Zappa: Leading The Way In Digital & CD Technologies

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By Jim Bessman
Billboard, May 1990


When the idea for Rykodisc was conceived on a café napkin at MIDEM in 1983, Frank Zappa was central to the CD-oriented label's goals. "He was high among the list of appropriate artists for early CD release – and one of my first ideas." recalls Don Rose, president of the Salem, Mass.-based manufacturer.

"He was a pioneer in digital recording. He had purchased one of the first Sony multitrack digital recording machines, and was one of the first popular artists to commit to digital.

"And he was well-known as an innovator – both musically and technologically. The initial CD consumer tended to be a more cutting-edge consumer, and we felt Frank's work would be appealing to that market."

But there was one other unique attribute which made Zappa so attractive to the fledgling company. Continues Rose, "We knew he had regained the rights to his entire body of recorded work, and therefore controlled his catalog personally – which is rare. So it made perfect sense for us to go after such a forward-thinking artist who controlled his own material and was already digital-friendly."

Eventually, of course. Rykodisc and Zappa would commence one of the most ambitious and honored catalog "re-release" programs undertaken in the CD era. Indeed, the company's Zappa titles (also including the best-selling "Peaches En Regalia" CD-3 single) paved the way for its similar acquisition and re-release of the David Bowie CD catalog, as well as new material from the Jimi Hendrix estate. But it would take Rose numerous phone calls and letters to first get Zappa's attention.

"I hadn't even heard of them before," says Zappa. "Then here's this guy named Don Rose who knew something about my catalog and was interested and it was like one cottage industry talking to another!"

It was also perfect timing. When Rose finally met with Zappa early in 1985 the major labels were doing little to promote the CD format.

Explains Rose, "Mass merchandisers were suspicious of a third format, and manufacturing capacity was overloaded worldwide. Artists who were perceived by the majors as fringe artists – like Frank – weren't represented on CD. He had a distribution deal with Capitol for his Barking Pumpkin label, but was unable to get CD manufacturing there. So there we were, seeing him as a premier acquisition target."

After spending an afternoon listening to digitally remixed excerpts at Zappa's studio, ironing out the Rykodisc deal proved relatively easy. Most of the material had already been transferred from analog to digital, though it had to be re-equalized and sequenced for CD.

"This was all done in real time, by me in a chair operating the equipment," says Zappa. "All the assembling and editing I did myself."

Still, in the fall of 1986, the first batch of Zappa CDs were released: "Apostrophe (')" / "Over-Nite Sensation," "We're Only In It For The Money" / "Lumpy Gravy," "The Grand Wazoo," "Thing-Fish," "Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar," "London Symphony Orchestra," "Them Or Us," and "Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention."

"It was probably the biggest back-catalog issue by a single artist on CD at the time," says Rose. "Frank insisted that they come out simultaneously for greater impact. We went along with him only to find out he was right."

Rykodisc made clear, though, that the Zappa titles were not to be confused with "reissues." Instead, the term "re-release" was promoted, to indicate that they were more than just CD versions of well-known vinyl albums, or reissues, in the traditional sense.

And truly, the Rykodisc Zappa titles were much more than reissues. Existing extra tracks were added when deemed appropriate, while the original artwork was reconfigured for CD instead of just being shrunk. Most important, though, was Rykodisc's marketing commitment. As Rose notes, the first re-releases were promoted with the same intensity which record companies typically bring to new artists.

"Our interest in Frank sprung from our being such fans," he says. "Besides being an important artist who needed CD exposure, he's one of the true icons of popular culture. He may have a reputation of being weird, but looking at his career from an historical perspective, he's no stranger to his time than Mozart was to his. And his prescience of vision has kept him continuously at the forefront, not only technologically and artistically, but in terms of major voter registration, lyrics and labeling, and relations with Eastern Europe."

Now, in celebrating Zappa's 25th anniversary in music. Rykodisc is releasing the next eight Zappa re-release titles: "Zoot Allures," "Just Another Band From L.A.," "You Are What You Is," "Tinseltown Rebellion," and "Live At The Fillmore East." Cal Schenkel, the artist most identified with Zappa album covers, has designed a special commemorative logo tying-in with the new releases and back-catalog, and extensive promotional activities center around a "Mothers Day" radio special targeted at rock radio.

"There's print advertising, co-op support, catalog giveaways, and aggressive pricing on the whole catalog," says director of marketing John Hammond. "We've also made a Zappa 'hits' disk for radio, including classics like 'Cosmik Debris,' 'Dinah-Moe Humm,' and 'Peaches En Regalia.' We're taking it to album radio and saying, 'Remember these? They went a long way in creating your format!' But we're finding a lot of support for Frank at rock and album radio, classic rock, and alternative as well."

Zappa, meanwhile, is busy readying "Zappa In New York" for re-release.

"I'm putting back what was left out, like 'Punky's Whips,'" he says. "When you're dealing with vinyl and 18-20 minutes a side, you sequence to accommodate that side length. But with a 74-minute CD, you can give a much better illusion of live concert material. So I'm going back and restructuring it."

Reflecting on his 25-year career, Zappa notes that he entered the music business "when technology was just being created." His earliest recordings were on 4-track equipment; later, he would lead the way in 8-track, 12-track, and 16-track analog recordings in the same way that he would someday test the digital recording process.

"This is what I've been waiting for since the day I got into the record business," he says, referring now to his CD re-releases. "The chance to present whatever quality of material I do to the consumer in its most listenable format."

Zappa hopes to have his entire back-catalog re-released on CD by the end of the year.

"This opportunity to deal with a vast catalog in a high quality manner gave us a forum to display our ability," concludes Rose. "It surely helped attract other artists to our label, especially Bowie and the Hendrix estate."

As for Frank Zappa. "He's an American original," Rose says. "We're pleased to be a small part of his career.