Tuesday, August 21, 2018

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set By... Linda Ronstadt

Essay By Curt Alliaume

Okay, let’s take a look at a living, albeit retired, artist. This is a case where I bought an album, which sent me down the rabbit hole.

On Friday, I found a copy of a Linda Ronstadt two-CD best-of, Just One Look: Classic Linda Ronstadt – used at my local library. (Naperville’s library system is a great place to get library copies of CDs, DVDs, and books they no longer want to keep in stock; it used to be a great place for people to donate their old materials too, but with Half-Price Books having opened a location two blocks away from the main branch, that’s no longer as prevalent. Remarkably, however, this was a donation copy.) Anyway, I paid my dollar before I looked at the track listing – and discovered it was, uh, spotty. 30 songs over two discs (clocking in at a little less than 100 minutes, which leaves a lot of unused space), and missing the following top 20 hits: “When Will I Be Loved,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Back in the U.S.A.,” “Ooh Baby Baby,” and “Somewhere Out There” with James Ingram. Meanwhile, it contains five songs from Get Closer, which is a favorite album of mine, but her only album over a 15-year period not to go platinum (also, they left off my all-time favorite Ronstadt song, “Easy for You to Say”), and four from Winter Light, a not particularly successful 1993 release that was somewhat influenced by new age music popular at the time, such as Enya.

So I started doing a little digging. Ronstadt, as almost everyone knows, is now retired; she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012 and cannot sing. (That may mean she can’t sing the way she could, given the havoc Parkinson’s plays with muscle and nerve control. There’s a video on YouTube of one of her performances in 2009, and she still sounds fine to me, but it’s certainly her decision to call it a day if she doesn’t feel she can match her standards.) Here’s a 2013 article from The New York Times that coincided with the release of her autobiography that gives some of the details.

The challenge for Ronstadt now is financial; I’m not saying she’s flat broke (it was estimated she made $12 million in 1978, which would be roughly $45 million today, and I’m pretty sure she had some smart business managers to invest properly), but the economics of the music industry have changed greatly over the past half century, and as she notes in the Times article, artists like her have not benefitted from these changes. They used to make a lot of money with sales of recorded music, but that’s not necessarily the case anymore. For one thing, single albums in 1978 had a list price of $7.98 or $8.98 – that’s between 30 and 34 dollars today. Even if you paid half of list price in 1978 (which was possible if you shopped smartly – R.I.P. Korvette’s!), that’s still fifteen to seventeen dollars, and that’s still more than I shell out now for a download. (And don’t forget used CDs are much more reliable than used vinyl was in that time period.) So the artists aren’t getting big-money contracts with lots of up-front money, and the heritage artists aren’t getting as much in royalties – unless they also wrote the songs (in the Times article, Ronstadt references that). Which is great for songwriters – some of whom were singer-songwriters, and figured that out up front. Take a look at releases by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles – on their 1965 album Going to a Go-Go, not only does Smokey write eleven of the twelve songs (which included four top 20 hits), he had other members of the group cowrite the songs with him so they could bring in some money too. Pete Moore cowrote seven songs, Marv Tarplin three, and Bobby Rogers and Ronnie White two apiece.

Anyway, Ronstadt’s not a songwriter – she’s cowritten three songs throughout her long career, two of which are on 1976’s Hasten Down the Wind, and the other is the title track on Winter Light. (I’m not sure why she took 17 years to write more music; it’s possible that since Hasten Down the Wind didn’t yield any top 10 singles, her producer Peter Asher may have been looking for more outside material as a result.) So she can’t bring in money that way. Which brings me to the other way veteran musicians bring in money today – tour, tour, tour. No big deal – artists toured in 1978, too – but here’s where the numbers reverse. For example, here’s a picture of a Ronstadt ticket stub from August 1978, at Centennial Hall in Toledo, OH, which seated 10,000 for concerts at the time.
This was a floor seat for $8.50 – which would be about $32.50 today. For a comparable, I’ve researched tickets for Fleetwood Mac’s current tour, and their stop at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH (which seats 20,000, but that’s as close as I could get) has a floor seat price of $199.50. Slight difference, huh? As a result, you’ve got artists who are are as old as Fleetwood Mac (Christine McVie, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and Stevie Nicks are all between 70 and 75) or older on the boards – Gordon Lightfoot is on tour, and he turns 80 in November. Some artists take up residency in Vegas (Celine Dion, Britney Spears); Billy Joel does regularly scheduled concerts at Madison Square Garden (where he can commute from his Long Island home via helicopter). Again, this is a gravy train Ronstadt is unable to catch.

In short, economics of the industry stink for Linda Ronstadt (and, no doubt, other heritage artists who weren’t big songwriters and can’t tour for one reason or another).  So, going back to greatest hits sets and given all these factors, here’s what I would choose first.

Just One Look: Classic Linda Ronstadt

Yeah, I know – I still think the song selection is lousy. John Boylan, who did the compilation for the album, has been part of Ronstadt’s career for years (he produced Don’t Cry Now for her back in 1973, and has been her manager since 2000), must have had his reasons for these songs (it’s also possible Ronstadt herself may have helped select some of the songs), but leaving off the hits I mentioned previously is a headscratcher. Still, it’s a pretty decent buy for $13.61 on CD and $14.49 for the Amazon download ($14.99 on iTunes) – and it does contain “Winter Light,” so Ronstadt gets songwriting royalties.

The problem is Elektra has let Ronstadt’s catalog go fallow – so there aren’t a lot of other options easily available. Here is what’s been released over the years (links to to the Wikipedia entries).

Different Drum (1974) – single LP released by Capitol right after her first release on her next label, Asylum Records (Elektra Records owns Asylum, and moved most artists to the Elektra label in the late 1980s); apparently someone realized she owed Capitol another album later in that year, which became Heart Like a Wheel. Half of the songs are from Ronstadt’s first band, The Stone Poneys (including the big hit “Different Drum” and minor followup “Up to My Neck in High Muddy Water”), the other half are from her first three solo albums. Inexplicably put back in print on CD in 1995 (despite having one ugly cover), now out of print and unavailable for download. You’re not missing anything.

Linda Ronstadt’s Greatest Hits (1976) – this, on the other hand, has sold seven million copies. This combines Asylum and Capitol material (and “Different Drum” is included), and all the major hits of her career to that point are included. Obviously not all-encompassing, and unavailable for download, but a bargain at $4.99 for the CD (you probably paid $4.99 for your vinyl copy way back when).

A Retrospective (1977) – Capitol must have decided they needed a better best-of from the years Ronstadt was on the label than Different Drum, so this two-LP set came out four months after Greatest Hits. It picks what’s worth picking off her four studio albums with the label, and sprinkles in some Stone Poneys material. Long out of print, and I don’t think it ever came out on CD, much less for download. I have this on vinyl, but I haven’t listened to it in… well, a long, long time.

Linda Ronstadt’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2 (1980) – It’s not easy to come up with a new greatest hits set four years and three albums after the last one, but Elektra/Asylum managed. All the singles from those three albums (Simple Dreams, Living in the U.S.A., Mad Love) are here, along with the leftover minor hit “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me.” Same cover design as the previous greatest hits album too, except in blue (I wonder if the designer charged full price). $7.56 for the CD on Amazon with no downloads available – it looks like Amazon is clearing out inventory on this one.

Round Midnight With Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra (1986) – omnibus of the three albums of standards Ronstadt did with Nelson Riddle. Elektra executives thought this would ruin her career; instead they all went platinum, with What’s New becoming one of her three best-selling studio albums along with Simple Dreams and Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind. Out of print on CD and vinyl, but $18.99 for the download on Amazon ($19.99 on iTunes), and since the three individual albums are considerably more if you get them all (about $27.60 on Amazon, $29.97 on iTunes), getting them all in this format makes a lot more sense. Also available on Spotify.

The Linda Ronstadt Box Set (1998) – how many focus groups did it take to come up with that title? Anyway, really a missed opportunity – I would have made the first two discs her rock and country years (with the hits, but lots of album tracks and live versions – how is it Ronstadt never made a live album?), with the third disc sticking with the standards and the fourth her Spanish-language and Trios work (with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris). Unfortunately, Elektra didn’t consult me, so we get something like that, but with less hits, a disc of “duets” (some of which are the Trios songs, others weren’t billed as duets when they were originally released), and a disc of rare material (which means, apparently, stuff that wasn’t on her studio albums). Sometimes songs are rare for a reason, I guess. Anyway, out of print and unavailable for download.

The Best of Linda Ronstadt (2002) – not anymore, apparently. The best-chosen one-disc option (the only major hit missing from here is 1980’s “How Do I Make You,” from her seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time new wave-tinged Mad Love), and it even includes “Winter Light.” But it’s out of print and unavailable for download, at least in the United States (apparently it’s still available in Europe and Australia).

Mi Jardin Azul: Las Canciones Favoritas (2004) – a best-of from her three Spanish-language albums, plus two songs from other discs (including “Lo Siento Mi Vida,” another song she cowrote, from Hasten Down the Wind). Not my cup of tea necessarily, but others will want this. $11.49 for the download on Amazon and $11.99 on iTunes, $63.55 for the disc on Amazon (again, they’re probably getting rid of inventory). Available on Spotify.

The Best of Linda Ronstadt: The Capitol Years (2006) – a misnomer; it’s actually everything from her four solo albums on the label (no Stone Poneys here), not the “best” of those years. Still, 46 songs over two albums is a bargain, although these are more country and less pop than most listeners would expect. $15.41 for the two-disc set on Amazon, $14.49 for the download there and $14.99 on iTunes. Available on Spotify.

Linda Ronstadt Greatest Hits I & II (2007) – This seems fairly obvious; the two best-selling greatest hits albums combined on one disk (they fit with no cuts), and again the same design (this time with a green background). Obviously missing anything released after Mad Love, and unavailable for download (and I think it’s actually an import), otherwise this would get my recommendation. $11.42 for the disc on Amazon, but their price on this seems to change daily (I remember it being under ten dollars last week).

The Collection (2011) – same as The Best of Linda Ronstadttwo discs, well selected, out of print and unavailable for download.

Original Album Series (2012) – this is like the ‘70s Collection below, except it trades out her first Asylum album, Don’t Cry Now, for Mad Love, which has more hits but doesn’t really fit well with the others. Still, it has two songs she wrote (“Lo Siento Mi Vida” and “Try Me Again”), except I’m not sure how these omnibus album sets work with royalties. $17.27 for five discs, no download option, on Amazon. All five albums are available individually on Spotify.

Duets (2014) – obviously a bunch of the duets Ronstadt performed across her career. Probably a good place to sample the songs she recorded with Ann Savoy in 2006, and her duet with Frank Sinatra on “Moonlight in Vermont” is nice to have (it was only on his Duets album), as is “Sisters” with Bette Midler (only on Midler’s Rosemary Clooney songbook CD). It would have been nice to hear “An American Dream,” though – her performance with The Dirt Band wasn’t billed as a duet, but might as well have been. Not a necessity, but an inexpensive option with a few hits. $9.49 for the download on Amazon ($8.75 for the disc), $9.99 on iTunes. Available on Spotify.

The ‘70s Collection, The ‘80s Collection and The ‘90s Collection (all 2014) – Elektra/Asylum’s way to make sure you have all of the albums from each decade. ‘70s has five albums, ‘80s seven, and ‘90s six, but the pricing isn’t per original disc, so ‘80s is actually the biggest bang for the buck (of course, that depends on how you feel about the standards and Spanish-language albums). ‘70s is $39.99, ‘80s is $49.99, and ‘90s is $44.99, all on iTunes – I don’t see them on Amazon. All are available on Spotify.

Greatest Hits (2015) – released the same day as Just One Look, and it’s a one-disc distillation of that album (so, no album cuts other than “Winter Light”). This also means it’s missing the same hits as Just One Look, which makes me question why anyone would need it - if you’re going to release two hits sets simultaneously, wouldn’t it make sense to make them different from one another? Oddly, there’s no physical disk package (maybe that’s why they made the two similar – even the cover designs look like they’re supposed to be a matched set), but $9.49 for the download on Amazon, $9.99 on iTunes. Available on Spotify.

The Complete Trio Collection (2016) – this does for the Trios discs with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton what Round Midnight did for the Nelson Riddle albums – puts them all in one place. This also includes a disc of unreleased versions and alternate takes, bringing it up to three discs. However, this set is more expensive than the two Trios discs are individually, so you’re paying for those alternate takes. $21.89 for the discs and $23.99 for the download on Amazon, $24.99 for the download on iTunes. Available on Spotify.

Other “If You’re Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From…” Blog Posts:

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