Low's Reissue Woes Reflect a Recording Industry Uncaring of Its Creators

Of their early material, long out of print, the band's Alan Sparhawk says, "[UMG] won't give the rights back. We've asked."

Photo: Nathan Keay

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished Jan 6, 2023

Between the selling off of song cataloguesrighteous re-recording aims and streaming royalty rates remaining criminally meagre, recent years have given music listeners a greater glimpse of major industry machinations concerning ownership and creative control artists hold over their work. However, not every artist holds the cultural cachet (to say nothing of net worth) of megastars like Taylor Swift, so what are smaller songwriters to do when dealing with corporate behemoths?

For Low's Alan Sparhawk, the answer could be mounting public pressure, following his illumination of the pitfalls of continued record label oligopoly, and how historical contracts don't make for a fair deal in the present in answering a fan's question about the group's earliest material on Wednesday (January 4).

Urged by a Twitter user to treat Low's 1994 full-length debut I Could Live In Hope to a reissue, the vocalist-guitarist shared that Universal Music Group (UMG) "won't give the rights back."

Noting that it's not for a lack of effort, Sparhawk explained that an early career recording contract which produced Low's first "3 1/2 records" — I Could Live In Hope, 1995 follow-up Long Division, 1996's The Curtain Hits the Cast and an unspecified EP from that time (shorter efforts Finally... and Transmission both arrived in 1996) — still grants UMG control over the releases more than two decades on from their arrival.

Those three full-length albums (and both aforementioned EPs) were released via Vernon Yard Recordings, a long-defunct independent label founded as an offshoot of Virgin Records, whose catalogue was likely acquired in UMG's purchase of Virgin's then-parent company, EMI Group, in 2012.

Sparhawk also points to how UMG "keep licensing to crappy reissue companies and we see nothing," in reference to CD and vinyl LP reissues of the three full-lengths that arrived via Plain Recordings in 2012. 

Sift through Discogs marketplace pages of the label and Low releases, and those of other titles pressed by the company, and you'll find many complaints lodged against Plain over things like recording sources/fidelity of their records, and the resolution of cover art for the package. The social media channels of the label's parent company, Runt — whose family of sub-labels also includes the similarly maligned reissue imprint 4 Men with Beards — have been inactive since 2020.

Sparhawk also shared that the band had asked to renegotiate the contract with the label "for several years now. We get the run-around and end up nowhere." Low's predicament becomes more saddening knowing that, as Sparhawk shares, the band "can't tour anymore and tour was all our $" following the passing of co-founding drummer and co-vocalist Mimi Parker last year.

Asked by another user about the possibility of working with another reissue label like Numero Group — who last year released a Blondie retrospective box set with Universal Music's involvement — Sparhawk replied, "[Numero Group] are doing great work. Blondie is bigger. Smaller groups like us don't have the pull to renegotiate. We are hardly worth sending the intern to the warehouse for. Maybe a little public pressure [will] change their mind. We don't know what else to do."
Thanking listeners for spreading the word, the artist wrote, "If this doesn't work, it's safe to say we'll know where [UMG] stands. The system will crumble - they have a chance here to adjust and be useful to the future or fade to dust, clinging to their pieces of silver. Love you all. Peace on earth."

Low signed with Sub Pop to release 2005 album The Great Destroyer, and have been with the label since. The band's 2021 LP HEY WHAT appeared amongst Exclaim!'s Best Albums of that year.

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