Increasingly, these days, I have cause to be cynical about the clandestine marketing of ‘new’ music. You’d think, in a world where (vinyl faux-renaissance aside) physical media is dead, record companies might compete less offensively for my attention. Alas, no. At every single opportunity, I, the consumer, am pushed closer and closer toward realising that most heinous of thoughtcrimes – pirate sympathy.
It’s a scary world and they’ll catch you off-guard – even the beloved indies. Just two years ago, I forked out £80 on a limited edition New Order box-set containing exclusive 12” remixes – remixes so exclusive, that they ended up appearing on a standard run CD reissue less than six months after the (unexpectedly) belated box shipped… and that all happened in the good name of Mute Records! Over at Columbia (owned by – say it with me now – Sony Music), the penchant for consumer abuse is far better exercised. The masters of having you and your cultural appreciation by the knackers, Song make a business of wringing every last penny out from your well-wishing, legal pursuit of fine art. Their key cash cow is Bob Dylan and, since 2010, the label has made brazenly obvious their lack of respect for the consumer, with sickeningly-timed, ‘copyright extension’ collections to prevent material from entering the public domain, as well as ludicrously priced deluxe box-sets that contain swathes of inaudible rubbish.
Unfortunately for you and I, David Bowie was signed to Columbia Records, and whilst the label actually did a bloody amazing job of packaging ★, the same can’t be said for their handling of the enticing new outtakes from the sessions for that record – the tracks that comprise 2017’s ‘new’ No Plan E.P.
I should interject here and say something about the music. In case you’re wondering why I’ve used these seven-hundred-or-so words to say barely anything about No Plan, Killing A Little Time and When I Met You, that’s because I already analysed the songs in my review of the Lazarus cast recording. In short though, you needn’t worry – the songs are absolute gold. All could easily have featured on ★, with the poignant, deathly lyrics and outlandish, jazzy compositions resting very comfortably with what was, essentially, one of the decade’s finest records. If I’ve a single criticism at all, it’s that the exclusion of these tracks from ★ is perhaps down to their directness; each combats mortality and the motion of waving goodbye in a slightly more obvious and less nuanced way than the more obtuse moments on the parent album… but fear not, all that is explained by my review (which I’d heartily recommend – I was very fair, I reckon).
Now, these tracks were originally teased, one by one, and through different platforms (BBC Radio, YouTube etc.) in the lead-up to the release of the Lazarus cast recording, which hit shelves on 21st October 2016. The compilation, for better or worse, was the chosen vehicle for releasing these unheard Bowie recordings, billed as his very last, and, thanks to the multi-disc format of the release, it involved shelling out a significant amount for (let’s face it), three great songs and a big bunch of fair-to-poor covers. In addition, you had to pay for the whole album. Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal – all of them – only streamed the cast recording, with the Bowie bonuses greyed out. On iTunes and Amazon, the final tracks were ‘whole album only’. Fuck you, the metadata read: love, Sony.
I went to see Lazarus in December, and it was, if a little underwhelming, a cute epitaph to Bowie’s late-career comeback and, indeed, his art-house experimentalism back in the seventies. As a memento (and, so I could obtain these blasted new songs), I bought the triple LP edition of the show’s cast recording. I reviewed the release for PearShaped and, largely on the incredible strength of Bowie’s contributions, awarded the whole package a very generous 4/5. Now, as if to mock my unnecessarily kind assessment of the cast recording, Columbia have released the digital only No Plan E.P., containing all three songs plus the weird copy/paste re-release of Lazarus (which is, in itself, conclusive proof that, admin-wise, Sony have just unblocked the streams on the end of the cast recording, which, go look for yourself – they have). Now admittedly, if you wanted a physical copy of this music and you bought the soundtrack, then right now, you’re quids in, because this E.P. is a digital exclusive. Frankly though, anything could happen – and that doesn’t change the fact that streamer fans got ripped here. And actually, if you’re still just after a 12” with these songs on it – well, you’re just as unlucky as you were when the cast recording came out.
It’s a disgusting mess… but there you have it. David Bowie’s last studio recordings, finally in isolation, only in digital. Just make sure you stream it freemium, for Christ’s sake, lest Sony should turn enough profit to issue a limited release of complete outtakes from Blood On The Tracks.