I’ve embarked on an experiment recently, and the results are interesting.

I’ve always liked the Rolling Stones. I’ve had it on my to do list for some time now to amass a complete collection of Rolling Stones material, preferrably on CD of course. Rather, this has been on my “to do once I’m rich” list, since devoting the type of funds neccessary for that type of excercise has proven elusive. Besides, in this day and age, we have MP3.

Prior to, say, November, MP3 was a neat thing to me – free music, who can argue with that? However, MP3’s were a pain, and not just in the acquisition process. I would download 650MB or so of MP3 and burn them to a CD-R. Then I would burn CD’s of the albums on those CD-R’s to more CD’s. For a CD-R with 11 60 minute albums, this would take up 12 CD’s. Besides taking a lot of time and resources, it was disheartening to only then discover that a lot of the music wasn’t even worth the $.25 a blank CD cost. This all changed when I got my car MP3 player – suddenly my CD consumption was divided by 12 and my entire music collection could fit on a spindle in that island thing between the seats.

So I figure several months back (even before the car player, back when it was just an idea) that I can download the entire Rolling Stones discography on MP3. This is daunting to say the least. For starters, you have to define how narrow a discography you’re referring to. In the late 1980’s a German individual wrote a book on the Stones discography, chronicling every single, every album, every release in every language and every country ever released – it clocked in at 530+ pages of Bible-sized print. Obviously you wouldn’t be too interested in what “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” looked like when it was released in Korea, but it gives you an idea of the mass of this material.

For example, I have a CD-R of every Led Zeppelin song ever made. Led Zeppelin released nine studio albums and one live album during their career – ten releases in all. Four songs found their way to boxed set releases (only one of which was a true studio track) and a 2-CD BBC Sessions was released a few years back. That’s it. Short of bootlegs, nothing else was ever released, so collecting a complete collection of Zeppelin is easy. In fact, I owned all of the CD’s involved and ripped them myself. Zeppelin was only around from 1969-1980, so they spanned one paradigm – that of releasing albums and not placing extra content on singles (very often).

The Rolling Stones, however, have been together since 1962 – this year marks their fortieth anniversary, and makes them quite possibly the longest running group ever. Back when they started out, however, you didn’t release albums. The business model back then was to release singles – 45’s to be exact. These records were cut on wax instead of vinyl. There was literally a clause in the contract for the artist to give up 15% of their royalties as a “breakage fee” to cover the 15% or so of the records that would be broken by the time they got to the stores (maddeningly, this clause is still in most new recording contracts, despite the problem having gone away close to thirty years ago). Any albums that were released back then were merely compilations of the singles that sold well. Consequently the Stones didn’t have an album release until 1964, and the first albums that were released were named things like Profile: England’s Newest Hit Makers! and 12 X 5 (12 hits by the 5 members of the group), so they don’t really work as “albums” so much as “smatterings of random songs”.

In addition, different versions of the same album with slightly different song lineups and running order were released on the opposite sides of the pond in those early releases – it wasn’t until 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request (yeah yeah I know – the title) when the albums were the same in the US and the UK. Some songs on UK albums were never released on US albums and vice versa, so the only way to get them is to also have the compilations that do have them, meaning lots of overlap. In addition, sometimes slightly different mixes of songs existed in various regions, making the collection bit more complicated. And only in 1982 or so did they start releasing CD’s.

The Stones were signed to ABCKO Records originally, they jumped from them in 1970. ABCKO decided to shove most of their Stones content onto CD’s, but at that time the process was far from perfect and most of these releases were considered terrible. They have since “done it right” and have released “proper” CD’s, but many of these original releases still exist in stores (they weren’t defective per se, so they were never recalled – you’d be surprised how long CD’s linger in record stores). “The Rolling Stones” own everything they’ve done since 1970 and they’ve been on several labels over the years. Nearly every time they change labels the label decides to take advantage of the fact that they now have access to a good catalog of old CD’s and they go re-release all the old Stones albums. Since they don’t neccessarily get to have access to the digital remastered version the previous label put together (at that label’s expense), they remaster it again themselves – this way they can put that “newly remastered” label on their release. The problem with this is that it leaves a lot of room for songs to sound different from remix to remix, and – get this – many affectionados have noticed longer (or shorter) fadeout times on many of the songs, meaning for any given studio track there are dozens of possible versions, depending on whom you listen to. On the plus side, the 1994 Virgin (the current Stones label) re-releases featured neat “mini vinyl” recreations of the original packaging – the Sticky Fingers packaging even had the zipper back, though obviously way off scale.

The down side of all of this lies in the fact that it’s impossible to tell which version of any song you’ll get when you download an MP3 version. But oh well.

Some songs have never been on CD – they’ve only been on vinyl. 1996’s Rock & Roll Circus (companion piece to a long-shelved Stones TV show) was the first ever Stones release to not have a vinyl counterpart. I was able to download some albums from newsgroups, and some others from FTP sites, but for the longest time I was unable to get anywhere near a complete collection. Newsgroups are OK, but rarely did anyone actially fill my requests.

Then recently I started downloading KISS albums, spurned upon by a recent fascination with them due to their excellent boxed set and a Behind the Music special where I decided Gene Simmons was too cool to live. Suddenly, I got very close to a complete collection of KISS albums, where the main problem was the fact that KISS has simply had too many compilation albums over the years, so collecting any of them would be foolish. In my quest to download the rest I found a fairly good FTP site with a decent ratio – he had the early albums, I had the late albums – we worked well and he didn’t kick me off. Then I also noticed he had a ton of Stones albums, so I kept on trading.

Last week I finally had a complete enough collection to burn to CD, so I did. Interesting to say the least – I now have hours upon hours of music. I made all the MP3’s 128k, since that’s good enough for me and it allows for more songs per CD. I went through with Renamer, the coolest renaming utility ever, and renamed each file en masse to properly work in my car player. I also named the directories with a year number first (and a dash and a number for years with multiple years) to make the entire experience chronological.

It’s weird to hear old Stones when I’ve heard so much of their recent work. It’s also weird to have less knowledge of when one album begins and the other ends. It’s disappointing to not have the aesthetics of the packaging/cover art, etc. But it’s great to have the major discographies of the Stones and KISS wherever I go.