Bonus Tracks

Earlier this week, I came across a group of people talking about an interesting aspect of collecting music that I had never given much thought. As I took a seat at a table next to this group, one of them was lamenting the current practice of releasing different versions of albums on different platforms, through different retailers, and in different packages. The concern the person voiced was that they tended to be what they referred to as a “completionist” wherein they sought to acquire all the recordings of a given artist or artists, but as a result, they often needed to purchase multiple versions of the same album / record to acquire all the different bonus tracks released in various ways.

While I had never given this aspect of music sales much thought, recent years have witnessed an increased tendency for the contents of a record or album to vary in relation to where and how it is purchased. If, for example, one wanted to buy the new album by artist X, they might get the same 10 core tracks wherever or however they purchased the album. However, if they bought the Target exclusive version they would also get 5 more tracks that were only released on the Target version, or if they bought the Itunes deluxe version they might get a separate bonus song or three that is only available when purchasing the Itunes version, but Amazon might also have a deluxe version with another separate set of extra tracks only available through Amazon, and Walmart may have another exclusive version with their own 5 live unreleased tracks not available on the other versions. Someone could thus get at least 4 different packages simply by going to 4 different retailers for the same album / record. For someone seeking to acquire all the tracks released by a given artist, this could lead to quite a bit of purchasing of materials one already has (i.e., since generally all versions come with the same standard 10 core tracks and just have different bonus materials).

Since I had never really considered this possible conundrum, I decided to do so and thus spent the week looking at various releases in terms of similarity and difference. As I went through releases, I counted how many times one might need to buy the same core release to gather all possible bonus material from that release, and in some cases the effort might mean gaining 10 copies of the core release. I also noticed that it is often not possible to just buy bonus material (though in some cases one can do this), and thus such material often requires the purchase or re-purchase of the whole. This experience led me to a handful of questions that could lead to interesting discussion and debate concerning musical marketplaces within society at given times and in given contexts as well as how people respond to and interpret such marketplaces.

For example, in what ways are current tendencies to release multiple versions of a record within the same market similar to or different from the experience of international music collectors and casual buyers in previous years? For an international fan (i.e., someone interested in artists not in their own country or the international releases of artists from the country they live in) this is not a new issue since releases in different countries often have different track listings, different bonus materials, and even different production contents. Is this the same issue people run into when they have to purchase imports to listen to their favorite band because their favorite band is in Germany and they are not, or is this current tendency for in-market differentiation of releases something different or is it both different and similar in varied ways?

Another question that kept coming up in my deliberations involved the effectiveness or lack there of for such attempts. Do people actually go buy the Target (or other retailer) version for the exclusive content even if they don’t normally get their music from that source? If so, it might be interesting to understand why and how people make sense of these patterns, and if not, it might be interesting to explore why retailers engage in this practice if it is only likely to garner the attention of customers they would already reach without doing so?

The overall question stemming from the first two is what role do “bonus” tracks and materials play in people’s decisions about music purchase? When someone comes across “bonus content” or an “exclusive release” by a retailer, how do they interpret that label, what does it mean to them in practice? Over the years, I have met people who considered “bonus tracks” to be unworthy of purchase, and preferred to only have the core materials. At the same time, I have met people that crave every possible bonus offering, and go to lengths to get everything. I have met others that exist somewhere between these two options (myself included) over time. How do people make these decisions, develop these preferences, and act upon these interpretations in the course of their engagement with music, musical retailers, and the broader musical marketplace? What lessons might scholars learn from systematic investigation of the social interpretation of bonus material in a wide variety of contexts and among different groups of people?

J. Sumerau

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The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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2 Responses to Bonus Tracks

  1. I wonder if fans feel, at least a little, exploited, maybe not necessarily by the artist but by the label? I Would impinge at least that it’s the marketing people of the label who might think they can sell a few more albums, even to those who already have it, if they add a bonus track and maybe a little booklet or so?

    • J. Sumerau says:

      I wonder the same thing Dirk. In the conversation referenced in the post, they were mainly talking about annoyance with the retailers. On the other hand, someone posted excitedly about a store-based version of the new Adele record on my Facebook news feed today so I’m guessing reactions depend on various influences / interpretations. I does seem like a fascinating question to me

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