A side-effect to today’s fractured, tumultuous music industry is the fluctuating meaning of the greatest-hits album.
On one hand, it remains a giant moneymaker for labels, which are urging their artists to make best-of compilations increasingly earlier in their careers. On the other, iTunes has made greatest-hits albums redundant. If you want an act’s highlights, you can assemble them yourself.
This dichotomy has, for some bands, made the decision to make a best-of album an increasingly difficult, sometimes contentious one. Some view greatest-hits albums as a blatant money grab that disrespects the integrity of the album. Pressure from labels can also come sooner than expected.
The Sacramento, Calif., band Cake (its hits include “The Distance” and “Short Skirt, Long Jacket”) was requested by its former label, Columbia Records to make a greatest-hits album. With only a handful of well-known albums to its name, the band judged a best-of disc to be premature. They refused, prompting a legal fight between Cake and Columbia.
In the end, Cake left to form its own label, Upbeat Records, and will instead release “B-sides and Rarities” on Oct. 2, with a live disc to follow this fall.
“I have mixed feelings about greatest-hits albums,” said Cake lead singer and guitarist John McCrea. “They’re a force that can be used for good or evil.”
“For us at that point, we felt like it wasn’t the appropriate moment — that we hadn’t existed long enough to warrant some sort of wistful retrospection. It kind of reeked of desperation.”
Money-maker for labels
In recent years, a number of acts have released greatest-hits albums early in their careers, including Britney Spears, Hilary Duff and Sugar Ray.
Though the advent of iTunes (not to mention illegal downloading and MySpace) has meant a band’s most-popular songs can be instantly sampled or bought, greatest-hits discs remain lucrative to labels. In recent Nielsen SoundScan sales charts, at least half of the top 50 top-selling catalog albums typically are compilations.
Still, there are several notable holdouts, including AC/DC, Radiohead, Phish and Metallica. Many artists feel greatest-hits discs corrupt the integrity of their prior albums. For the same reason, Radiohead and AC/DC have thus far resisted putting their music on iTunes, where albums are chopped into single tracks.
It’s a stance Chris Lombardi, founder of independent label Matador Records, often encounters.
“I’ve been trying to encourage some of our bands to do greatest-hits records, but I think artistically they have a real difficult time taking away the identity of the album as it stands alone,” said Lombardi.
Many of the artists on Matador’s roster haven’t had hits in the conventional sense, but could benefit from having highlights assembled to make it easier for the more passive music fan. In 2003, Matador released “The Best of Guided by Voices: Human Amusements at Hourly Rates” — a sensible collection for Guided by Voices, whose prodigious output included 16 full-length albums.
“I felt the output was so huge for that band that to narrow it down would be helpful,” said Lombardi. “Somebody might be intimidated by the size of the catalog.”
Far more than an afterthought
Whether a label needs the consent of an act to issue a compilation varies from contract to contract. Catalog sales account for approximately 40-50 percent of a label’s annual gross, so rereleasing and repackaging old material is far more than an afterthought.
“If an artist has a say in these kind of things, you’d think that they’d want a greatest-hits record to be an intro to the band as a way to guide you into buying the rest of the records as opposed to being a substitute,” said Steve Kandell, deputy editor of Spin magazine.
Some greatest-hits records take on a life of their own — like the Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975),” which is the best-selling album ever in the U.S. Similarly, Bob Marley’s “Legend” was (and still is) a sensation. At one point, it spent 106 straight weeks atop the Nielsen SoundScan catalog chart.
Other bands like U2 and Aerosmith have been criticized for their seemingly unceasing parade of greatest-hits albums. U2 followed 1998’s “The Best of 1980-1990” and 2002’s “The Best of 1990-2000” with 2006’s “U218 Singles.” Last year’s “Devil’s Got a New Disguise: The Very Best of Aerosmith” was the band’s eighth compilation over the course of their 27-year career.
“There’s a reason why it doesn’t seem very artistic: it’s not. It’s a commercial ploy,” says McCrea. “That said, there are some terrific greatest-hits albums.”