Rhino Records: 1973 – 2009 (Updated)

Update: Rhino claims the reports of its demise were an exaggeration.

RhinoWe’ve all taken a great deal of pleasure in pissing on the death bed of the major labels in recent years, and we’ve all unashamedly gawked at the grotesque spectacle of ever-decreasing sales of physical media. But now, the reality of the situation is hitting home. Rhino Records is dead.

Sure, Warner says that Rhino will evolve into an entity that “handles WMG’s global digital catalog initiatives, film, TV, vidgame and commercial licensing, and name and likeness representation for legendary artists.” But they laid off most [a bunch] of their employees. Why? Because of the “fundamental transformation of the physical new release and catalog business.” Which translates to no more awesome box sets with crazy, unique packaging and informative, well-written, well-researched liner notes.

And that’s just really fucking sad.


Some will suggest that times have changed and people no longer need all the “trappings” anymore. It’s all about the music, right? Who cares about the stupid packaging?

I do.

Or at least I used to. To be perfectly honest, it’s been a while since I’ve bought a Rhino box. The last one I had any real interest in was 2005’s Girl Group box, One Kiss Can Lead to Another, packaged in a fancy pink hat box. But I passed on it. I didn’t want to have to figure out where to store that hat box. Besides, I listen to 90% of my music on my computer and on my phone now. Me and the rest of the world, apparently.

There was a period of time, a decade or so, when I would ask for and receive a new Rhino box for my birthday every year. This lasted up until 2004’s Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the ’80s Underground, but in that time I got The Doo Wop Box (1994), the Nuggets box (1998), Loud, Fast & Out Of Control (1999), the British Nuggets box (2001), and others.

The best though was Beg, Scream & Shout!: The Big Ol’ Box Of ’60s Soul, an amazing six-disc collection of the original 7″ mixes of 144 soul singles by 144 different artists. For just one example, the version of the Jackson 5’s “Who’s Loving You” is totally different from the otherwise anthologized stereo, album version. And it’s awesome. The whole thing came in an old school record box with each cd in a mockup 45 sleeve. There was a little box of 144 “collector cards” with information about each of the artists. It’s a work of art and a glory to behold.

When’s the last time you felt that way about an MP3?

RNOP-001

If you look at Rhino’s history, you can trace the different eras…and see exactly when it all went downhill.

Rhino started as a record store in 1973, but by the ’80s had already gained a reputation for excellent quality reissues. From 1986-1992, they had a distribution deal with Capitol Records. This was the period when I first discovered them as I completed my Monkees discography with the help of their reissued vinyl. As I got into CDs, I knew I could always count on a Rhino release to have at least 18 songs and informative liner notes. Back then I didn’t know or care about audio fidelity, but Rhino discs always sounded great. Nancy Sinatra, Tommy James & the Shondells, Legends of Guitar: Surf, Vol. 1. Rhino was my teacher in my quest for knowledge about the history of rock and roll.

Then in 1992, Time Warner bought a 50% stake in the company. This was the period of the amazing box sets. They bought the other half in 1998, and in 2003, the founders of the company left and started Shout Factory. If you’re looking through your record collection and notice that your Rhino stuff stops around this time, now you know why. To make matters worse, in 2007 they fired Bill Inglot, the mastering engineer responsible for 20 years of the high fidelity that was the foundation of Rhino’s reputation.

But regardless of the corporate decisions that led Rhino down this path, it’s still sad to see it end up this way. Thank you, Rhino, for all the great music. Your care and respect for the music and for the customer was obvious, and you had a huge effect on my life. You will be missed.

22 thoughts on “Rhino Records: 1973 – 2009 (Updated)”

  1. This is some sad news indeed.

    I remember writing a paper my freshman year of college about why Rhino would be able to withstand the internet and digital distribution. I had dreams of one day working for the label.

    My heart is little bit broken today. R.I.P. Rhino and thanks for directing me to so many great tunes.

  2. Just a couple days ago, Rhino producer Andrew Sandoval gave an interview to LA Weekly wherein he discussed the end of the box set era.

    When people say the music industry is challenged, that’s kind of like the manager from Spinal Tap saying, ‘Our appeal is becoming more selective.’ We’re more than challenged. I mean, things are just falling about because not only is there not enough money to keep things going, but people are saying, why should we even put out old catalog? It’s not going to do X amount of dollars.

    You mean on CD?

    Yeah, or even online. There’s this long-tail theory that everything will find it’s audience, which may be true, but, then again, in order to have everything up online, you’d have to employ people, and the amount of money that comes in to do all that is not enough to employ somebody. […]

    Do you feel like we’re nearing the end of the box set era?

    We really could be, because it seems like people have tuned out to buying music at retail. I mean, if you go into Amoeba, you’d probably think otherwise because there are so many people there and it’s such a destination. But when you think that LA used to have a ton of record stores, and now it’s down to, really, just one major one. It’s hard to say. If the sales slide off. I like the idea of this because there’s so much value to it that is beyond just the music, so people can’t just say, well, I’ve got all of those songs, or I could download this or that. There’s a value in having the book with it. You try and do that.

    But my biggest worry is that, I know how many stores have taken this, and I can see it sitting there in its shrink-wrap with its price tag, and it’s not free. If nobody ever gets to crack one of these open and see what’s inside, that’s the nightmare. That it just sits there like a book at the library that never gets read. I want people to know about this music and these groups.

    Such a bummer.

  3. Damn. I find this out minutes after receiving the Big Star box set (from Rhino) in the mail.

    Over the last few years, I’ve stopped buying cds unless it’s something really worth having. I tend to purchase new releases on vinyl, if available. But Rhino was one of the few remaining companies releasing cds/box sets that I occasionally bought. Rhino understood–even better than most indie labels–the whole record nerd mentality, and packaged accordingly. I’ll miss them.

  4. Dear Jake,

    Sorry to disappoint but Rhino is NOT dead. I know because I’ve been with the company for 17 years and I’m still with the company today (as are my 100+ coworkers). Yes, we made some changes yesterday in order to better prepare ourselves for the future, but we’ve done that several times over the past decade and just like before, we will continue on and do great work. While we are well-prepared for the digital future, we also plan to keep on satisfying fans of our physical products (both CD and vinyl), we just need to fine tune the way we do it.

    http://bit.ly/1y8mUV

    dd

  5. David,

    It is very reassuring to hear from you in this forum, and to be told that it’s basically business as usual at Rhino despite the cutbacks.

    I pray this is the case and that Rhino will continue to be the standard-setting full-service record company it’s always been.

    But the language of the press release was very clipped, discouraging and doomsaying, giving a wrong impression both to the industry and consumers and providing no assurances that the Rhino we know and love would continue.

    Corporate communications really fell down on this one if you ask me. It may take a long time to undo the damage of that press release.

  6. I think what really fell down was the lack of reporting in this blog post including inaccurate statements such as “laid off most of their employees,” an irresponsible headline and the assumption that Rhino was no longer releasing physical product. I read the company statement too and didn’t make any of those assumptions. One email to Rhino and all of this could have been avoided…but alas, that takes some effort and interest in reporting facts…which could result in a less sensational post….and fewer hits…

  7. The saddest thing in all this is Jake’s admission “At least I used to.” Meaning that if someone like Jake, whose level of commitment to recorded music transcends that of anyone you know multiplied by some huge factor, has gotten to the point where he no longer buys the sorts of boxes that Rhino is known for, then arguably there is no long-tail market for those sets because he represents that portion of the graph, and now it is erased. Even assuming that Rhino remains in some semblance, the long-term outlook–and let’s face it, the long-term isn’t what it used to be–is, well, bleak.

  8. The sky is falling, the sky is falling!

    Looks like David Dorn’s post proves that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.

    Very sad when any company has to cut staff, but it isn’t always the end of the world…or in this case the label.

    Here’s hoping that Rhino can find its footing in the new world order.

  9. Updated the post with Rhino’s statement of clarification.

    Nevertheless, the word on the street is that the entire A&R department (minus one person, Mason Williams) and the art department were all let go. When asked for confirmation, Rhino SVP e-Commerce & International Catalog Strategy David Dorn would not comment on specific employees who have left or on the makeup of their staff.

  10. Fingerpoint all you want about a “lack of reporting,” but how about press releases and comments that aren’t entirely honest? When you leave a label like Rhino with only one A&R guy, that’s pretty much the same thing as calling hospice. There’s no way that a label like Rhino can operate with just one A&R person at the helm. What that means is little to no focus on cool packaging, extensive liner notes, and an obligation to create a complete musical landscape with their reissues. Instead, be on the lookout for hastly put together “reissues” with no attention to detail and a disregard to treat such audio nuggets with any real restoration.

    Here’s the thing I don’t get. Rhino didn’t turn a profit? It seems that Rhino’s core audience was the last segment that still considered compact discs as their primary format. I would think that they’d want to keep that team in place and not tinker with one of the last areas of a record company that posted a profit. Of course, if Rhino didn’t turn a profit, then that argument gets thrown out the window and anyone who relished packaging, liner notes, etc. is fucked.

  11. I bet they have a year or two of quality releases in the can, depending on how they stretch it out. After that, who knows? Maybe they’ll hire some people or outsource all the creative…

  12. David Dorn’s comments are in poor taste. Since Dorn heads Rhino’s digital imperative, he is obviously pushing an agenda rather than considering the feelings of those who just lost their jobs. These include three pregnant women, many single parents, as well as other long term employees struggling to make ends meet. For a man who owes his entire career to his father, Joel Dorn, a little more class would be in order. Alas, you cannot download class off of iTunes.

  13. @Jake: agreed. And the remaining dude running A&R there is the one responsible for the What It Is! box set from a few years ago. Simply put, one of the best box sets ever and one of the most educating too. At least the last man standing is one of integrity.

  14. I was looking through Rhino’s list of box sets to see what I’ve missed over the past five years or so, and What It Is! Funky Soul And Rare Grooves (1967-1977) definitely piqued my interest.

    That one and the 2004 Faces box are at the top of my wishlist. Oh, and the new Big Star one.

    And I didn’t realize that the Gram Parsons Complete Reprise Sessions was considered a box set. But I guess it is three discs… So then that’s the most recent Rhino box I’ve gotten.

  15. That Faces box is exemplary. Every single-artist box should be so lovingly assembled. Kudos to Ian McLagan who did the track selection and sequencing. Spring for it, Jake!

  16. Don’t be fooled by the hyperbole, Rhino as it was IS now as good as dead. Everyone that worked in A&R for the last box sets ie:, ‘Where The Action Is’/LA Nuggets, Big Star etc. was shown the door within a week or two of their release (nice touch). There is a small amount of product supposed to come out via Handmade, but beyond that it’s looking pretty desolate, as there really is no one left on the ground to do the work anymore, certainly in terms of A&R, mastering, design, artwork, any form of cool packaging…in other words, the brains and the brawn to put together Rhino releases as we knew them. Looks like they will now concentrate on the top 20 or so “brands” like The Doors etc. and relentlessly drive whatever credibility (and sales) those franchises had left into the ground.

    Rhino is poised to simply become a digital download service provider for NEW releases for the rest of Warners front line labels; the much-vaunted digital ‘long-tail’ effect for catalog turns out to be a load of baloney, as suspected, and besides- Rhino’s traditional core buyers couldn’t give a hoot about downloads anyway. Digital box sets, anybody? Isn’t that called an iTunes playlist? They certainly couldn’t carry a business just based on back catalog digital downloads, could they ? Didn’t think so.

    However it does look like they will license the hell out of everything else to whatever reissue label that has a few bucks to spend while there is any kind of physical market left in the US, in un-remastered and cheapo-cheapo CD formats, while Rhino concentrate on placing music into TV, film, video games et al and printing a few posters and T-shirts, alongside the odd been-done-a-load-of-times “Best Ofs”. Doesn’t look like much of a plan does it? What it does look like is trashing your own heritage in desperation.

    Rhino have now almost certainly made the decision to get the hell out of the physical market, period. Remember, kids, the future is ONLY about digital..

    The sad fact is, Rhino made some pretty disastrous ‘360-degree’ deals for the Sinatra and Bee Gees catalogs amongst others for huge bucks which they will NEVER recoup – but the guys who did those deals are somehow still running the ship? AND sacking the very people who know about MUSIC in the process. How does that work? Is this progress? Well, if you quantify progress as lawyers, accountants, bean counters and assorted sharks with zero imagination and zero taste ridding one of the last bastions of credibility in the music business of it’s lifeblood, and performing a quite frankly, spectacular self-lobotomy – then…yes.

    Congratulations to head honchos Scott Pascucci and Kevin Gore. Way to go, guys….but it will take way more than a press release to fix this mess.

    Rhino RIP.

    DD

  17. While they kept Mason Williams, they got rid of Cheryl Pawelski & Andrew Sandoval.

    No offense to Williams, but that’s hardly the right decision.

  18. I’m shocked! Shocked to find there’s nepotism in the record industry!

    And that the beneficiaries never, ever seem to suffer. Good to remember that all people are created equal. It’s just that some people are created more equal than others.

  19. Good RIDDANCE, great news…PASCUCCI out.

    He made the WORST deals imaginable along with KEVIN GORE and JIMMY EDWARDS.

    Get rid of those two as well….they have all totally trashed Rhino.

    What exactly will Pascucci be CONSULTING on? How to screw shit up ? How much will he be paid for that? Enough to run his midlife crisis red Lambourghini?

    Don’t even get me started on Dorn

    DD

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