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Creator / Rykodisc

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"This is full sensory memory."

Rykodisc ("Ryko" for short) was an independent record label formed in Salem, Massachusetts in 1983. Named after what they claimed was the Japanese onomatopoeia for the "sound from a flash of light" (actually the Japanese word for lightning, 雷光), Rykodisc billed themselves on being the first record label to release their material solely on the then-nascent Compact Disc format (though as time went on they'd later create a "Ryko Analogue" imprint for releasing material on LP and cassette). The label initially found some success with artists who were deemed "too unconventional" by the mainstream music world, such as Frank Zappa, Yoko Ono, The Residents and Mission of Burma, acting primarily as an outlet for reissuing older material and providing CD releases for newer works. Zappa was a particularly ardent supporter of Ryko, embracing them with open arms after previously suffering through persistent Executive Meddling throughout much of his career and a lengthy legal battle with Warner (Bros.) Records and former manager Herb Cohen.

As the 80's came to a close and the 90's began, Ryko began to garner more mainstream attention, handling reissues for major artists seeking to reestablish themselves in the mainstream eye such as David Bowie, Devo, Elvis Costello, Robert Wyatt, Badfinger, and Nine Inch Nails, smaller but influential artists (both living and dead) such as Big Star (including Chris Bell's posthumous solo album, I Am The Cosmos), The Undertones, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, and Richard Thompson (the last three on producer Joe Boyd's Hannibal imprint) who were never able to make it big at first, and deceased acclaimed artists such as Jimi Hendrix who the public had largely forgotten about despite being held in high regard. Bowie was a particular claim to fame for Ryko, who aggressively advertised their reissues of his 1969-1980 catalog, touting both the strength of his legacy and the quality of their new remasters. These editions were sourced from the original master tapes rather than the multi-generation safety tapes that the original RCA Records CDs used and featured exclusive bonus tracks not included on the original release, some of which were newly completed by Bowie and co. from old, unfinished demos. Ryko's reissue campaign for the Bowie back-catalog was not only critically and commercially successful, but it would also end up setting the standard for the remaster & reissue craze that still persists to this day.

During the 90's, Ryko also debuted their trademark green-tinted all-transparent jewel cases (and we do mean "trademark"; they legally owned the rights to that specific design), which they featured on all releases on the label for some time, most notably on their "Au20" series of gold CDs. Ryko Analogue had already been releasing LPs on clear vinyl since the late 80's, and the green jewel case seemed to be an extension of that. Because the unusual design and trademarking made them difficult to replace (which became a frequent point of irritation for many buyers then and now, not helped by them being more fragile than conventional jewel cases), Ryko would often have to supply large quantities of empty cases to retailers for the specific purpose of replacing broken ones. While the bottle green cases did aid in giving Ryko a unique visual identity, their highly cumbersome nature caused them to be recalled after a while, with Ryko opting for standard clear jewel cases (without any color tinting) from that point onwards. Nowadays these cases are considered collectors' items, especially if they managed to remain unbroken.

Their other major influence on CD packaging would be leading the charge against longboxes that American CDs were packaged in when they began to attract criticism for the waste of cardboard around the start of the '90s. Ryko offered their discs to retailers without longboxes for a reduced price in 1990. The music industry would abandon the longbox after retailers had converted their racks to hold jewel case-only releases a few years later. Those who didn't opted to trade out the longbox for reusable, lockable plastic cases that clerks would unlock for customers upon purchase (these cases were also incorporated for DVDs, video games, and phone accessories among larger retailers such as Target and Best Buy).

Ryko trucked on well into the 2000's, shifting location from Salem to New York City after being bought out by Island Records founder (and former leader) Chris Blackwell in 1998. However, things started to come to an end for the label after that. In 2006, the label was purchased again by Warner Music Group and absorbed into Warners' existing reissue label, Rhino Records (who'd been sort of a Friendly Rival to Ryko in the reissue market at the peak of the CD era), giving them control of Frank Zappa's masters— an ironic twist of fate in light of Zappa's former legal battle with the label. Ryko would continue to be split apart as time went on, with their music publishing catalog being sold to Evergreen Copyrights (who in turn were bought out by BMG) and their distribution firm folding into Alternative Distribution Alliance. The Zappa Family Trust, meanwhile, took Frank's masters with them in 2012 and handed them over to Universal Music Enterprises, who handles reissues of the man's music to this day.

Despite being more or less defunct, the legacy of Ryko still remains in place. Their propensity for publicly rehabilitating their artists became something of a hallmark during their lifetime, in part due to them putting a large amount of care into bulking up their artists and reminding the public why they were important to begin with (sometimes including reissued albums in their Au20 line); in that sense, they could be considered music's closest possible equivalent to The Criterion Collection. As with Criterion, their releases set the standard for how deluxe CD reissues would be done in the future, with major labels copying their techniques. However, unlike the consistently well-received Criterion, the sound quality of Ryko's releases could vary from time to time, and indeed some of their Frank Zappa releases have received scrutiny for Zappa's decision to heavily remix or re-record some of his albums, not to mention how their once-loved David Bowie reissues are now considered fairly dismal compared to later remastered CDs and even the earlier RCA ones. All things said, though, the impact Ryko had on their artists is difficult to overstate, with retrospective analysts noting that the label played a big role in regenerating public interest for the musicians they worked with and helping many of them build up legacies that persist to this day, as well as making the CD format a must-have for serious music fans in the '80s and '90s.

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