Every record collector’s library contains a handful of forgotten classics, great records mismanaged by labels and lost to the annals of history. In recent years, some specialty labels have started reissuing these records for new audiences. Among them, Hacktone Records, founded in 2005 by Rhino Records veterans David Gorman and Michael Nieves.
“Our goal is not to cater to completists or to be a legacy label,” Gorman said. “We’re not putting out lost demos by famous acts or throwing a few bonus tracks on a well-known record and putting it back out.”
Rather, they acquire the rights to lesser-known works that they personally love and take over the marketing of the albums.
Nieves said he and Gorman were inspired when former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label re-released guitar prodigy Shuggie Otis’ 1974 record “Inspiration Information” in 2000.
“It was an old soul record that wasn’t just marketed to old soul fans,” Nieves said. “They managed to sell more than 100,000 copies by appealing to younger audiences and servicing it to college radio. We saw them defy the traditional model and wanted to do it ourselves.”
Gorman said two of Hacktone’s projects, late R&B singer/songwriter Arthur Alexander’s “Lonely Just Like Me: The Final Chapter” and country renegade David Allan Coe’s 1970 debut “Penitentiary Blues,” are good examples of how to sell old bands to new fans.
“Arthur Alexander is such an important songwriter, and we wanted to sell it to people who would appreciate his influence,” he said. “We went beyond pitching it to his hardcore fans and instead marketed it to a classic rock audience who would recognize the names of the people he had worked with.” (The Rolling Stones and the Beatles covered Alexander’s tunes.)
He continued, “David Allan Coe was another artist where we thought way outside the box when it came to selling the record.
We were re-releasing the record he wrote while he was in prison, and we were pretty sure Johnny Cash fans and people who like badass country music would be onboard. But we went further and tried to sell him as a real outlaw to a younger, more hip-hop crowd. We ended up getting a four-star review in Blender that referred to him as a gangsta, and he won over a big metal audience, too.”
Both of Hacktone’s founders said they are in a good position to negotiate with rights holders, given their relationship with Rhino and years of music business experience.
“We’ve had to work hard to make sure we get all the third-party licensing and digital rights, because we want to make sure we can fully market the album and get it on TV,” Nieves said. “In a lot of cases, it takes a long time, and we’ve had to keep chipping away.”
But even those without a label’s backing can reintroduce older artists to younger crowds. English singer/songwriter Vashti Bunyan was a footnote in music history until freak-folkers like Devendra Banhart started championing her work; she has since released a new record and is enjoying a renewed career. Luaka Bop has also helped reintroduce influential Brazilian rock act Os Mutantes, which enjoyed a successful reunion last year.
The rise of digital distribution has made it easier to sell back catalog to new audiences. Online retailer eMusic has long touted its ability to move deep catalog tracks, noting that 67% of its 3 million track-strong offerings sell at least once per month. Much of that is due to its editorial and recommendation structure, which allows users to discover forgotten acts that might have influenced current indie bands.