This is a question that puzzles a lot of new CD and record collectors who may stumble across slightly different versions of albums when shopping online, particularly when importing or buying second hand from overseas. This may include missing songs, extra songs, remixes, live recordings, demos or instrumental versions of another track.
But why do bands and artists do this? Why withhold content from certain markets? Shouldn’t an album be a defined and permanent piece of art? Are they trying to suck every last cent out of a dedicated completionist? There are actually several reasons that may apply depending on the band, publisher, country, and content of the album.
The band is on multiple record labels
Some artists don’t always have worldwide deals. This can be because their original label is not big enough to promote and distribute worldwide, or perhaps the artist chose to keep their options open.
It is typical for an artist or group to first be signed by a smaller local label in their country of origin. Some publishers do not distribute in certain countries and the band might be on a different label there. If a band does not sign deals for other countries, they might totally miss out on being noticed in other markets and ultimately miss their opportunity to be a worldwide sensation. In many cases, the record label itself makes the arrangement with other labels around the world to distribute and promote the music.
A great example of this is Björk. She has a different label in almost every major territory. These being One Little Indian, Polydor, Universal, Elektra, Atlantic, Nonesuch, Megaforce and RED. By doing this, she was able to make a lot more money from advances than if she was with one single company worldwide.
By having multiple labels, she was able to keep much stronger artistic control, which is something that is clearly very important to Björk. Being able to play one label against another to suit her will. If a label in Europe wasn’t playing ball, she could go and tour Asia or the United States instead.
Having different companies do your promotion in the regions they know best has other advantages such as being sure to give your music to the right radio stations, get your albums into the right stores, and to promote your concerts in all the right places as well.
Now, if a band is on different record labels in different countries, those labels will want to ensure their version of the album is as profitable as possible. They will then have input by adding or removing tracks. Here are some reasons why they do this:
Cultural and Political Climate
This may be more common in some genres of music than others, but tracks containing certain themes such as anti-religious, anti-government, anti-war or drug use may be considered harder to market in different countries. The label may think fans in certain regions may not like certain tracks or that these tracks may generate the wrong kind of publicity that could hurt album sales or even ticket sales to concerts.
This could result in those tracks being swapped out for something different. An example of this is the debut album “Generation Terrorists” by early 90s British rock band Manic Street Preachers which had a whopping 4 songs removed from its US release. These were replaced by unwanted remixes.
Another example is the Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers had its track Sister Morphine removed in Spanish release due to drug references. It also featured a totally different cover as the original cover was considered obscene and was banned.
The label may also believe that singles or albums are more popular in that region. This might make them push to focus more on one or the other or to include more tracks from one onto the other.
Different Pressing Plants
In the pre-digital-distribution world, there were several ways that the factory producing the CD, cassette or album obtained the recordings they needed to replicate.
- Best Method
The easiest and safest method was for the original record company would send the master tapes for the entire album. This allowed for consistent reproduction of the original (assuming they intended to copy the tracklist verbatim).
- Lazy Method
The company will only ask for the artwork and the masters for a few of the tracks as they already have the others. This can lead to inconsistency in quality.
- DIY Method
The company gets the original masters and then alters the levels and mixes the album slightly differently to suit their own tastes. This can result in slight audio differences between regional versions.
- Best Method
To distinguish it from other releases
If an album has already been released by another publisher, the next publisher may want to ensure their new version stands out against the older release, which may now be on clearance or available to buy second hand, or cheap to import. This could include better packaging, inclusions of bonus tracks such as b-sides from the singles or live recordings, or a new remastering of the audio.
Why does Japan always get the best version of albums?
Japanese versions of albums nearly always cost more than the US or European releases. Even in Japan, you will find their local version costs more than an imported version from anywhere else in the world.
One of the reasons is that in Japan there are (or were) too many unnecessary middlemen in the supply chain, each adding on an extra margin along the way.
Japan also has such limited space, which results in smaller batches being produced. They will then often do additional print runs as required. This reduces logistical overheads such as warehouse storage.
Many CD and record collectors also cite that Japanese releases sound better. This seems to be attributed to superior mastering and possibly due to the smaller print runs resulting in better quality control.
As a result of these factors, the Japanese market has to add extra tracks and/or better packaging to try and make its local audience spend the extra money to buy their local version, rather than the cheaper option to import from the US.
A special edition of an album will generally have extra content. But again it can vary from country to country. I recall as a teenager I was travelling in New Zealand and bought Marilyn Manson’s best of Album “Lest We Forget” which came out whilst I was there. It came with a bonus DVD of all of his music videos, but this version was missing an explicit clip and it was kind of disappointing, despite having better packaging than the local Australian versions.
Censored by retailers
Major department stores such as Walmart in the United States had such selling power in the past that they could force artists and publishers release censored versions just for them or else they would simply refuse to stock it.
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails refused to censor his albums for Walmart. “My reasoning was this: I can understand if you want the moral posturing of not having any ‘indecent’ material for sale–but you could literally turn around 180 degrees from where the NIN record would be and purchase the film ‘Scarface’ completely uncensored or buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto where you can be rewarded for beating up prostitutes. How does that make sense?”
This resulted in there being Explicit and Clean versions of albums, some of which were only available at these particular retailers in the countries they operate within.
Sometimes specific concert tours might feature bonus content and alternate artwork or additional stickers on the cover. This may include a bonus disc or extra tracks on the CD. This might be done as part of a deal to help the touring company recoup some of the costs of the tour.
What does this mean in the digital-distribution age?
Now that digital music streaming is the norm and CD sales are dwindling (and vinyl is making a bit of a resurgence) there seem to be fewer international versions of albums being produced. Smaller artists are now in a position to ship the same version of the album worldwide without relying on major retailers.
When Spotify first started, I seem to remember it being a mess of multiple versions of the same album with slightly different tracklists clogging up an artist profile. This was annoying because when you put their music on shuffle, you’d hear a lot of the same tracks over and over again. The platform seems a little better curated now with some of the better versions of albums appearing. For example, whilst there were 4 different standard release CD tracklists for the Nine Inch Nails album With Teeth, Spotify only has the UK Version, which has two more tracks than the US version.
With digital streaming, one would expect a more consistent tracklist to be heard worldwide. But there seems to be some variation on what is available from country to country due to different rights holders of the music. With new music into the future, this might become less common. There might instead be cases where bonus tracks might be exclusive to either Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Soundcloud or another service.