Among the multiple-Grammy winners at last month's ceremony were Bruce Springsteen, Norah Jones, and -- get out your reference books -- Charley Patton, the king of Delta blues, who died in 1934. Well, actually, the awards (Best Historical Album, Best Boxed Set, and Best Album Notes) went to the late John Fahey's Revenant label, which released the seven-CD boxed set Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton. Unfortunately, with the anthology tipping the scales at $170, most of us will be left drooling on the display case.
But roots fans have an affordable alternative. If there were an award for Best Boxed-Set Deal, it would go to London's JSP Records, which recently reissued the complete remastered works of Patton -- on five CDs -- for under $30. JSP is just one of a number of(largely European) labels releasing classic American recordings at rock-bottom prices. These collections of blues, jazz, and country are packaged in simple cardboard slipcases, but the liner notes are informative and the sound quality is remarkable. So how do they do it?
''Manufacturing costs for CDs have steadily dropped over the past decade, and I realized it was possible to produce a set of five CDs for what it had cost to make one or two,'' says JSP label head John Stedman, who notes that foreign copyright laws can also reduce expenses. He and remastering engineers John R.T. Davies and Ted Kendall put out their first boxed set in '99. Though the numbers aren't huge, JSP has enjoyed ''a steady stream of sales.''
While labels like Revenant are targeting completists by including multiple alternate takes, Stedman says JSP provides ''affordable, quality reissues for the casual listener.'' His model also offers a solution to the threat facing all record companies: the Internet. JSP's sets are such a bargain, why spend time downloading the 100 songs, artwork, and liner notes when you can buy them for just $25 to $30? After all, time is money, and isn't it better to spend less of both getting your music?