Where Have All The Bob Seger Albums Gone?
There was no such thing as Classic Rock in 1976 — the phrase, and the radio format it inspired, wouldn't come into common usage until the mid-1980s. But there was already some notion of a rock and roll canon, a list of key albums that FM listeners needed to have in their collection. At the start of 1976, Bob Seger had zero albums on that list. Twelve months later, he had two: Live Bullet, the double LP documenting some blistering hometown sets at Detroit's Cobo Hall, and Night Moves, his first platinum album, whose title single would peak at No. 4 as 1977 began.
His next record, 1978's Stranger in Town, would go platinum within a month. I bought all three at once that year, because they were the ones Columbia House offered. But I knew there were others. As a budding, 13-year-old music obsessive, every record in the canon triggered a cascading need for several more. Some might be content with Elton John's Greatest Hits, but I wanted the entirety of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and then some way to prioritize the rest of his back catalog. Destroyer was not enough KISS; At Budokan was not the sum total of Cheap Trick.
But there were always more records than money to buy them with, even if you stocked your initial collection with 13 titles for the mere penny Columbia House demanded. So every few weeks, when I'd scrounged together $10, I'd flip through the stacks in my local record store, starting at A (Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic was the must have, then the self-titled debut, which had "Dream On," but was Get Your Wings worth the $4.95?) and ending at Y (so many Neil Young albums besides Harvest), trying to decide which one or two LPs were the next to be added to my shelves.
I spent a lot of time lingering in the S bin, studying Seger's back catalog as well as that of another rock and roll true believer: Bruce Springsteen. Both were all over the radio with songs that sounded a lot simpler than they really were, and tackled similar subjects — humble roots, wanting to escape, fearing your chance had passed — in similar ways, transforming the R&B singers who'd inspired them into something a little less groovy, a lot more driving and therefore more immediately digestible for white suburban kids.
Bruce only had four LPs then, whereas Bob seemed to have a new old one every time I returned to the S rack: Ramblin' Gamblin' Man, Mongrel, Back in '72, Smokin' O.P.'s, Seven, Beautiful Loser. They weren't all there every time (though I didn't know it then, two others, Noah and Brand New Morning, had already fallen out of print), so it was hard to tell whether one going missing meant it was a good one I should have grabbed when I had the chance, or simply wasn't worth restocking because so few people wanted it.
It had taken Seger a decade of false starts to secure his place in the canon, and the very size of his back catalog and the way the band name kept changing — from The Bob Seger System to plain old Bob Seger to Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band — implied it had taken him a while to figure out what he was doing. Most visits, I slipped the Seger records back in the bin and went home with something else, though I congratulate my younger self for eventually gambling on Back in '72 and Smokin' O.P.'s.
In those pre-Internet days, we relied on magazines such as Rolling Stone and Creem to fill us in on artists' back stories, and every new piece about a given performer came with an obligatory summary of their career to date. Reading these all in a row in 2017 can be grimly amusing, as it's clear Seger was well-regarded by the cognoscenti from his very first Cameo-Parkway single (1966's "East Side Story," credited to Bob Seger and the Last Heard, recorded at the behest of manager Eddie "Punch" Andrews, who still oversees Seger's affairs today). But writers greeted every new release with some variation of "Bob is great; hopefully this record will put him over the top." As the years went by, each new review then felt obliged to explain why the last LP hadn't done so after all. Here's a small sample of that pattern, all taken from back issues of Rolling Stone:
1/21/71, Ben Edmonds, reviewing Mongrel
"It's easily his best overall work to date, but there are still some crucial musical problems he must come to grips with if he is to realize the tremendous potential he displayed on his earlier Cameo-Parkway singles ... why recognition has been so long in coming to one so obviously talented is beyond me."
5/10/73, Jon Landau, reviewing Back in '72
"...ironically, it seems to me to have a better shot at commercial success than any of its more calculated predecessors ... he belongs at the very top of the rock & roll heap. Back in '72 is just the record to put him there."
7/4/74, Dave Marsh, reviewing Seven
"Bob Seger has been touted for years as a Detroit-based John Fogerty but has never had the monster hit needed to break out nationally ... what he really needs is a good producer."
6/5/75, Ken Barnes, reviewing Beautiful Loser
"Bob Seger is a superb songwriter and Midwestern rocker who's been ignored for far too long .... With this LP, he deserves his long delayed recognition — now."
6/17/76, Dave Marsh again, reviewing Live Bullet
"...because of poor recording, lack of record company support and what has at times seemed like willful career mismanagement ... Seger remains anonymous ... he still has not been properly produced."
By 1976, Marsh was not the only observer blaming Seger's inability to become a household name on odd management choices. In a small Rolling Stone feature that year headlined, "A Star in His Own State," Patrick Goldstein repeated the mantra that "Seger's lack of national prominence is viewed as something of a mystery," ascribed some of the responsibility to Andrews' "ill-considered decision to release Seger's string of Warners albums on his own label, Palladium," then quoted "a local publicist" who expressed frustration with Punch Management: "'They just seem to reflect his attitudes .... They've got to convince him to tour the coasts more often if he really wants to break nationally.'"
But the surprise success of Live Bullet, Seger's ninth album, quickly silenced such sniping. Despite Marsh's quibbling about production, Bullet gained Seger the national audience all those writers had been sure he deserved. Like most of Seger's other recordings, which could reliably sell 10,000 to 50,000 copies in Michigan and Ohio, if nowhere else, Bullet began as a regional hit, selling its first 300,000 copies in Detroit before finally getting Seger spun elsewhere in the country. Maybe he could have toured the coasts more often, but regular airplay in Los Angeles and New York quickly accomplished the same thing: He was no longer just a local hero.
It's tempting now to draw a line in Seger's career: a variety of noble commercial and artistic misfires prior to Live Bullet, then a string of increasingly successful exhibitions of his craft thereafter. But all the ingredients that made the albums after Live Bullet sell millions were present from the beginning.
There's an amiable haphazardness to Seger's first seven or eight records (and the mid-'60s singles that preceded them), which saw Seger adopting then discarding a variety of different approaches, from the bottom-heavy psychedelic rocker heard on his earliest hit, 1968's "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," to acoustic singer-songwriter to good-time purveyor of slightly sanitized Stones riffs. But what might have come off as cynical careerism in another artist just felt like a true fan's promiscuousness with Seger. He'd inhaled rock and roll's history with an acolyte's belief in its redemptive power and a gifted composer's ability to intuit the specific elements that made certain songs work. He was a human radio antenna, with a conviction so genuine and a melodic skill so great that he could turn the most basic elements — Chuck Berry leads plus Ike & Tina howls on the rockers; restrained but steadily building arrangements from the Muscle Shoals rhythm section on the ballads — into perfectly realized creations that leapt straight from the speakers into your soul, bypassing your brain entirely.
The gold record he earned with Bullet simply gave him a sorely needed combination of confidence, clout and cash. He promptly spent all three realizing a vision one could only catch glimpses of in his previous recordings, like 1970's cover of "River Deep, Mountain High," an early display of his agility at translating R&B into hard rock. "Turn the Page," from 1972, is the original brooding, road-weary power ballad. Both now sound like templates for multiple mega-hits Seger would have later that decade. He'd been called old-fashioned (as a compliment) in 1973 and was referred to (with zero irony) as punk in 1977. These are not contradictions — in 1977, punk was old-fashioned, musically, an effort to strip away every extraneous filigree that had accreted like barnacles on the hull of rock music. Bob Seger was basic, when basicness was a good thing the world lacked.
The main thing that distinguishes the albums from '76 on is just how much better he got at distilling his various inspirations. Spending more time in better studios with more accomplished producers certainly helped, but so did the fact that Bullet, which was nothing but live versions of the most fully realized songs from his first eight records, had already proven there was a wider audience for Seger's particular mélange.
1980's Against the Wind continued Seger's platinum streak, and savvy licensing deals extended Seger's presence far beyond radio and record stores. The iconic scene in Risky Business where Tom Cruise lets the audience know just how liberating having your parent's mansion to yourself can be by lip-synching Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll" while dancing around in his underwear rocketed the movie, the star and the song into the broader pop cultural firmament. In 1991, Chevrolet's use of "Like a Rock" to advertise their trucks proved so powerful that the campaign, which was planned to last three to six months, ran for 13 years.
Fast forward to this decade. I hear someone singing "If I Were a Carpenter," which reminds me Seger did a surprisingly heavy version of that song on Smokin' O.P.'s, which I haven't heard for a while. I reach for my copy, only to find that it's gone. This is bothersome, but correctable, I imagine. I am a gainfully employed adult, living in a city with multiple wonderful used record stores, plus there's an entire Internet at my fingertips. I decide to go on a spree, replacing not just the missing album, but finally adding the several I never purchased to my collection.
But I discover something odd: Bob Seger's old albums are not only missing from my shelves. They seem to be missing from the world.
Seger is one of the few remaining digital holdouts — there's nothing beyond the odd Christmas tune available on subscription services, and even on iTunes his only studio album for sale is 2014's Ride Out, which sits beside two anthologies and two live albums. (Disclosure: I already knew this. As a content executive at Rhapsody and, later, Google Play, I have been involved in at least two attempts to convince his label and management to make his catalog available on demand. This entire article can maybe be read as my third attempt, though I'm no longer in a position to benefit professionally from such a development. The benefits to me as a fan are hopefully obvious. The benefits to Seger as an artist, I will argue, are incalculable.)
But this is not merely a case of artist/management being cautious about digital distribution, because most of his studio albums are no longer in print physically, either. Out of 17 total, his own website shows only six available for purchase: his '75 through '80 run of Beautiful Loser, Night Moves, Stranger in Town and Against the Wind, plus this century's Face The Promise and Ride Out. Used copies of his first seven albums start around $30, and go as high as $200, if you can even find one. Those eye-popping prices suggest I made several wrong calls back in 1978. They also convince me I know who took my copy of Smokin' OP's — a former housemate who worked in a record store, and was apparently savvier than I about its slowly increasing value. Copies of '80s and '90s albums The Distance, Like a Rock, The Fire Inside and It's a Mystery are a bit easier to locate, and accordingly more affordable, but also, officially, out of print.
Simply stated, this is a bizarre state of affairs. Catalog sales (traditionally defined as anything not released in the past 18 months) have always represented a huge chunk of record industry revenue, and catalog's percentage of total revenue has been increasing steadily for a decade — according to Nielsen Music, catalog accounted for 37% of all sales in 2005, had risen to 49% of all sales by 2014 and surpassed new releases to represent the majority of all sales for the first time in 2015. That same year, Nielsen reported that catalog represented nearly 70% of plays on streaming services.
Labels take those percentages so seriously they have entire divisions devoted to back catalog. As Adam Block, President of Sony Music's Legacy Recordings, explains, "Legacy exists to make sure the stories that are our artists, their albums, their songs, get told and re-told. If they're not, they'll drift off into the great digital void we're standing on the precipice of." Such efforts are not just a canny way to get existing fans to repurchase records they already own. As Bruce Resnikoff, CEO of UMe, says, "Generally speaking, if your first fan and your last fan are the same, then you have failed to grow your artist's audience." UMe's strategy with back catalog bears that out: Resnikoff describes super deluxe editions "geared towards the longtime, core fan base (with) demos, outtakes and rare materials as well as the full essays and photos all housed in a collector's box," and explains why he offers those in tandem with "an introduction edition for a new fan. It is a delicate balance to be true to the existing fans, while creating releases that reach new fans who are consuming and discovering music through new platforms."
Seger's absence from digital services, combined with the gradual disappearance of even physical copies of half his catalog, suggest a rare level of indifference to his legacy. I can't think of any other artist of his stature, with such a string of era-defining hits, who's been content to let his past work fade away in this manner. Contemporaries from the '70s and '80s regularly issue 25th anniversary editions of old LPs while basking in critical re-evaluations of their early work. Bruce Springsteen, the other artist I lingered over in those S bins in the 1970s, has embraced this reality. A significant chunk of fans who bought all his albums on vinyl as teenagers have since added anniversary editions (with tempting bonus CDs of outtakes and making-of documentaries on DVD) of Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. But with Seger, all you hear is crickets. It's 2017, but for some reason it's easier for casual music fans to start playing deep cuts by Bing Crosby, who had a No. 1 record in 1940, than most anything by Bob Seger, who had a No. 1 record in 1980.
Seger declined to comment for this article, but we know for sure he has a dim view of portions of his catalog. As he told an interviewer in 2007, "There's a bunch of songs on Back In '72 that are bums. People keep saying: 'I want to hear that album.' And I go: 'No, that's okay.'"
We also know that, whatever Seger's thoughts about online music might be, he lets Punch Andrews make all the business calls, as he explained to the Wall Street Journal years ago: "I do music, he does business. It's a great division of labor and we don't get into each other's areas." He said much the same to Rolling Stone's Andy Greene in 2014: "It's an ongoing issue with my manager and Capitol Records ... I've had the same manager for 49 years and he's been right most of the time."
The dispute with Capitol seems to revolve around what percentage of any online royalties Capitol is obligated to pay Seger, though reading through the many pages of testimony Punch and Gear Publishing, which has handled Seger's publishing for the past 50 years, submitted to the Copyright Office in 2011 and 2014 concerning various rate setting procedures, Punch is equally skeptical about the benefits online services offer his client. Asked via email what needs to change before more of Seger's catalog comes online, Andrews replied, "For years, we have been asked to bring the catalog to streaming. We have not pulled the trigger there because the rates are low; so low, in fact, that the label would not break it down and show the artist how little he would make. Bob has always been an album artist and that format has served him very well. Streaming and downloads have always favored singles artists."
Punch's opinion on going digital can be boiled down to: "Not yet in the artist's interest." And Seger's take is essentially: "Punch is usually right." But there's a lot of space in that "usually." Punch has had the last laugh when others were convinced he was woefully misguided before. Who should be smirking this time round? Is Seger doing better or worse in 2017 than he should be?
We can use some straightforward methods to check. Let's start with record sales.
Reliable figures prior to the introduction of Nielsen Music's Soundscan in 1992 can be hard to come by, and RIAA gold and platinum certifications are notoriously suspect (Nielsen Music consistently reports lower numbers for titles the RIAA has certified as million-selling platinum albums on a particular date), but we know that all nine Bob Seger albums from 1975's Beautiful Loser through 1991's The Fire Inside had been certified platinum by the end of 1991, with several of those being certified multi-platinum (Stranger in Town and Night Moves were each certified 5x platinum, Live Bullet and Against the Wind were each certified 4x), totaling something in the general vicinity of 25 million albums sold, plus or minus a grain of salt.
After 1992 we can get a lot more precise, thanks to statistics collected by Nielsen. According to their figures, Seger's sold about another 22 million since then. That's almost 50 million albums sold since 1975. But look how front-loaded those '92-forward sales are:
That chart suggests that, excepting spikes around new album releases and tours to promote them (as in '95, '06 and '14) or new compilations (as in '94, '03 and '11), Seger was reliably selling over 600,000 albums per year for most of the '90s and '00s. Whatever other artists might have been experiencing, the music business was still working the way it always had for Bob Seger in 2006. Face The Promise came out that September and was certified platinum before the year was out, as all but one of his albums since 1977 had managed.
And all those sales of Face The Promise were physical albums. Though iTunes was introduced in 2003 and digital sales saw huge growth year over year, Punch's suspicion of digital music services' effect on album oriented artists lasted until Seger's annual sales dropped below 350,000. That happened in 2010; in 2011 Seger's latest anthology, Ultimate Hits, was released on iTunes as well as physically. But 2011 proved poor timing to make a big deal about finally coming to iTunes. The next year, download sales would plateau, before decreasing after 2013, as on demand streaming came to represent the largest share of music consumption.
By that point, even Bob Seger fans had stopped buying records the way they used to. 2014's Ride Out has yet to crack 250,000, despite generally positive reviews (and a nifty, horn-powered cover of Billy Bragg and Wilco's Woody Guthrie cover, "California Stars").
Broadcast radio spins provide another gauge of how Seger's presence might have waxed or waned over time. Several classic rockers have had remarkably steady numbers, even as digital distribution upended the rest of the music business in the new millennium. Look how consistent spins of Led Zeppelin and Queen have been, per Mediabase's "Big Picture" chart, which has tracked total plays across the major stations in the most popular formats for any artist with a song in the top 1000 since 2006:
These two artists provide a pretty good illustration of classic rock acts who've remained culturally relevant enough to keep songs from a quarter century ago in the top 1000. Now let's see how Seger's totals compare.
Holy canoli. A decade ago, Seger was being spun by DJ's almost as frequently as Led Zeppelin, but he'd plummeted 80% by 2014, before dropping out of the top 1000 songs list entirely last year.
Narrowing our focus just to Classic Rock stations, we can see similar signs of trouble: Per Mediabase, Seger was the seventh-most-played artist in the format in 2000. In 2008, he was No. 13. Last year, He was No. 27.
I asked Mike Boila, the Vice President of Gear Publishing Company, if the pace of licensing requests, which had proven so effective for Risky Business and Chevrolet, had seen any changes since Seger's '80s and '90s triumphs. Those, at least, seem to have held steady: "The number of synch requests has remained consistent over the years," he said. He then reeled off an impressive list of uses, and if the movies (The Rose, Body Heat, Forrest Gump, The Mask, Armageddon, Grown Ups) were mostly from the '80s and '90s, the TV shows displayed a more expansive range, extending back from Cheers and Miami Vice to more recent entries such as 30 Rock, Ray Donovan and Mr. Robot, and even included several Spanish translations of Seger tunes for HBO's East Bound & Down (you can get a taste of the Spanish version of "Night Moves" here).
Boila discusses "reviewing all requests large or small," with a care and attention to creative nuance that makes clear how seriously management treats Seger's songs. They're not simply looking to squeeze the maximum revenue out of his catalog, they want to honor it, and they recognize that such uses can be an important discovery mechanism for new fans. However, "the extent to which you are making a first impression with an audience makes it all the more important to be careful what impression you are making. It's important to us that the use does not recast the song in a different light — for example, we do not approve uses which make the song itself the butt of a joke. Also, sometimes the music will fit the tempo of a scene very well, but the lyrics don't make sense in context."
Making sure a given use works creatively, Boila says, "is the key to maintaining the long-term integrity of a catalog." But what use is courting new fans through licensing deals if so little of Seger's catalog is available where the majority of listeners are looking for it? And how does letting so many of the original albums fall out of print square with maintaining the integrity of his catalog?
Seger's relatively steady album sales numbers prior to 2007 mask an earlier, more troubling change: The vast majority of sales through the '00s were driven by the original Greatest Hits compilation, which by 2009 was not just Seger's best-selling record at over eight times platinum, but was also the top-selling catalog CD of the '00s, surpassing greatest hits discs by both Michael Jackson and The Beatles.
In other words, if Punch is right that that Bob Seger is an album artist, he's wrong that iTunes represented the biggest existential threat to Seger's artistic expression. Once Greatest Hits was released in 1994, listeners no longer had much need, or demonstrated much desire, to obtain old Bob Seger LPs. Through 1991, over 70% of Bob Seger's sales were driven by his 14 studio albums. But that percentage has flipped in the years since. Compilations — greatest hits and live sets — have accounted for more than 70% of his sales since Nielsen Music started tracking the numbers.
That shift seems to have created a weird feedback loop that mimicks what happened to Seger's back catalog in the '70s. Back then, the fact that no one was buying the old albums made it easier for manager and artist to treat them with a sort of benign neglect, letting their influence wane while focusing on what was working better: raucous live shows to rapturous audiences from the Midwest down to Florida.
It feels like a pattern might be repeating. Much as Seger's status as a regional star from 1964 through 1976 left him free to record and tour where he felt most comfortable, but those same decisions prevented him from breaking out to the wider national audience he craved, his current level of very substantial success eliminates any pressing need to participate more fully in the digital age. Even at their reduced levels, his sales remain enviable, so royalties, steady synch fees and his ability to sell out arenas whenever he feels like hitting the road risk obscuring any missed opportunities when it comes to securing his legacy more completely for future generations. He's returned to having a core base of rabid supporters, but once again there are millions more he could be reaching but isn't.
Seger might simply be too humble to consider the kind of catalog curation someone like Bruce Springsteen's been overseeing with his early work as a necessary endeavor. Reading through 40 years' worth of Bob Seger interviews drives home how embarrassed he seems by talking about himself, as well as how unimpressed he remains with a fair portion of his old records. That personality, coupled with a working-class musician's innate suspicion of anything that could be perceived as taking advantage of fans, has left Seger one of the few multiplatinum artists with a decades-spanning career who's never even released a boxed set. Though he's worked hard to maintain a consistent level of quality in both his songwriting and recording since breaking through in '76, he's demonstrated little interest in having a public profile beyond the work itself. He does few interviews when he doesn't have a new album to promote. He resisted making music videos well into the '80s, and only engaged half-heartedly once he succumbed. He took a long break between albums and tours after '96 to raise his kids. He's stayed in Michigan, and has left all the business decisions to Punch, possibly because a more mercenary manager might have talked him out of more than one of those choices.
These are admirable qualities in a superstar! And through 2007, the public profile of the work itself didn't suffer overmuch. Ten years ago, it was still a safe bet that a new Bob Seger record would go platinum. Now, one can barely get halfway to gold. He's not unique in that regard, but he is unique in this one: He's not making it possible for anyone who hasn't already purchased that new record to ever hear it.
Punch is aware of the new reality, though to hear him tell it, retailers are the ones to blame for the unavailability of Seger's back catalog. When I ask him why he hasn't kept more of the old titles in print physically, or at least released them as album only downloads online, he explains: "iTunes has a policy of not permitting 'album only' downloads except in some instances. From the very beginning, we were very concerned as to how this policy would affect album oriented rock artists in the long run and certainly there is evidence that this policy has contributed to a decline in the format. At the same time, physical retailers have been reducing the footprint of music in their stores to such a degree where deeper, back catalog titles have a tougher time reaching an audience."
If Punch is right about the state of the industry, Seger is in a pickle: The priorities of iTunes and Spotify might have changed the way people listen in the digital era, but those new priorities make it harder for him to argue for a reversal for the sake of Seger's back catalog. And if shrinking physical retail space means it's harder to market Seger's early LPs, letting them all fall out of print only makes it harder for anyone hear them as the artist intended. In the name of preserving his client's vision as an album artist, compilations have become the default option in both environments, causing the old albums to fade in favor of individual songs.
And those choices have left us with fewer of those songs than there used to be. Back in 1978, flipping through that S bin, there were four Springsteen albums, compared to 11 Bob Seger records. Today, in iTunes, there are 30 Springsteen albums compared to just five of Seger's; more than 400 Bruce songs, only 81 Bob songs. The Early Seger Volume 1 compilation you can buy in iTunes features precisely six of the 66 total tracks from his out of print albums.
Can an artist will the culture to forget work he no longer considers worth remembering? Does the artist risk that same culture forgetting the impact he once had if he simply doesn't co-operate with the standard corporate imperatives to join in every new format shift, to eagerly repackage and re-promote previously successful material?
These questions matter, because as time passes, popular culture has its own way of doing the same sort of culling I was engaged in as a 13-year-old record shopper — indeed, the combination of choices made by millions of other shoppers is just one of the mechanisms through which that larger winnowing occurs in the first place. The program directors who invented and expanded on the concept of Classic Rock as a distinct radio format in the '80s did another, rather literal form of culling, reducing the more freeform AOR playlists of the '70s into an ever-narrower menu of reliably audience-pleasing songs.
Seger's records survived the initial narrowing of the Classic Rock canon. But I fear they won't fare so well as the industry format shifts yet again to a streaming model. We've moved to an age of algorithms, in which huge amounts of data about artists, songs and the people who play them determine what new listeners are exposed to. Since Seger's material is barely counted in that data today, he might be writing himself out of the canon.
The songs are powerful, though — hopefully powerful enough to weather the drought until they're finally fully available online. Pressed for details about if and when that might happen, Punch offers the same answer he and Seger have been giving fans for years: "We are working on some plans to reintroduce back catalog in a variety of traditional and non-traditional ways. Stay tuned ... "
I'll stay tuned, because I already care. I remain worried about those who could, but don't yet — if it takes too long for those old albums to come online, Seger's chance to capture their attention could pass. He may become like Bing Crosby, with all those old albums once again available, but only the nostalgic bothering to play them.
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