), I would have spent upwards of twelve dollars. Had I done that, I’d have been locked in my room until spring.
Vol. 1 has since sold more than 20 million copies and ranks up there with one of the most popular anthologies of all time. The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits: 1971-75 sold even more, tallying somewhere north of 29 million units. And how many people discovered reggae through his Legend collection from 1984? Sales are well beyond 15 million copies.
For decades, greatest hits collections were cost-effective ways to amass all the best material from an artist without having to buy the original albums. The first such collection was from Johnny Mathis in 1958. It was so successful–490 weeks on the Billboard album charts–that greatest hits collections became a fantastic source of flash cash for the labels.
I have dozens of these things: Depeche Mode, the Jam, XTC, the Cure, Elvis Costello, the Stone Roses, Oasis, April Wine, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pink Floyd, Prince and about 30 from the Clash alone. If you grew up in the age of the album, you probably have a bunch, too.
But the greatest hits album is dying because of our shift to digital. Now that everyone has the ability to create a bespoke greatest hits playlist by grabbing individual songs, there’s no real need for anyone at a label to curate such a collection.
That, I think, is kinda sad–and for more reasons than you may realize. Pitchfork feels the same way.
“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!
Re-evaluate the songs
Double-pack with a photograph
Extra track (and a tacky badge)”
— The Smiths, “Paint a Vulgar Picture“
Morrissey took his brave stance against the plundering of pop catalogs in 1987, when the rise of the compact disc sent the phenomenon into overdrive, allowing labels both big and small to rely on revenue generated by old recordings. This wasn’t something new, though. Reissues and greatest hits compilations existed long before then, and the modern recording industry had always relied on hits that continue to shift units long after they fell off the charts. For decades, it seemed like this practice was so ingrained that there would never be a music business without it.
That turned out not to be the case. In 2016, repurposing old tunes for new product is no longer a vital part of the industry and, with its absence, our view of the past is slowly shifting. Yes, copious repackaging could be a mercenary practice, but music fans also benefitted tremendously by record labels’ need to recycle the past. In fact, we often don’t grasp how deeply the practice has affected our collective view of music history.