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When are greatest hits not a hit?

Some bands resist issuing lucrative compilation albums, while labels want them earlier than ever.

August 21, 2007|Jake Coyle | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- A side effect to today's fractured, tumultuous music industry is the fluctuating meaning of the greatest-hits album.

On one hand, it remains a giant moneymaker for labels, which are urging their artists to make best-of compilations increasingly earlier in their careers. On the other, iTunes has made greatest-hits albums redundant. If you want an act's highlights, you can assemble them yourself.

This dichotomy has, for some bands, made the decision to make a best-of album an increasingly difficult, sometimes contentious one. Some view greatest-hits albums as a blatant money grab that disrespects the integrity of the album. Pressure from labels can also come sooner than expected.

The Sacramento band Cake (its hits include "The Distance" and "Short Skirt, Long Jacket") was requested by its former label, Columbia Records, to make a greatest-hits album. With only a handful of well-known albums to its name, the band judged a best-of disc to be premature. The band refused, prompting a legal fight between Cake and Columbia.

In the end, Cake left to form its own label, Upbeat Records, and will instead release "B-sides and Rarities" on Oct. 2, with a live disc to follow this fall.

"I have mixed feelings about greatest-hits albums," said Cake lead singer and guitarist John McCrea. "They're a force that can be used for good or evil.

"For us at that point, we felt like it wasn't the appropriate moment -- that we hadn't existed long enough to warrant some sort of wistful retrospection. It kind of reeked of desperation."

In recent years, a number of acts have released greatest-hits albums early in their careers, including Britney Spears, Hilary Duff and Sugar Ray.

Though the advent of iTunes (not to mention illegal downloading and MySpace) has meant a band's most-popular songs can be instantly sampled or bought, greatest-hits discs remain lucrative to labels. In recent Nielsen SoundScan sales charts, at least half of the top 50 top-selling catalog albums typically are compilations.

Labels often add rare unreleased material or unique packaging to these albums to entice die-hard fans. They are also viewed as a way to introduce audiences to an act with whom they may be unfamiliar.

Still, there are several notable holdouts, including AC/DC, Radiohead, Phish and Metallica. Many artists feel greatest-hits discs corrupt the integrity of their prior albums. For the same reason, Radiohead and AC/DC have thus far resisted putting their music on iTunes, where albums are chopped into single tracks.

It's a stance Chris Lombardi, founder of independent label Matador Records, often encounters.

"I've been trying to encourage some of our bands to do greatest-hits records, but I think artistically they have a real difficult time taking away the identity of the album as it stands alone," Lombardi said.

Whether a label needs the consent of an act to issue a compilation varies from contract to contract. Catalog sales account for approximately 40% to 50% of a label's annual gross, so rereleasing and repackaging old material is far more than an afterthought.

"If an artist has a say in these kind of things, you'd think that they'd want a greatest-hits record to be an intro to the band as a way to guide you into buying the rest of the records as opposed to being a substitute," said Steve Kandell, deputy editor of Spin magazine.

Some greatest-hits records take on a life of their own -- like the Eagles' "Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)," which is the bestselling album in the U.S.

Other bands like U2 and Aerosmith have been criticized for their seemingly unceas- ing parade of greatest-hits albums.

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