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Bono in performance with U2 on July 20, 2011 in New Jersey. (Charles Sykes/AP)
Bono in performance with U2 on July 20, 2011 in New Jersey. (Charles Sykes/AP)

Music

Fall music: Everything old is new again (and they bet you'll buy it) Add to ...

From a record-company perspective, what could be better than a new U2 album this fall?

Why, an old U2 album, of course.

On Nov. 1, Universal Music will release five – that’s right, five – special packages celebrating the 20th anniversary of the band’s 1991 album, Achtung Baby. The editions range from a simple remaster of the original disc to a limited “Uber Deluxe Edition” that will include six CDs, four DVDs, two LPs, five singles and a pair of sunglasses like those Bono wore in The Fly video.

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Just to be sure people don’t miss out, there’s a documentary about the making of the album, From the Sky Down. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, and will be on the U.S. cable network Showtime in October; a DVD of the documentary will be included in two of the five packages.

Some rock fans may sneer that making such a big deal out of an old album is tantamount to the band’s enshrining its has-been status. But from an economic standpoint, high-profile reissues make more sense than betting on a new album, which is why this fall will be overloaded with old wine in new bottles.

In addition to Achtung Baby, there will be a double-CD 20th-anniversary reissue package of Nirvana’s Nevermind out Tuesday, with a four-LP set and a “Super-Deluxe” four CD/one DVD edition due in October; similarly elaborate versions of the Who’s Quadrophenia and the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls out in November; and a host of boxed sets, including full-catalogue reissues by Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd, Queen and the Smiths.

Already out are a 20th-anniversary celebration of Pearl Jam called Pearl Jam Twenty (which, like Achtung Baby, was heralded by a big-screen documentary that premiered at TIFF), and a set of Jimi Hendrix live performances, including a four-CD box drawn from his 1968 performances at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, and a DVD of his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.

Why so much emphasis on the old? In part, it’s because that’s what the pop market seems to want. On the concert side of the business, “legacy acts” such as AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, U2, Paul McCartney, Bon Jovi and Metallica are usually the biggest money-makers on the road, routinely outselling more contemporary acts such as Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift. More to the point, the legacy acts sell tickets regardless of whether they have a new album in the stores, because their fans are essentially pre-sold on the value of the act.

Of course, that’s partly because they own the albums that made these artists great. So why do record companies put so much stock in reissues? Simply put, because history shows that people will happily buy new versions of music they already own, particularly if there’s the promise of better sound or bonus features.

Two weeks ago, for example, Capitol reissued the Beatles album 1, with remastered sound and also, for the first time, as a digital download. It quickly went to the top of the iTunes charts, and entered the Canadian album charts at No. 5. (It’s No. 4 in the United States) – all this even though there’s not a lick of new music on the album.

Furthermore, unlike new albums, old hits like Nevermind and Achtung Baby made their production costs back decades ago, meaning that even the most elaborate reissue projects are guaranteed to be almost pure profit for the labels. Coming at a time when sales are slow and profit margins on new releases range from slim to non-existent, it’s hard to imagine the executive who would turn down the chance to add some easy black ink to the balance sheet.

Retailers also love reissues, because on a basic level what’s being sold is the packaging as much as the music – the physical part of the CD that isn’t available online. You might be able to get the reissued Achtung Baby with bonus tracks through iTunes, but you certainly can’t download Bono’s sunglasses.

That’s not to say there’s nothing new in the reissue packages coming out this fall. Brian Wilson fans will find much new to savour in The Smile Sessions set (out Nov. 1). This “teenage symphony to God” will be available in multiple versions, ranging from a double-CD set to an expanded version with five CDs, two LPs and two singles. And Ray Charles fans will rejoice at the release of the five-disc set Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles (Nov. 15), much of which has never been on CD.

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