Audio Fidelity’s Marshall Blonstein Talks Music
Currently, Marshall Blonstein is owner and visionary of the increasingly important reissue label known as Audio Fidelity. Audio Fidelity began releasing superior quality 24K gold reissues, as well as an industry niche product, the SACD (Super Audio CD). But before Audio Fidelity, Marshall Blonstein forged an impressive career trajectory that started with humble beginnings in the stockroom at Dunhill Records. That soon led to a promotions position which saw him working with The Mamas and The Papas, The Grass Roots, and Ray Charles.
Eventually, as history would demand it, Blonstein teamed up with Lou Adler to launch Ode Records, which soon became home to the immensely important Tapestry album from Carole King (and other albums), as well as the notable Cheech & Chong classics. After Ode had run its course, Marshall became president of Island Records in the late ’70s, where he oversaw the talents of Robert Palmer, Bob Marley and Steve Winwood. Under his watch, Island Records achieved its first Top 10 single with Robert Palmer’s “Bad Case of Loving You.”
After a time, Blonstein started DCC Compact Classics, producing a string of highly collectible reissue titles that are still in demand today. In 2002, he started Audio Fidelity, with the intent to produce time-honored and unbeatable sound classics, much in the same mode as DCC Compact Classics had achieved.
Marshall Blonstein, at the helm of Audio Fidelity, began producing 24K gold reissues, SACDs, and original titles with both formats. Audio Fidelity has consistently produced classic reissue titles that have become important to an audiophile’s library, with high quality remastering of such titles as No Secrets (Carly Simon), Love It to Death (Alice Cooper), Mud Slide Slim (James Taylor), The Soft Parade (The Doors), Machine Head (Deep Purple), as well as Rush, Dio, and Phil Collins titles, amid many, many others. After once having abandoned the SACD because of lowered interest, Audio Fidelity is returning to the format simply because, although a niche market product, SACD refuses to be put to rest. The label returns with a special powerhouse, Close to the Edge, a progressive classic from Yes. They will also re-enter the market with an SACD of Rush’s Counterparts.
Being interested in how Audio Fidelity works and their focus on providing the best sound that can be extracted from decades-old master tapes, I interviewed Marshall Blonstein to gain new insights into where Audio Fidelity is going and what could possibly be next from his historic label. With all of the magic his label has worked, I’m particularly excited for what will come in the future.
Marshall, a few years ago, you gave MusicTAP an in-depth interview that covered not only a complete biographical overview of your long career, but also gave brief looks into the direction of music, especially SACDs, which, at the time, your company, Audio Fidelity was active in releasing. It was well-received. However, since then, changes have occurred, not only in the music industry, but also in your direction of Audio Fidelity. This is why I’m back.
At one time, SACDs seemed to be a highly coveted niche market that had an ability to satisfy the audiophile. However, the market for these seemed to dry up overnight. What happened?
When the CD first made its appearance in 1984, the look was completely different from the LP and the cassette. It was easy to distinguish between the old and the new. The introduction of the SACD didn’t have the benefit of looking uniquely different from a traditional CD. They were literally indistinguishable. Sony initially released SACDs only in the SACD format and, if you didn’t have an SACD player, you couldn’t play them. When the hybrid SACD format was introduced, it was very confusing for the consumer. The idea of hybrid and SACD still gave the impression that you needed a special player to play the SACDs, even though there was a red-book layer that allowed the SACDs to play on any player, as it had an additional red-book layer, along with the SACD layer.
The average consumer was not ready to re-invest their catalog in a new format. They were happy with the CD format as it was. Plus, the retailers never truly got behind the SACD as the retailers did with the introduction of the CD. It seemed like it was the wrong format at the wrong time. You also had companies, such as Warner’s/Rhino dedicated to the DVD format, and did not invest their artists’ catalog in SACDs.
Audio Fidelity released a fair amount of SACD titles. But, like the large labels, AF soon left them behind in favor of the remastered 24K gold disc. The titles that were being released on these 24K gold discs were reissues. What led to the decision to dispense with SACDs and explore the album reissue path?
When we started Audio Fidelity, we were already releasing 180+ vinyl with artists such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. It was very difficult to acquire licenses from the major labels for SACD, because Sony, who introduced the format, was reluctant to license any titles to third parties by any of their major artists. They were holding on to their catalog for their own SACD releases. Warner’s was invested in the DVD-A format and were not about to license artists for SACD that would compete with their DVD-A format. We had always been associated with 24K because of our days at DCC Compact Classics. The requests from audiophiles, distributors, etc. that we were getting to release our titles on 24K far outnumbered the requests we were getting for SACD.
Was it already a path that you were exploring for the label from the beginning, therefore a natural transition?
Yes. I think I answered that above.
Audio Fidelity is much, much more than a stock reissue label. This is borne out in the fact that rather than just putting a currently out-of-print album back into the marketplace, you elect to have them expertly remastered, and beautifully packaged to create a unique expectation for your label. As a result, you have, once again, successfully engineered a highly regarded brand. How did this come about?
We had been a part of the audiophile world for a number of years and, working with audiophiles, we knew that, to be a unique label in the marketplace, we had to raise the stakes by presenting the best sound and re-creating original packaging and choosing artists with the broadest appeal. There always are a number of re-issue labels in the marketplace, but we never felt that we were competing with them as they had a different philosophy from ours.
Our philosophy centered on sound, not price, We chose to be the company with the highest sound, not the least expensive in the market. We also ensured our uniqueness with our packaging and our see-through slipcase that highlights the gold disc. We feel that our 24K gold disc with its see-through slipcase makes it easy to distinguish an Audio Fidelity disc from all others. We took great pride in being able to re-create the Braille on the Stevie Wonder Talking Book, the original gold foil used for Grand Funk’s We’re an American Band and Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love where we re-created the multi-colored vinyl. That little extra care to the packaging does make a difference to the audiophile and the discriminating consumer, as well as members of the groups’ fan clubs.
What decisions go into finding and selecting albums for re-mastering and reissue?
To license a title from the major label, it almost has to be the “perfect storm.” We select our titles on many occasions by requests that we get from consumers, which has always been the biggest source of suggestions for new titles. We also work with a group of distributors and retailers that have their ears to the ground and pass along suggestions to us. Once we do our research on the title, making sure that it has not been re-mastered recently, we then look at the viability for sales in the market. A lot of time, effort and resources go in to one of our releases so we want to ensure that there is not only great sound but there is a profit to the company.
Then, we submit the title to the label. We then go through the processes of getting clearances from the label who work with their business affairs to see if there are any restrictions. In most cases, they check with the artist’s management for their approval as well. Some of our requests are rejected because the label itself is planning on a re-issue or the artist rejects the request for their own reasons.
Are you the sole decider of any given project or do you have a team that you sit with and brainstorm possible releases?
As mentioned above, there are a number of people that have input into what is released. But I do have the final approval.
Once a title is decided upon, what are the processes that must be followed to gain access to the masters in order to create the finished product that ends up in players?
We always check with the tape vaults to make sure that the source we want to use is available. Many of the masters have been lost or transferred to digital through the years and are compressed and full of EQ — not for us.
Much of your catalog titles have been remastered by Steve Hoffman. On occasion, you have used Kevin Gray. What draws you to these individuals rather than a team of engineers, or other name mastering greats?
Trust and familiarity. We have worked with Steve and Kevin for over 25 years. We know each other very well. I trust their tastes and we are all on the same page when it comes to demanding the best sound quality. Additionally, they are not just “anonymous” engineers; rather they are the best in the business, well known with great reputations and great ears.
Do you ever have titles that you request and are turned down for?
We are turned down more than I would like. We have been asking for AC/DC for over 15 years, but we are not giving up. Yes, we are turned down, but continue requesting for that one day when we get approval.
I can imagine that some bands keep tight fists over their catalog and therefore prevent timely remastering and release. Do you have coveted titles that you’d like to release in 24K gold CD but have had difficulties in acquiring rights?
Absolutely. There are a number of titles that I would love to work with. Hopefully, one day we will get them. As mentioned above, AC/DC is one of those artists.
Recently, you have returned to the market of SACDs. Your debut return include the highly coveted SACD issue ofClose to the Edge by Yes and Counterparts by Rush. What led not only to the decision to return to SACD but to the choice of these specific titles?
The cost of gold, as you know, has gone up dramatically over the past few years. Even though the plant that makes 24K has raised the cost to us, we have not raised our price to the consumer. Keep in mind that there is only one plant that makes 24K, so we are at their mercy regarding production. The availability of gold is now becoming harder to get for 24K discs and our releases have been more inconsistent because of that. So cost and availability are two factors that led us back to SACDs. We have also always had requests that we re-enter the SACD market, which we have done. Close to the Edge andCounterparts are two titles that we wanted to kick off our re-entry into the SACD market — two great artists and two great opportunities to show off how we can improve the sound that is currently available.
Will we be seeing more SACDs coming from Audio Fidelity?
Absolutely, you will be seeing more SACDs. We will actually be doing the majority of our upcoming releases in SACD.
Do you have a few currently on the back burner, simmering until the release of the first set is completed?
Our next two SACD titles will be Harry Belafonte’s Calypso and Nat “King” Cole’s Welcome to The Club. How is that for the return to SACD?
Let me say, and I know that I speak for many, the arrival in SACD format of Close to the Edge is highly anticipated. In fact, for me, it already is THE release of the year that is not likely to be topped. Let me take this opportunity to personally thank you for the decision to release this wonderful title on SACD. It’s a holy grail for me. How excited are you about these two titles?
I am very excited about both of these titles, but when I hear someone say “THE” release of the year, I get even more excited.
Thanks, Marshall, for not only Audio Fidelity, but also for providing us with a chance to upgrade some titles with superior versions on CD and, once again, SACD.
Hey Matt, thank you.