Sort of. According to an article in the New York Times, in 2011, digital downloads outstripped physical album sales in the U.S. for the first time: 50.3% of last year’s recorded music sales were digital. This probably has no special signficance for calypso. While there has been a tiny niche market in the U.S. for historical calypso ever since the concoction of the “world music” marketing category in the mid-1980s, it’s already been more than a decade since, say, Rounder, issued a new compilation.
And yet the last year or so has seen a spate of new, digital-only releases on previously unknown “labels.” It started in 2009 with collections of orphaned and out-of-print material by Kitch, the Duke of Iron, and Houdini on Radiophone Archives, whose latest addition is a covers album of Radio’s “Man Smart, Woman Smarter.” No liner notes or discographical information, sadly, but at least there’s a logic to the collections, and some obvious care taken in the selection (many tracks never before seen on CD), the transfers, the artwork, etc. In other words, they were put together by someone who loves the music and knows something about it. (Out of respect for that person’s privacy—and the inanities of U.S. copyright law and its zealous enforcers—I’ll not divulge the secret of his/her identity.)
Less impressive: the grey-market Master Classics, whose half-dozen offerings include a collection of vintage calypso seemingly nicked from Rounder, and what looks to be a straight rip-off of Sacred 78s, an out-of-print Roaring Lion compilation on Ice Records. (Okay, so Eddy Grant’s own licensing arrangements were always rumored to be dodgy, too, so what’s good for the goose….)
More apparent piracy, but on a grander scale, from Black Round Records, whose 15 calypso collections—three of them devoted to single artists (Houdini, Lancelot, Melody) and one, oddly, a Panther and Macbeth double-bill—borrow freely from a number of other labels. (They take even greater liberties with dating, attribution, and spelling.) Cynical, haphazard, uninformed.
Let’s be clear: most of this material is either orphaned or in the public domain (or it would be, if Congress, at the behest of Disney and its ilk, didn’t keep extending copyrights whenever they’re just about to expire). Better it should be available in any form, however shoddy, rather than languishing in some hapless record company’s vaults or on a hoarder-collector’s climate-conditioned shelves. Given the small market and the digital aggregators’ fees, I can’t imagine anyone is making a fortune off of these, even at 79¢ a track—and nobody’s losing valuable royalties, either. (Most of the above links are to eMusic, by the way, only because I’ve been a subscriber there through thick, thin, and thinner. But the digi-labels distribute to all the other usual online suspects, too.) But come on, folks: follow Radiophone Archives’ example. Do your own transfers and noise reduction, for godssakes; don’t steal someone else’s work. And don’t be so damn slapdash.