In an era when musicians earn notoriously scant money from dominant digital streaming services such as Spotify, a new point of frustration is emerging for Minnesota rock acts — the unavailability of music that fans actually want to buy.
Duluth band Low recently aired its grievances with industry giant Universal Music Group (UMG) over rights to its first three albums, which have long been out of print in vinyl and CD formats.
Low frontman Alan Sparhawk wants Universal to reissue the recordings or give up rights so another company can. Adding urgency to his cause: He can no longer make money as a touring artist after the death of his wife and bandmate Mimi Parker from cancer in November.
Low originally signed with the smaller label Vernon Yard Recordings in 1994. For a small advance payment, which Sparhawk called "tiny," the band gave Vernon Yard ownership of its master recordings "in perpetuity." Vernon Yard became UMG property through corporate mergers in the 2000s.
For many years, Universal has ignored or denied Low's requests to release its recordings.
"We get the runaround and end up nowhere," Sparhawk said in a Twitter thread that made headlines on music news websites and prompted fans to start a Change.org petition last week.
Such complaints are commonplace for many acts that came up through the late 1980s and early 1990s underground and indie-rock scene. Corporations such as Universal, Sony and Warner Bros. scooped up record contracts in that era, hoping to land the next Nirvana.
Even with the resurgence of vinyl sales four decades later, many '90s albums that didn't break big are now seen as too small to concern their corporate owners.
"Smaller groups like us don't have the pull to renegotiate," Sparhawk said. "We are hardly worth sending the intern to the warehouse for."
Another Minnesota rock band, the Jayhawks, saw ownership of their best-known 1990s albums bounce from Sony to UMG in 2012 via corporate wrangling. While Sony reissued the albums in the early 2010s — with bonus tracks and extra liner notes — UMG has not seemed as interested in keeping Jayhawks albums in stock, especially on CD, which is still a popular enough format to generate revenue for smaller acts.
"It just seems weird that the five Jayhawks major-label titles are out of print on CD," said the Jayhawks' manager, PD Larson.
The Jayhawks' best-known '90s albums, "Hollywood Town Hall" and "Tomorrow the Green Grass," were also out of stock on vinyl for about a year until Universal manufactured more copies in late 2022 — prompting the band to order some to sell via its own online store.
"They've been selling well, largely because of pent-up demand, which I was fully aware of from monitoring the secondary markets," Larson said.
They sold too well, it turns out. "I just went to reorder and [they're] out of stock again," Larson said.
"That's life dealing with the world's largest record company."
Live in hope
The members of Trip Shakespeare, including some who later recorded for Universal-owned MCA Records with Semisonic, were able to reissue their first two independently made late-'80s albums via the collectors label Omnivore in 2014. But the Twin Cities rockers' latter two LPs for A&M Records (now UMG property) have become rarities.
"It has been a pain," said Trip/Semisonic bassist John Munson, who also fears those records may never be reissued because of a disastrous fire in Universal's Los Angeles warehouse in 2008 that destroyed thousands of artists' master recordings.
"It's unlikely that we will ever be able to remix or remaster or anything like that without the actual masters."
Some of Minnesota's best-known rock acts from that era, however, have enjoyed better luck with other corporations.
After their two remaining members' well-received reunion tour from 2013-2015, the Replacements have seen three of their '80s albums reissued as deluxe editions with bonus material by their old label, Warner Bros./Rhino Records.
Hüsker Dü's camp also is happy with Warner's treatment of its '80s albums. The band actually has faced more difficulty dealing with the famed punk label it worked with before Warner, SST Records, but even those albums are still widely available.
"We're also blessed that most everything Hüsker Dü ever released is still in print," said Dennis Pelowski, a Minneapolis entertainment lawyer who helped the band negotiate rights for its 2017 box set "Savage Young Dü" via the collectors label Numero.
"We loved it and hope there's a chance to do more."
Few major artists regain the rights to their master recordings in contracts they signed as young artists. Prince was one of the few, and it took his "Slave" face paint and "Artist Formally Known As …" stunts and years of financial negotiations to do so.
One unnamed executive at a major record company flatly told Billboard in 2017, "We are not in the business of giving our masters back to artists."
For Low's bandleader, whose debut album was titled "I Could Live in Hope," there's at least one new reason to keep hope. The Change.org petition calling for Universal to free up Low's albums crossed the 5,000-signatures line in just three days.
"Owning someone else's art and keeping it unavailable is wrong," wrote one of the petition signers.
Another reason to be optimistic: The cheapest vinyl copy of Low's debut LP on the popular record collectors' site Discogs.com last week was priced at $450, a sure sign of high demand. That's after the band enjoyed some of the best reviews of its three-decade career with its 2021 album for Sub Pop Records, "Hey What," which Rolling Stone named one of the best of the year.
Low's albums are steady sellers at Minneapolis' preeminent indie record store the Electric Fetus, manager Bob Fuchs said. "Anytime one of their older albums comes in used, which isn't often, it's usually gone in a day or two," he said.
"If they were able to get just 3,000 new copies of one of those records printed on vinyl, I'm sure they'd sell well, and it'd be a good payday for them. A band like that that's been grinding it out for so long in the music industry, they deserve it."
UMG media representatives did not respond to requests for comment on the petition or the band's complaints. As of last week, the company also had not responded to Sparhawk or Low representatives, who reached out after the Twitter thread gained traction.
"Maybe a little public pressure will change their mind," Sparhawk posted after the online petition was started. "We don't know what else to do."