For those of you under 25 years old, you may wonder how music fanatics obtained rare tracks from our favorite bands before MP3s were common.
In 1995, I worked for a small software development company in San Rafael, CA called Presage Software. We developed predominantly educational titles for kids that used popular cartoon characters such as Dr. Seuss, Arthur the Aardvark and Madeline. Once in a great while we also developed non educational games such as Lode Runner .
Being an obsessed fan of the Catherine Wheel, I was an active member on a now defunct listserve dedicated to the band called Texture. This was before Yahoo! (c1996) had ‘groups’ or much of anything else really. Catherine Wheel had released two brilliant albums, Ferment (1992) and Chrome (1993) and was about to release their third LP ‘Happy Days’ (1995). Being British, they also released a nearly obscene number of singles. Each CD single usually contained 2 extra non-album tracks called b-sides. These were sometimes new, unreleased tracks (more on this later) or sometimes were alternate versions of album tracks. Alternate versions were usually either John Peel Sessions or live versions.
Per my understanding, the UK music charts are/were based on sales of singles. A band can release multiple versions of the same single with different track listings to encourage more sales of the same single, to obsessed fans, but it still counts as a sale for that lone single.
The Catherine Wheel recorded a large number of extra tracks that were not released on their first two albums. Take a look at their discography. At the time these were released, circa the early 90s, they were at times very difficult if not impossible to find. Especially if you came to know the band a year or two afterward, say 1994. Ebay (c1997) and the internet was in its infancy.
On the Catherine Wheel listserve people often traded tapes or CD copies if they had access to a CD burner. Keep in mind that CD burners in 1996 cost thousands of dollars and a blank CD-R cost about $10, EACH. If you burned a blank CD and it failed more than once then it added up quickly, and so did the curse words. The only reason I had access to a CD burner was because I worked for a software development company and this company had one burner in-house. The thing was the size of cable set top box and was rather finicky.
Eventually, through various means, searching used record stores, Goldmine Magazine, online trading, etc., I gathered all of the Catherine Wheel’s early b-sides in digital format. There was a local store on Haight Street, which is now a clothing store, which was nice enough to put your name in their database and put in some request. If a cd you wanted came in then they would call you. At one point in 1996, I bought the Painful Thing cd EP via a private email auction on the Catherine Wheel’s listserve for about $65. One week later this record store called and said, “your cd came in”. I had several in my request list so I asked, “which one?”. “Painful Thing, Catherine Wheel”, the guy said. I was equally surprised by what they charged me. $5.99! “I’ll be there in 10 minutes!”. I sold my extra to make up for the what I had just paid for the first copy. Why so much? They only made 5000 of these things.
Most fans of any band only follow them enough to buy the proper full length albums. Fewer buy the singles. And even fewer are obsessed enough to track down previously released, out-of-print singles.
You could also find ‘promos’. They were usually handed out to radio station program directors, music magazines and others in the music industry. Often these had the same qualities of a ‘single’ that you could buy in a store, and included b-sides, but they could be even more rare. There was a local record store in Berkeley that I often found gems in. My ultimate find was a CD promo that was reportedly destroyed by Mercury Records. Per my knowledge, only a small handful of these have turned up since and are incredibly rare. What made it so special was that it contained a b-side, “Capacity To Change”, that is still only found on that promo CD. During one of my encounters with the band’s manager after a show in San Francisco I showed this CD to him. It was the first time he had ever seen it. He was under the impression that none existed. How cool is that?
Over the course of about 5 years, I amassed about 30 different CDs from this one band that only released 5 proper albums. 6 if you count their one, very incomplete b-side compilation, “Like Cats and Dogs.” Most of them came from the first 2 albums which I loved. My collection consisted of around 40 different b-sides/non-album tracks. Many of which were better than many band’s album tracks. ‘Intravenous’ was and remains one of my favorite songs and just so happens to be a b-side. It was also on the Nowhere soundtrack.
Eventually around 2000 I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need all of these original CDs and having CD backups of the original .aiff files along with high quality MP3s was sufficient. So I made the decision to sell the lot to another fan.
Music fans now can fairly easily accumulate MP3s of all of these types of songs now. It takes away the fun and adventure but the end result is still achieved, acquiring great music.