While browsing online at new releases for 2018, I came across something that kind of caught my eye….
Anyone that even casually knows me knows that I am a huge Oak Ridge Boys fan. I have every recording by them I can possibly get my hands on dating back to the mid-60’s when Duane Allen and William Lee Golden first joined the group. I have ever commercial and promotional recording done by the current lineup that includes Golden, Allen, Joe Bonsall, and Richard Sterban dating from 1973 to present. I even have some recordings from older incarnations featuring Smitty Gatlin, Herman Harper, Willie Wynn, Ron Page, and Tommy Fairchild.
The older stuff, of course, is not all that hard to find. The group recorded frequently for Skylite Records prior to Allen joining the group, and those masters have been leased out more times than a U-Haul truck. Just go on Amazon and do a search for Oaks music; you’ll find a TON of third-party label releases, often with cheap artwork and whatever publicity photo the label can get a hold of featuring the current group to try to move a few units.
That’s why, when I came across a planned new release, I initially dismissed it as more of the same, but the more I investigated it, the more intrigued I became. That release was titled When I Sing For Him: The Complete Columbia Recordings & RCA Singles, and it releases on March 2nd by a company called Real Gone Music. Given that the Columbia recordings were from 1973-1976 and the RCA singles were from 1990-1992 (and included Steve Sanders in place of Golden), this seemed like a somewhat odd combination to be releasing. I also had seen some of these songs show up on bootleg releases using audio ripped from YouTube (one of which was posted by myself, so I knew exactly what the source was!). I was certain that someone had just made vinyl-to-CD copies and were trying to make a quick buck before they got busted.
While looking for more info on the release, I came across this site that included a one-sheet description of the album. It proclaimed that an engineer has “remastered every track at Sony’s Battery Studios from the original tapes,” which means that someone has put some time and money into this release. The record company also knew enough to include any non-album releases from the Columbia years (singles, B-sides, etc.), so they obviously are familiar with the Oaks’ catalog as a whole.
In fact, Real Gone Music is joining a growing number of media distributors who are taking advantage of niche markets. Companies are looking for older, forgotten titles that the original owners have no interest in re-issuing, and are investing heavily not just in re-releasing the material as a budget item, but remastering the titles for a new generation.
One of the more successful such companies is Shout! Factory, who has built a very successful venture by obtaining the rights to release films and even TV series that may not have a huge global market, but have a very loyal niche fan base. The films’ original owners/distributors have no interest in spending time and money on re-issuing these films (aside from a bargain bin release), so Shout! leases the film, invests in a restoration, and announces limited-run special editions (one such film, the controversial 1984 slasher film, Silent Night, Deadly Night, actually sold out on pre-order). They also have streaming channels on devices such as Roku where you can watch some of these releases (I’ve binge-watched the 1960’s Dennis The Menace series already on that channel, actually).
This got me to wondering (scary, I know!)….
There are countless southern gospel albums that have been released over the years, both on a major (at the time) label and independently. Some of these albums have seen release on CD now and then, but a large portion of them have never been heard since their initial pressing (beyond some vinyl-to-digital rips found on YouTube and a whole slew of members-only Facebook groups). Why isn’t there a label willing to invest in this vast back catalog of music much like Real Gone Music or Shout! Factory is doing with mainstream releases?
Granted, there have been attempts over the years to give fans a taste of these releases. When Word Music briefly relaunched Canaan Records in the early 2000’s, they re-issued several classic albums from their back catalog, although they weren’t really remastered so much as just converted from analog to digital. Provident Music likewise released some Benson-era catalog titles, only they actually invested in remastering those titles (if you can get a hold of the re-release of the Cathedrals’ Symphony of Praise, I highly recommend it!), but in both cases, those were the original owners releasing the material, not a third-party label that specializes in such releases.
What I would like to see is a company that specializes in obtaining, remastering, and releasing rare albums from SG past. Granted, some masters are so heavily locked down and guarded that they may never see the light of day again (just as Harold Timmons), but given Sony’s apparent willingness to lease out some titles (as evidenced by the above ORB release), maybe there is a chance that some of the classic Heartwarming/Benson albums (which include the Oaks, Rambos, Stamps, Downings, Kingsmen, Gold City, and Cathedrals, just to name a few) might be available for the right investor.
The question then becomes, is there enough of a market for such releases to make such an investment worthwhile…?