In March of 1994, there was supposed to be a new album released by the band Chicago , of whom I am a fan. The album, an attempt to continue the momentum of the band as a commercial success after a Diane Warren-penned #1 hit from their previous album, was entitled “Stone of Sisyphus,” presumably because trying to keep current and stay successful after almost three decades was like Sisyphus trying to roll his massive and eponymous stone up the hill. In a controversial move, the record label refused to release it, making the project one of the most famous lost albums in history. After a 15 year delay it was finally released (missing one of its tracks), but by then Chicago was no longer a hit-making staple on radio. The project’s title had proven ironic, as record label politics had derailed their momentum.
Nor is Chicago the only band whose career has been damaged by record label politics. Perhaps the most tragic story is that of the band Badfinger. Due to some shady and illegal dealings by their manager, Badfinger, whose career had already been damaged by two labels simultaneously releasing albums, had one of its albums pulled from the shelves because of an accountant flagging their business dealings as corrupt. In despair, the band’s lead songwriter committed suicide, and a few years later more business shenanigans led the band’s other main songwriter to commit suicide . An immensely talented and successful band had been derailed by the business side of the music business. Eventually, many years later their last cd in their classic lineup was released, providing a bookend on their career , but it was far too late to undo the damage by then.
The more I kept looking at bands whose music I enjoyed, the more I found “missing albums” dogging their discography thanks to studio machinations. Take the band P.M. Dawn, famous for their pretentious but highly skilled gnostic ruminations. After four albums their album PM Dawn Loves you was shelved and has yet to come out more than ten years later . It’s easy for a record label to shelve an album when they don’t think it will sell enough to produce it, so they probably have vaults full of neglected albums.
Given the fact that even a band like Mr. Mister, famous for its 80’s arena rock anthems like “Broken Wings” and “Kyrie,” the latter of which has been turned into a memorable literal video, is also included on a list of bands whose discography has been marred by studio machinations, we have a bad trend here. Mr. Mister’s album “Pull” was delayed for 20 years because their label thought it was not commercial enough . Even if they were right, once an album is recorded it is sunk costs. Surely by now a label ought to be able to have albums released on demand, so that the really hardcore fans of a band can buy any album in a vault, no matter how non-commercial, and the label makes some money on it. Is such a thing impossible to do?
Otherwise, we end up with singers and songwriters like Semisonic’s Dan Wilson who start writing and recording solo material years before being able to release the material  because of labels refusing to release music that is already recorded as well as refusing to allow the frustrated artists or bands the freedom to find someone else who will release the material. All too often it seems like labels are possessive and jealous owners of property, refusing freedom as well as potential profits.
Most artists, after all, are not particularly mercenarial people. They want their art, whether it is writing, music, painting, or whatever else, to reach the public, they want it to be loved and appreciated by others, and they want to make a decent living while doing it. These should not be insurmountable goals. The highest costs of an album are upfront, before any money is made: music videos, advances, recording time, production, editing and mixing work. Once a label has a product, even an album they don’t like or that they think will sell all that much, it is not any further loss (and, in fact, it is a profit for the company) to release such material at least in terms that would allow for the label to recoup some costs (I’m surprised by cds on-demand from labels are not more popular), while the band gets the satisfaction of having its material released even if it doesn’t have a heavy promotional budget behind albums that a label is less than thrilled about.
There are many reasons why the music business is corrupt, but when well-loved and reasonably popular bands can’t have albums released (even on the cheap) because their labels hold the music hostage, then those people who are genuine fans of a band or musician through thick and thin lose the chance to share in what they would appreciate, all because of spite and misguided commercial snits over sunk costs. We truly have to think of a better way to help artists get content before the people than a system ruled by those obsessed with dollars and cents and utterly unaware of the value of releasing content that does not have immediate commercial viability but that helps preserve the opportunity for beneficial future relationships with quirky customers and artistic talent.