Bonus tracks and exclusive tracks have been in existence for decades. In the vinyl era, they manifested themselves as b-sides. B-sides served as a clever avenue to ensure that record labels could sell their artists’ singles (with the b-sides tagged on) AND the album that the single was featured on. The concept of additional tracks has been used as a shrewd sales tactic by record labels to trigger additional consumer purchases of essentially the same musical content with the additional incentive being some incremental content that is of value to the die-hard fans of an artist. Some noteworthy examples of this phenomenon were the last (not the most recent) Beyonce album and British “boyband-turned-manband” Take That’s “Progressed” (a repackaged version of their “Progress” album with 8 new tracks).
In the digital era, the concept of exclusive tracks has assumed a similar flavor. For instance, for certain albums, it is impossible to purchase the bonus tracks as individual tracks off iTunes. A digital music consumer has to purchase the entire album. While some music fans might find this annoying, I can understand why record labels do this. They still want to sell albums as opposed to the digitally unbundled “piece-meal” options that online music stores such as iTunes and Amazon MP3 allow consumers to avail of.
There is a third flavor that has become somewhat commonplace in recent years. This is a phenomenon wherein certain bonus tracks are released as iTunes exclusives in a single country. For instance, an artist’s label might choose to add a few extra tracks for digital purchase only in France. What this means is that as an American resident, if I want those tracks, I have no legal avenue to obtain those songs. US residents cannot purchase music from foreign iTunes or Amazon MP3 stores. Ordering the album from overseas in CD format is not an option since the bonus track is only available in a digital format. It is inevitable that a fan will post that France-only exclusive track on youtube so I will get to hear it but I cannot legally own it. No amount of money can buy me those bonus tracks. I want to pay for my content but the record labels will not let me. In what rational world does this make sense? Record labels are constantly complaining about piracy undermining the music industry and their livelihood and yet they resort to certifiably idiotic strategies like releasing bonus tracks as country-specific exclusives. Using scarcity as a tool to create value for content is an age-old tactic but it is signficantly harder to implement such tools in the internet age wherein stealing music has become very easy and also very difficult to curb through any legal force.
Why would record labels do this? This is almost like dangling candy in a child’s face and telling the child that he or she cannot have it. If the child can get away with stealing the candy, why would he or she hold back? From a business perspective, this is an even worse decision for record labels. By making it impossible to buy songs outside of a certain country, they are encouraging piracy of music and effectively cutting out revenue sources for their artists. It is virtually impossible to monetize those bonus tracks in any other country under the country-specific “exclusive” strategy. In an age where record labels complain about legal sales of music dropping dramatically, why would these labels make decisions that are guaranteed to increase piracy and hurt sales? In my humble opinion, the wisdom of the decisions as well as the decision-makers is questionable at best.
The latest in a series of terrible decisions in this “piracy-encouraging” tradition relates to a brilliant new “iTunes Germany Only Bonus Track” by a-ha frontman Morten Harket. The song is called “Undecided”. It is without a doubt the high point of Morten Harket’s new solo album “Out Of My Hands” – the first album that Morten has released since his former band a-ha called it quits after 25 glorious years in the music business. “Undecided” is a downtempo track with understated and lush electronic embellishments. Morten’s voice effortlessly drifts through the beautiful musical soundscape that defines the song. The song (written by the brilliant Norwegian songwriting team Snowdrop) has the word “hit single” written all over it – and yet Morten Harket’s record label has chosen to limit the “legal” availability of this song to one country. This has angered fans of a-ha and Morten Harket all over the world. It is amazing that 12 years into the digital music world, record labels are still so disconnected with reality and consumer needs and consumption patterns. A part of me wonders what Morten Harket thinks of this decision. He must wonder why his ability to monetize his music is being intentionally limited. Furthermore, this ought to be the shining moment for songwriting team Snowdrop on a global scale. I wonder if they feel denied their inherent right to shine in the global limelight with this brilliant gem that they have written for Morten Harket. For those of you wonder what all the hype about is “Undecided” is, here is the track (below) for you:
A petition has been started by a-ha and Morten Harket fans requesting Universal Music to release “Undecided” globally. CLICK HERE to sign the petition and make your opinions known to the decision makers at Universal Music. It is my sincere hope that better sense will prevail and that Universal Music will make the decision that is beneficial to them as well as to fans around the world.
As a radio broadcaster, I cannot help but be disappointed that I cannot feature “Undecided” on our 24/7 global broadcast – not unless Morten Harket’s record label sends me the track and authorizes us to play it on Radio Creme Brulee.
I thought it might be a good idea to highlight TWO other examples of region-specific digital tracks by high-profile artists. Here they are:
George Michael – For The Love Of You: In late 2005, George Michael recorded a fantastic cover version of the Isley Brothers classic “For the love of you”. This version is hands down better than the original and by far the best rendition of this song to have ever been recorded. The song was featured on George Michael’s “John and Elvis EP”. This was a digital-only 4-track EP that was only made available in European digital music stores. I supposed this is better than releasing these tracks in a single country. Yet, it was impossible for American, Asian, or Australian fans to purchase this song or obtain it legally. Once again, why would someone try to limit the legal availability of music by one of the world’s biggest pop superstars? It is a mind-boggling question to say the least. Here is a full-length clip of “For The Love Of You” by George Michael.
Kim Wilde – Carry Me Home: In 2010, British pop starlet took released the sequel to her 2006 “rock chick” reinvention (the album “Never Say Never”). On this sequel, Kim Wilde amped up the rock factor and gave fans something fiercely sexier. The sequel album is called “Come Out And Play”. Almost eight months after the album’s release, a deluxe version of the album was released only in France. Once again, this album was available only in digital format (to the best of my knowledge) and it features two new tracks titled “Addicted To You” and “Carry Me Home”. “Carry Me Home” was the brilliant track that should have been released as a single but once again, with it being only released in France, it was practically forced into obscurity. The track is a mid-tempo jam boasting a larger-than-life production and Kim Wilde’s stellar vocals. Once again, Kim Wilde fans outside France could not buy this track for love or money. I wonder if Kim’s label has pondered over the wisdom behind making this track only available in digital format in France. One can only guess that the label has not done so. Here is a full-length clip of “Carry Me Home” by Kim Wilde.
Are there any other examples of this phenomenon that we are missing or ought to know about? Please do let us know via the comments section below.