Ex-Rykodisc VP talks about Salem label’s role in Bowie’s creative rebirth
Of David Bowie’s myriad accomplishments, one of the most enduring might turn out to be his contribution to the development of the deluxe re-issue. A pillar of events like Record Store Day, the album-plus-bonus-tracks package has become an industry standard. Bowie, working alongside Salem-based independent record label Rykodisc, helped to mainstream the idea of value-added catalog product, changing the way the industry interacts with its own history.
Music business veteran Jeff Rougvie, formerly vice president of special projects for Ryko, had a front-row seat for that revolution. On Thursday at Cinema Salem, he’ll present an illustrated lecture, “Bowie/Rykodisc/Salem: The Untold Story,” with Boston band the Daily Pravda on hand to play a set of classic Bowie covers. We got a preview during a recent interview at Rougvie’s Salem office.
Q. What was Ryko like in the early years?
A. The Ryko thing was — in the early days in ’84, when the first CDs came out — all weird stuff. It was cool, because most of the stuff on CD was really mainstream, kind of boring; Ryko was putting out weird stuff, partly because that was all we could get our hands on. The majors didn’t want to license stuff to anybody. They were afraid it would turn into a big thing and they’d lose their phoney-baloney jobs.
The first thing we did was we went after [Frank] Zappa, who owned his catalog but had a deal with EMI at that point. We said we were interested, and he was really excited. He was really into technology, had just gotten into digital and was getting very excited about it. That was the first thing that really put us on the map in a big way.
After that, the Hendrix estate called — they needed to reestablish Hendrix as the legend that he should have been. At that point, the only people that remembered Hendrix were getting too old. [The Hendrix estate] had this Winterland concert, they had found the multitrack [recordings], it sounded amazing, and it was basically structured to be a CD. They felt that if they had gone to Warner Bros., who they traditionally worked with, Warner wasn’t going to make it a priority. But for Rykodisc, it was like, whoa, this is big. I thought, This is going to change our fortunes in a big way. And it did.
Q. When did the Bowie-Ryko relationship start?
A. It starts in early ’87, ’88, when we found out he was looking for a home for his catalog. He had been signed to RCA from the early ’70s through the beginning of the ’80s, through “Scary Monsters.” The rights stayed with them for a while, but like a lot of artists that worked with Ryko, [the contracts] were licensing deals — not signed, “we own your masters” kind of deals.
We found out the rights were available, and we aggressively started pursuing them. We were a little label that was making a little bit of noise, and he liked what he saw. It was ’89 before he decided and finally signed. It was almost two years of chasing, and they weren’t great years for him, because he was artistically not in a good place.
Q. Was that before Bowie began his band Tin Machine?
A. Tin Machine came out right around the time we signed the deal. He finished the record; we had no idea about Tin Machine, and they sort of told us as we signed him. That summer was all about Tin Machine, and trying to catch up with him while he was on the road with them.
“Tin Machine” came out and you could tell that he was trying to find his feet again after the ’80s. He became “Regular Bowie” — instead of changing all the time, he was just like, “here I am, regular guy.” MTV made him huge, and he kind of rode with that for a while. And by the end of the ’80s, he was like, “What did I do? I need to get some danger back in my existence.”
I think that was the beginning for him of, “I’ve got to jump-start my creative energy.” You don’t necessarily think, “I’m going to restart my creative energy by revisiting my past”; for a lot of artists that wouldn’t be the way to go. But for him, it was not only a chance to be reevaluated publicly, but for him to go back and listen to those records himself in a different way — and to sort of have to do it, in order to decide what to let us use. I think it was really good for him in a lot of ways.
JEFF ROUGVIE: Bowie/Rykodisc/Salem: The Untold Story
With the Daily Pravda. At CinemaSalem, Salem, May 12 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets: $12. www.facebook.com/events/622760374540568