LPs With Goodies on the Side

JON CARAMANICA 04/18/13 NY Times

MALDEN, MASS. — In a large — but not quite large enough — warehouse here earlier this month, a young man was shrink-wrapping a set of chess pieces by hand. On the other side of the room, another young man was taking those packages and placing them, along with four vinyl LPs, a sticker sheet and a booklet, into a larger box, creating a somewhat ornate treatment for a deluxe edition of “Liquid Swords,” the 1995 debut album by Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA.

That album went gold in its day but is better remembered as a favorite of connoisseurs. Now some of those same connoisseurs are the minds and hands behind the record label Get On Down, which since 2010 has primarily specialized in deluxe reissues of hip-hop albums, and which has been slowly redefining the role and shape of the reissue in the digital age.

The reissue market, more than the market for new music, tests what it means to be a fan and consumer of music when music itself has declining value — look hard enough, and almost any album one might want exists online, either legally and cheap, or illegally and free.

Given that, a traditional reissue campaign — cramming together previously available material in bulk, and selling it at a premium to die-hards — seems conceptually dead in the water. A logical response to that is to unearth previously unheard material and sell that, but Get On Down takes a different approach.

“We’re trying to make that emotional connection,” said Matt Welch, one of the label’s owners, in his office at the warehouse. Music, he insists, still has real worth — just maybe not the same kind it’s always had. “The energy, the connection associated to that music, that imagery has such a value that can be projected onto myriad different things,” he continued. “And it’s all still coming from this thing that’s supposedly losing value. We see it as the value’s still there, it just has to be applied to something different.”

What that’s meant is a series of totemic items that begin with a classic hip-hop album, but turn into full souvenir/fetish item experiences, made either for Get On Down or in partnership with another label. For MF Doom’s “Operation: Doomsday,” there was a lunchbox with trading cards. For Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…,” there was a piano lacquer box atop which rested a copy of the album on cassette, colloquially known as the Purple Tape. Nas and Ghostface Killah received gold-disc treatment, and the Pharcyde got an elaborate record box including 7-inch singles from its first album. For Ol’ Dirty Bastard, there was a wallet; for the Fat Boys, a pizza box.

“Me and you know it as a music box set,” Mr. Welch said. “A 20-year-old kid sees it as a life style thing.”

But also the hip-hop audience is aging into maturity and craves shelf items that speak to their passions. For each of these projects, the music is at the center but is perhaps not the raison d’être. “If there wasn’t any music on the Raekwon cassette, how long would it be before anyone noticed?” Mr. Welch wondered.

Get On Down is owned by Mr. Welch, Joe Mansfield and Adam DeFalco. (The three also own Traffic, a distributor that shares the warehouse and that does robust business in vinyl.) The label has become something of a home for refugees from Boston’s hip-hop scene — Mr. Mansfield produced the first album by Ed O.G. and da Bulldogs, and George Andrinopoulos, the label’s general manager, is better known as the D.J. and producer 7L, who’s released music with the rappers Inspectah Deck and Esoteric (He also released an excellent rarities mixtape with Mr. Welch several years ago.)

Most contemporary specialty reissue houses like the Numero Group or Now-Again excavate and lavish attention on unloved, often unknown corners of music history. Sometimes Get On Down — which makes limited quantities of its issuings — focuses on rarities, but primarily it’s interested in repackaging moments. Mr. Welch likened the projects to Criterion Collection DVDs, or limited edition sneaker releases, retail experiences that energize a dedicated and passionate fan base. Mr. Mansfield said the company is planning expansions into music-themed merchandise.

Even though Get On Down often releases items with little advance warning — the label is fiercely secretive about future projects — they frequently sell out quickly. (Some items are sold at retail, some are sold exclusively on the label’s Web site, getondown.com.)

The model is still relatively untested, meaning that even pricing strategies haven’t been fully codified. One afternoon early this month, several employees were gathered around a computer in the warehouse trying to divine the magic price for the deluxe version of “Twelve Reasons to Die,” a collaboration between Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge, which was limited to 100 copies. $124.98? $149.98? A more concise version of the set — limited to 400 copies — was already locked in at $59.98, but the topline was anyone’s guess. They settled on $139.98, thinking that would ensure healthy demand for both sets, though a couple of hours later, when Mr. Welch checked the first sales numbers, as many people had bought the expensive one as the cheaper one.

Get On Down’s coming projects include the GZA chess box, which is one of the label’s special products made for Record Store Day (on Saturday), a marketing initiative that aims to keep fans of music going into stores, and keep stores that sell music in business; a box set of the independent hip-hop group Non Phixion; and a coffee-table book about drum machines by Mr. Mansfield. There are also several other projects in various stages of completion, as the label is beginning to field calls from a wider range of artists looking for what Mr. Welch calls “the Cadillac treatment.”

“The litmus test for any release is, ‘Would we buy this or not?’ ” Mr. Welch said. “We’re kind of creating the ultimate fan experience for ourselves, like, ‘How dope would it be if we could…?’ And then we try to do that.”

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