For this week’s staff pick, I’m going to get into something really nerdy: catalog numbers. I’m not sure when I started paying attention to record label catalog numbers, but it was very late in the game. With digital music it’s even easier to be deeply into music without ever giving much thought to catalog numbers, but for record nerds, catalog numbers can encode useful and interesting information.
Pretty much every single commercially released record has a catalog number. If you’re making vinyl, you’d have to go out of your way not to have a catalog number. Pressing plants require you to specify a catalog number, which is necessary for them to distinguish between the many projects they are working on. The simplest catalog number has a prefix (typically an abbreviation of the label name) followed by a sequential number. Sorry State’s catalog number prefix is SSR-. I don’t remember giving this much thought when I started the label, but in retrospect it bums me out there are so many labels with the same prefix. However, it’s also worked to my advantage. We’ve done several collaborative releases with the UK label Static Shock Records, who use the same prefix. When we worked together on the Number Ones’ Another Side of the Number Ones EP, we just put “SSR” on the center label since that could stand for Static Shock Records or Sorry State Records.
Of course, a catalog number’s prefix doesn’t have to be an abbreviation of the label’s name. Feral Ward Records’ catalog prefix is YAN-, which I assume is an abbreviation of Yannick, the label owner’s first name. Matador Records’ prefix is OLE-, as in the word matadors shout at bulls. When the Rolling Stones got their vanity record label Rolling Stones Records in the 70s, the catalog prefix was COC-, which I assume referred to their drug of choice and not to legendary Raleigh band Corrosion of Conformity, who wouldn’t form until several years later.
Catalog numbers can also encode information beyond the label that released it. A quick way to identify stereo versus mono pressings from the 60s is by their catalog number. For Capitol Records, the prefix for titles in mono was T, while stereo was ST. RCA Records used variations of the AYL- prefix for its “Best Buy” product line, which offered reissues of older catalog titles at a lower price than new releases, which had the prefix LSP-. RCA’s classical releases appeared with an LSC- prefix, “C” denoting the record’s genre. Release formats are also encoded in catalog numbers, specifying whether an item is an LP, CD, cassette, 8-track, reel-to-reel tape, or whatever.
This is a famous anecdote I’m sure many of you know, but visionary Manchester post-punk label Factory Records assigned catalog numbers to more than just music recordings. FAC 7 is Factory Records letterhead designed by in-house graphic designer Peter Saville. FAC 15 was Zoo Meets Factory Halfway, a festival featuring performances by artists on both Factory and Zoo Records. FAC 21 is the Factory Records logo. FAC 51 is the Haçienda, the Manchester night club that operated in various iterations from 1982 to 1997. You get the picture.
Catalog numbers also reflect new product lines, shifts in direction, or other changes at a record company. Blue Note Records’ early catalog numbers started with 1501, but when they introduced their “modern jazz series” in 1957 they restarted with the catalog number 4001. These are still known by collectors as the “1500 series” and the “4000 series.” At some point Blue Note was acquired by United Artists records, who used the prefix UA-LA- for their releases, so Blue Note adopted the prefix BN-LA- for their releases to conform with their parent company. United Artists was then acquired by EMI and Blue Note continued using the BN-LA prefix for some releases, but catalog numbers with the prefix LT also appeared on Blue Note labels. LT referred to another EMI acquisition, Liberty Records. What does Liberty Have to do with Blue Note, aside from being owned by the same parent company at one time? I’m not sure to be honest. The Blue Note catalog number story has much more to it than that, so feel free to head down that rabbit hole yourself if you are so inclined.
If you’re paying close attention, you might notice the catalog number on Sorry State’s first release, Direct Control’s Nuclear Tomorrow EP, is not SSR-1, but SSR-7001. I planned for Sorry State 7”s to have the prefix SSR-7 and 12”s would be prefixed SSR-12, but I dropped this idea after a few releases. The last 7” with this prefix is Christian Club’s Final Confession EP (SSR-7004) and the last 12” is Rabies’ Test Your Might LP (SSR-12002). In 2013, I put together a “visual discography” detailing every version of every Sorry State release up to that point. When I created that discography (along with a lot of help from a summer intern whose name I can’t remember), I retroactively assigned catalog numbers for the older titles. SSR-7001 became SSR-01, etc. That’s why, when you look up these early releases on Discogs, you’ll see both the old and new prefixes.
It’s important to note that while catalog numbers typically proceed in regular increments, they don’t always reflect the precise order when records came out. There has been a recent spate of podcasts that go through a record label’s discography one release at a time (the grandaddy of all being You Don’t Know Mojack, the podcast devoted to SST Records). Since these podcasts base their episodes on catalog numbers, they quickly find that the catalog numbers don’t reflect the order in which records hit the shops. Production delays can cause a record with a later catalog number to come out before an earlier number. For Sorry State, assigning a catalog number coincides with creating a folder on my computer for that release. I assign a release’s catalog number when I get the first piece of that release. Usually that’s the master recording, but every once in a while it will be a piece of artwork or some other component. Sometimes a band will send me a zip file with the master recording and all artwork for the release and production goes quickly, while for other projects I get a master recording, drop it in that folder, and months go by while we work on artwork and packaging design.
One catalog number tradition that might be unique to punk labels is the fractional number. While most of Dischord Records’ catalog is sequential digits (as when Blue Note was an independently owned company, there is no formal prefix), I noticed there were several releases in their catalog with fractional numbers. I think the first one I came across was 10⅞, United Mutation’s first EP, which I came across digging at Plan 9 Records in Richmond in the late 90s. I soon discovered Dischord had several fractional catalog numbers, and I’m holding a few of my favorites in the photo above. Don’t take this as gospel because I could be mis-remembering, but I’m pretty sure Dischord’s fractional releases weren’t co-releases (since Dischord didn’t fund or help distribute them). Instead, Dischord “lent” their logo and brand name to friends to help raise these releases’ profiles. Looking at a list of Dischord fractional releases, this seems to make sense, since I’ve never seen a Dischord ad that said you could order the Necros’ IQ32 or SSD’s The Kids Will Have Their Say from them (or even Iron Cross’s Skinhead Glory, and I’m pretty sure Sab Grey from Iron Cross lived in Dischord House with Ian and Jeff).
It’s no secret that Sorry State draws a lot of inspiration from Dischord, and I adopted the fractional release scheme, though I use decimals rather than fractions, and how I’ve used these numbers has changed over the years. The earliest SSR decimal releases are by my first band, Cross Laws. Cross Laws’ demo tape and first 7”, Behind the Curve, don’t have an SSR catalog number on them, and I intended them to be self-releases by the band. At the time I wasn’t confident in my work as a musician and I didn’t want to seem like I was using my slightly better known label to hype my totally unknown band. However, at some point I decided that since I paid for and did pretty much all the work for these two releases they were part of the Sorry State story and should get catalog numbers. I gave Cross Laws’ demo tape SSR-04.5 and Behind the Curve SSR-06.5 (the catalog number that appears on the actual record is CL-01). Shortly after that I released a demo tape / CDR from a young Raleigh hardcore band called the Obtruders, assigning that the catalog number SSR-7.5. Since then, I’ve used decimal numbers for cassette releases and a few co-releases. For the Insomnia EP from Denmark’s Under Al Kritik (SSR-15.5), I was repressing a very limited release on Denmark’s Mastermind Records, since I thought it deserved a wider audience. For Smart Cops’ 1-sided tour 7” (SSR-18.75), the band paid for the release and sold it on tour, but I helped them get it manufactured here in the US. These reasons for assigning a decimal catalog number are different, but I suppose these are projects that either didn’t feel like a “real” release because of their small run or limited scope, or where I felt like I wasn’t part of the creative vision. Like most stuff with record labels, there are no hard and fast rules.
Rules also aren’t set in stone. The whole idea for this staff pick came to me because I mentioned to Rich that, from now on, I’m planning to assign cassette-only releases regular catalog numbers. The first Sorry State cassette-only release to get a full catalog number is the Hüstler demo (SSR-103). I made this choice because Hüstler put so much work into the release and the quality was so high that I thought it deserved to be considered a full, proper release. Maybe I’ll use fractional catalog numbers again at some point when it feels like the project warrants it, but for now I feel like cassette releases are just as much work as vinyl, so our catalog numbers should reflect that.
I’ve already written more than I intended, but here’s one more quick anecdote. If you look at Sorry State’s catalog numbers, you’ll see there’s no release with the number SSR-11. I got as far as creating the folder on my computer and dropping in a few files, but the project never came together and I abandoned the idea. Here’s what I wrote about it on the Sorry State visual discography:
SSR-11 was intended to be a compilation (7″ or 12″… I never quite got that far) of North Carolina hardcore bands. Three bands actually recorded for the comp:
- Cross Laws recorded an alternate take of “Violent Disposition” (the other version is on the rejected test press of Ancient Rites, while the version intended for the comp eventually appeared on Abuse Records’ Cross Laws discography LP).
- Crossed Eyes recorded a track during their 7″ session (though I don’t remember the title); this track remains unreleased.
- Logic Problem recorded a track called “Creatures” during the session for their demo; ironically, it was probably the best song from the session, despite the fact that it was left off the demo. This track was eventually released as part of the digital version of the Logic Problem demo on Sorry State’s BandCamp.
- I think that one of the tracks from the aborted Street Sharks 7″ session may have also been intended for the comp.
Depending on when plans for the comp were finally canceled, other bands considered for inclusion may or may not have been Double Negative, Devour, and the Obtruders, but as far as I know none of those bands actually recorded.
Abandoning this project bothered me for years, but I fulfilled my dream of doing a North Carolina punk compilation with the American Idylls double LP (SSR-93) in 2019. Maybe one day I’ll figure out how to fill the SSR-11-sized hole in my heart.