A Talk with Ralph Chapman of Iconoclassic Records

A peek into the busy world of one of the premier reissue houses.

By , Columnist

Reissues seem to be an important part of the music world, generally targeting a special breed of listeners from the past who still have intense interest in a physical format. And although the existing physical formats, which include the CD and the resurgent vinyl LP, are on an endangered list, they still are a viable attraction.

Aside from the major labels (Warner, Sony, and Universal), and their in-house specialty labels like Rhino (Warner), and Legacy (Sony), there are many reissue labels. There are those that are intent on supplying an ultimate extended experience that includes new remastering, using reputable engineers, additional songs from the sessions that were never included, or that may have been B-side non-album tracks, and dead-on replication of the original artwork.

There are many more that are bare-bones reissuers providing nothing more than a CD copy of a licensed title that may have been out of print for a while, thereby capitalizing on the need of fans to have a rare but not enhanced version of a title.

Of the whole range of reissuing labels, there are a distinct few that are independent of the majors, yet stand out with incredible reputations, easily falling into the first category of providers. Iconoclassic Records is one of these.

Iconoclassic Records started with the express purpose of exploring the musical arena of the ‘70s, generally out-of-print and otherwise inaccessible but desired titles. Influenced by the standards and intent of the in-house reissue imprints like Legacy Recordings and Rhino Records, Iconoclassic have styled their releases with an eye to the unique, while adhering to a high standard of recorded music. In short, they want to be known for their high-quality reissues, which, in turn, will develop a loyal fan base. The label’s owner and president, Frank Ursoleo, has a combined 25 years of industry experience working with established labels and their legacy imprints. Trust me; there are many that love a label as much as the bands they release, especially for their musical concentrations.

I recently had an opportunity to talk with Iconoclassic’s Ralph Chapman, who graciously opened the doors for a good look into the inner workings of the label. His answers to my questions were, as you will find, insightful and important.

What is your involvement with Iconoclassic Records?

I am heavily involved with Iconoclassic’s Guess Who release program as a liner writer, liaison with the band, and with the last three Guess Who releases (Flavours, #10, and Road Food) as a co-producer. I also wrote the liner notes for Iconoclassic’s recent reissue of The Tubes’ classic record, Remote Control. I am currently researching notes for a Three Dog Night release, as well as co-producing the next Guess Who release. Additionally, I aid in the marketing of the label and am becoming more involved with the label’s online presence and presentation.

Iconoclassic has been involved in some great reissues including some from Hot Tuna, and a fantastic remastered reissue of Mark, Don & Mel (the first collection of songs by Grand Funk Railroad, released by Capitol Records). There are also those series reissues like those from Guess Who. Who makes the decisions on what title licenses to go after? Is it based on the musical preferences of a group of people?

Thanks for the kind words! There are few people I know who are as passionate about music as the owner of the label, Frank Ursoleo. And I think at the end of the day, the reason why I love to work with the label, and why the re-issues are consistently excellent, is because of his passion. Frank makes those final decisions after researching the titles that are available to the label to reissue. Frequently, the projects are vetted with other consultants and friends of the label. Some projects come about during conversations with the licensing entity also.

Do you consistently employ a remasterer in doing work for your label?

We feel that if a title has been poorly mastered in the first place, that is a motivator for us. It’s part of the reason why we choose a title. We always want to improve the sound, so we always pick masters we know we can improve upon. Between the dawn of the CD age and now, the technology has really improved. The information you can extract from a master tape due to advances in technology has improved dramatically over the past decade. The label generally uses Battery Studios in New York City and does most of their mastering with Vic Anesini. The label has also used Mark Wilder from Battery and Joe Palmaccio, who now has his own studio down in Nashville.

In remastering, have you come across a title where the tapes were a disaster, and essentially could not be used to create a good remaster?

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Not as yet. Thanks goodness! From my own experience, as one example, the opposite happened with The Guess Who’s #10 album. The first time I heard the actual master tape in the studio, I was absolutely blown away by how good it sounded. That title, in my opinion, has been poorly represented in the digital world, so it was incredibly exciting to finally try and do that record justice. I think we succeeded. Vic did a wonderful job.

Do you take suggestions for potential remasters to release?

Absolutely. We always encourage fans of the label to leave their feedback at the Iconoclassic website, and at Facebook, among other places.

A standout feature of Iconoclassic Records is the amazing—and strict—adherence to the original release art. Even the CD is beautifully painted with the original issuing label style at the time of the original album's release. Can you tell me a bit about the process, and how it is arrived at (research, etc)?

Again, passion for the music is a big help. In most instances, Frank himself uses his own musical library to create the artwork with Chris Eselgroth, the label’s art director. In the very rare instance when the artwork/original vinyl is not owned, the label will sometimes turn to the licensing entity to provide original art.

In terms of acquiring reissue rights, are there labels that are resistant to allowing titles to be re-released?

The licensing entities are only reluctant if the desired title figures into their future reissue plans.

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What notable titles has Iconoclassic Records been denied?

I can’t really get into that, the reason being that major labels tend to frown on open discussions on the subject. I can say that often a title is denied, even multiple times, only to clear as circumstances change. Sometimes, patience and persistence is rewarded.

What do you see for the future of Iconoclassic?

The label will continue to reissue CDs as long as there is a market for them and the label’s future plans include getting more involved in the audiophile market with limited releases derived from original master tapes, as well as vinyl releases.

What's next for Iconoclassic Records, title-wise?

The only titles that we are at liberty to speak about at the present time are our continuing Guess Who and Laura Nyro series of reissues. We also will be releasing the third Poco studio album, From the Inside, shortly. That release will include both sides of an unreleased single that never saw the light of day at the time of the album’s release. The label is also working with Three Dog Night right now to ready their first couple of albums for release with the inclusions of some single tracks where they differ from what was released on the albums.

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Thanks to Ralph Chapman for taking out time from his hectic schedule to talk with us.

Personally, I love that fact that Iconoclassic Records released the Capitol Records issue of Mark, Don & Mel, the Grand Funk Railroad compilation that was released many years ago. It's a wonderful collection that I enjoy very much.

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Matt Rowe began his life with an AM radio, listening to anything that was considered music. Since, he has labored intently to build a collection of music, paring it down, rebuilding, and refining as he sees fit. His decided goal is to keep up with new music by panning for the nuggets among literal mountains…

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