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History Does Repeat Itself - Over and Over

Music reissuing gives the phrase Play It Again, Sam a whole new meaning.

GO SEARCHING FOR Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys' 1966 album, which was credited with changing the soundscape of pop music, and you'll find choices. A lot of choices. Do you want the original recording remastered with extra tracks and issued on CD in 1999? How about the 40th-anniversary edition with a DVD, extra tracks, and a fuzzy cover? Or the 40th-anniversary edition without the fuzzy cover? Or the gold CD, released in 1993 and without extra tracks?

In actuality, Pet Sounds has been released on CD at least nine times. Unusual treatment for a classic? Not at all. Miles Davis's Kind of Blue has been offered seven different times. The work of alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons has been the subject of two retrospectives in just the past three years. Led Zeppelin has released yet another new hits compilation, its third (or fourth, depending on how you judge it). And this fall, Elvis Costello's 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, was reissued for the fourth time - in a different package and by the fourth different record label.

Record companies have discovered that selling the past, even selling the same past again and again, is profitable. They say they're aiming not only at completist fans looking for extra tracks and improved sound but also at new fans, virgin ears who may not have been born when albums like My Aim Is True were first issued on compact disc. And, executives note, some groups have never had their classic albums on CD because of legal or other entanglements. Earlier this year, Rhino Records reissued the long-unavailable first two albums by the Traveling Wilburys - the supergroup whose members include George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne - and quickly sold more than 100,000 copies.

"How can you deny Pet Sounds?" asks Cheryl Pawelski, the vice president for Artists and Repertoire at Rhino Records, a major reissuer and compiler. "At some point when you're discovering music, you will get the classics. Led Zeppelin is as classic as you can get."

Steve Berkowitz, senior vice president of A&R at Sony's Legacy Recordings, says there is a huge collection of recordings to mine. "Our job is to be salespeople, marketers, and educators, in a way," he adds. "At Legacy, sometimes I think we're supposed to sell CDs; other times, I think we're a little bit of a Library of Congress and a Smithsonian."

Berkowitz steadfastly maintains that the reissues are sonically light-years ahead of the first attempts to convert analog tapes to CDs. "Nobody knew what they were doing [at first]," he says. "The first wave of CDs was to make them sound just like the albums. The engineers were not experienced. We got to a place eight or nine years ago where analog to digital got really good. Now they're able to make them sound more natural and like they were intended to sound."

The prime example of that is Kind of Blue. In the early 1990s, Sony engineers discovered that the tape machine that was used to record part of the album ran slower than standard. As a result, those songs were about a quarter note off their intended sound. So in 1992, Sony released an expanded and corrected-speed version. Then, five years later, the company released a 20- bit remastering of the disc, which it claimed would sound even better.