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Sounding Off

Spare me the bonus tracks! By Blake McQueen
Published June 2013

Spare me the bonus tracks!

I've lost count of the number of times I've bought a classic album on CD and found my lip curling in disgust as I notice that it contains what are optimistically called 'bonus tracks'.

Never mind the fact that the album itself is a perfectly-balanced triumph that forms a complete work of art in itself, involving a well-rehearsed team of gifted musicians who squeezed out of themselves some of the most inspired music they would ever manage to create in 40 years. Never mind the fact that the album was painstakingly recorded over a six-month period by a great producer and a great engineer in a great studio. Never mind the fact that the songs sit together beautifully, complementing each other like the precious jewels in a Faberge egg, or at least like bacon, lettuce, tomato and bread.

What the CD really needs, though, according to the record company, is a home-demo version of the epic masterpiece that ends the album, where the piano part is played by the songwriter's mother, the guitar part is whistled by the next-door neighbour, and the whole thing is recorded on a cassette deck bought before the writer made their fortune. Even better, include three such versions of the track, including the one where Mum had to leave halfway through to make the tea.

Or how about a version where three false starts are all left in, the crunching electric guitar chords are played on an acoustic guitar, and the famous violin part that makes the song doesn't exist? And while we're at it, let's include some songs that got left off the album — not this album, mind you, but off the band's worst album, the one that was made seven years later, in a very different style.

Perhaps when it comes to sales, all this works. I'm not a record company exec, so what do I know? Maybe there are enough people who, when faced with two versions of the album side by side, will choose to buy the one that also contains the jaunty singalong B-side from a terrible single released years later when only one original member of the band remained. All I know is that one's not for me. I want the self-contained miracle, not the miracle that's been cracked open by fly-tippers who have dumped a load of junk in it that they can't even give away. I don't want the glorious ending of the album spoiled by having to race to the controls, before the friend I'm trying to impress hears the live version of track 3. Especially when track 3 is played way too fast, uses a tinny piano patch on a '70s keyboard, has tape hiss so loud it could scare vampires, and features an Italian audience inexplicably trying to clap along in double-time to a piece in 9/8.

Maybe the problem is partly the modern idea that because CDs can contain over 70 minutes of music, they should contain over 70 minutes of music, otherwise you haven't got your money's worth. One disgusted reviewer of my band Coralspin's first album complained bitterly that it was only 37 minutes long, as though we were committing highway robbery by not adding some filler. You'd have thought we were selling half-empty bottles of wine! The modern consumer, it is said, demands more for their money these days. But not only does that ignore the fact that CD and download prices have gone down greatly in recent years (and many bands like mine put years of work into something they charge very little for, and make very little money from), but it also mistakes quantity for quality. As a consumer, I don't want 70 minutes of music that has been diluted into mediocrity. I want 40 to 45 minutes of great music that's been carefully selected to form a cohesive whole.

Psychologists tell us that after that amount of time most people lose interest in an album anyway, so why make it longer? No wonder so many modern albums seem to drag on forever. There's no end of current artists who claim to be inspired by classic albums, and who lust over the vintage gear that those albums were recorded on. Well, here's another tip: how about making your albums the same sort of length as your heroes' albums? Leave 'em wanting more, rather than leaving 'em sick of the sound of you.

About The Author

Blake McQueen is a keyboard player and songwriter with melodic/prog-rock band Coralspin: