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Diggin’ Beyond the Crates

The Numero Group has become the world's greatest reissue label by tirelessly chasing dead-ends, following every detour, and ringing doorbells at their own risk. DAVID PEISNER trails the label's founders through Louisiana as they sniff mold, rifle through trash, and maybe expose a few lost geniuses.

Numero is hardly the only label out there hunting for and reissuing long-lost music. Boutique labels like Light in the Attic, Now-Again, Honest Jon’s, Soundway, Norton, Sundazed, and Jazzman are engaged in similar work, often with their own unique focuses.

“Certain labels have discovered an incredibly loyal demographic for their releases,” says Sundazed founder Bob Irwin, who also helped launch Sony’s reissue imprint, Legacy. “It’s not even fair to call it a niche market anymore because that’s selling it a little bit short. The business model is different. These labels’ releases are deliberately not mainstream. You’re mining something deeper, doing it with authority. The audience for those releases starts to buy not only the music you’re doing, they buy the label across the board.”

Drase, Numero’s sales director, says the label usually can break even on a single-album project by selling about 1,000 copies. Normally, they have a loyal enough customer base to do that with just about every release. The trick, says Shipley, is going from 1,000 to 5,000 in sales. “You’re in the process of convincing people this is something they want to own,” he says. “We’re talking about generations of people who grew up never buying CDs.”

Numero’s releases are available on iTunes but not on streaming services like Spotify. “I’m sure some of our customers want it, but it’s a bad deal,” says Sevier of Spotify. Plus, without the packaging, he says, “what would contextualize the albums in a way that is key to the appreciation? What would anybody get out of it?”

With various other labels, as well as less-scrupulous bootleggers, scouring used record stores, auctions, estate sales, and online marketplaces for music worth reissuing, Numero’s task is getting more difficult. Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, who founded Now-Again Records while he was GM of another label, Stones Throw, has recently released a compilation of funk-era love songs titled Loving on the Flipside; a three-CD box set of material by ’70s-era U.S. Army show bands called East Of Underground, and a four-CD box of the music of Zambian psych-rock band Witch. He admits that he’s been forced to focus on ever-more obscure records.

“All of the stuff that has been canonized — like deep funk, soul, and disco — has been put out,” Alapatt says. “There are very few really marvelous tracks that haven’t seen the light of day. That said, there’s always a new set of ears that goes back and hears something that was an afterthought to me that they might feel is very important.”

Of at least equal concern to those trafficking in these lavishly annotated reissues is the gradual disappearance of the people who lived through the era. That generation is dying off and there are few if any documents or newspaper reports that offer any significant information on a lot of these artists. “You have to get it from the source,” says Sevier. “It’s not like I could spend a week at the Library of Congress pulling out obscure records. Most of the stuff, before we write it down, nothing has ever been written down.”

The recordings themselves won’t last forever, either. Many master tapes have already been lost or degraded past the point of when they are of any use to anyone. Numero frequently must re-master their albums off vinyl, and that too wears out over time. “There will be a point when everything that hasn’t been converted from these physical analog states into digital states will just be destroyed through pure entropy,” says Sevier. Tapes dissolve, they’re lost in fires and floods, they’re tossed in dumpsters. “We are constantly trying to fight entropy in our lives — a new coat of paint, mowing the lawn, fixing shit. But why is it that seven-tenths of the people I talk to have had some disaster where their shit was destroyed?”

Numero has tried to stay ahead of these challenges by laying out an ever more sustainable model moving forward. They’ve been buying small publishing companies with the hopes of licensing that material for commercials, TV, films, video games, and samples. They’ve also begun to rethink their laser-like focus on one particular era. This year, they reissued the complete discography of the seminal, early-’90s slowcore band Codeine. There was some tortured discussion in the Numero offices about whether this might compromise their brand, but ultimately, as Shipley says, it was an acknowledgement that “eventually we are going to run out of road.”

“I have a great staff and a great way to make records,” says Shipley. “With that, we could do anything. We could do Sinatra. That’s not necessarily something I’m opposed to.”

He’s even open to the possibility that some larger entity, possibly a major label, might come in one day and scoop them up. “There’s no fantasy that we’re going to all do this forever,” he says. “We’ve had that conversation. We’ve passed on two offers. I don’t know what the end is right now, but I know I won’t do this for the rest of my life. I would have no problem letting it go.”