Today on the Watchdog, we’re shifting our focus to music and taking a look at the confusing beast known as licensed pressings. The thing I want to impress right now is that I’m not talking about bootlegs; bootlegs are pirated copies of an album made by some skeevy individual, none of the profits go to the band or anyone who helps the band, and they’re considered 100% worthless on the collector’s market unless said album is not available any other way. (Sadly, so many bootlegs come out of Russia and Greece that a lot of people have stopped buying from those countries altogether to avoid the risk, which in turn harms the legitimate sellers in those nations)
No, licensed pressings aren’t so cut-and-dry. Here’s the best way I can explain it. Let’s take as an example…oh, I don’t know, Avantasia – The Wicked Symphony and Angel Of Babylon, two albums that German metal musician Tobias Sammet released simultaneously in 2010.
Tobias is signed to the German label Nuclear Blast. They take care of the manufacturing and distribution of Tobi’s CDs within Europe as well as most of the rest of the world, such as North America.
However, within South America, labels such as Nuclear Blast will license a smaller, local label to handle the manufacturing and distribution of a given album. I did hear something about certain South American countries having a massive tax on international goods, and that may be part of it, although there is likely a case of cost-cutting on the label’s part as well. That’s just what people mean when they talk about a licensed pressing – a big international label has licensed a given album to a smaller local label to produce copies for their region. And on the surface, it actually sounds fair, especially if the alternative was to hike up prices on the products in the affected nations unless the tariff were to get strategically dodged like this.
But what happens? What physically happens to earn this practice a Watchdog post instead of a quick harmless factoid?
It varies, but by-and-large, the general impression is that these licensed pressings are of a markedly lower physical quality than their first-party counterparts. In some pressings, the colours of the cover art might be dulled or washed-out compared to the first-party version; in most pressings, the jewel case might feel cheaper or flimsier than the first-party counterpart, or the adhesive holding the digipak together might be starting to peel. The discs themselves might not even read as authentic – I put a CD from South American label Icarus Records into my car stereo and it was read as a ‘mix CD’. Now, Icarus does genuinely care about their local music scene – I’ve been told that they host a lot of concerts in the region – so they’re not trying to scam anyone, they’re just incredibly bad at what they do.
But, most damningly, the actual music on some of these pressings has been tested against first-party pressings of the same album and been found to have lower fidelity. In layman’s terms: it sounds worse.
For the methodology used to determine this, I have a metal-archives forum user to thank. He says: To prove this, use Audacity and Itunes. Use Itunes for both versions to convert to digital format, then use Audacity to analyze the differences between the versions.
So the bottom line is that licensed pressings are 100% official (and if you lived in, say, Argentina, these are the exact pressings that you would get in a given store), but in terms of raw quality, some of them might as well be bootlegs.
To use the example above, the Scarecrow Records licensed pressing of that Avantasia two-parter is a perfect example of the cheap, shoddy nature of these licensed labels. The first-party edition of the boxset – the version I own – is a lovely, glossy box, with hardbound digibooks inside, two for the albums and one for a special booklet with additional commentary. The Scarecrow Records pressing replaces the hardbox with a thin cardboard shell, the albums are housed in cheap digipaks instead, and the bonus booklet is actually misprinted and missing a couple pages. I used to frequent Tobias Sammet’s official forum, and a fan who decided to jump the gun by ordering from Scarecrow found himself in for a nasty surprise on mail day, which is how I know this.
So, the confident music collector strides forth, secure in their task to avoid South American licensed pressings, and – wait, you, I’m not done.
The problem is, when you’re cruising the Amazon marketplace or Ebay looking for that killer deal, a lot of sellers don’t feel it particularly necessary to mention that what they’re selling is a licensed pressing, and I’ve gotten burned a few times just because I didn’t think I needed to ask: as far as they’re concerned, the pressing they’re selling is technically official, and that’s good enough for them.
As far as the individual sellers go who are doing this, I don’t know whether they’re intentionally trying to trick people, or if it’s just cold business (Buy low from South America and be able to sell relatively cheaply). But when I was a kid, my local dollar-store sold these counterfeit Pokemon cards: the colours were washed out, the size was ever-so-slightly incorrect, and they just felt crappy compared to the real cards. I never found out if that dollar store didn’t know it was peddling bum product or if it knew and just didn’t care because it could receive the product cheaper from its suppliers. It’s kind of the same concept here: ignorance and naivety that they’re pawning off crap, or a deliberate attempt to dupe the consumer into purchasing what amounts to the equivalent of a bootleg ‘Spoder-Man’ action figure?
And, in fairness, I’ve come across licensed pressings that were just as passable as their first-party counterparts…but I could count them on one hand. But really, if you’re going to collect physical music instead of just paying to rent the files on iTunes, why wouldn’t you want your collection to look and feel good? These licensed pressings, on average, are just too ratty to count as quality. In terms of official CDs, if the average major-label release is average physical quality and Japanese CDs sit at the top, then licensed pressings sit at the very far bottom.
(Speaking of Japan, if you’re into Japanese artists such as power-metal stalwarts Galneryus and browsing Ebay for deals, you may run across South Korean licensed pressings of their work. I need to make a distinction here – while I try to go first-party whenever possible, Korean licensed albums in my experience do not seem to suffer from an endemic lack of quality as Scarecrow/Icarus pressings do; they’re safe to buy, in my opinion, and you won’t feel ripped off.)
The saving grace – sometimes – is that they’re cheaper than the first-party pressings, so you can either decide to get what you pay for, or know to avoid the deals that seem too good to be true.
Thing is, it’s not just South America any more. Nuclear Blast’s usage of licensed pressings has exposed itself as a purely cost-cutting measure, at the acknowledged expense of physical quality, now that North American customers have to put up with them licensing to a German company called Metalville, who put out sub-par products in the same vein as the Scarecrows and Icaruses of the world: dull and washed-out cover art, flimsy jewel cases, unpleasant-looking typeface inside the cheap booklets, and a seller base that usually doesn’t feel it necessary to tell you whether you’re getting the genuine article or a crappy pressing borne of sheer Scrooge McDuck penny-pinching corporate cynicism.
And – if I can digress on the Nuclear Blast point for a minute – it’s staggering, really. In one respect, Nuclear Blast are leading the way for the continued survival of physical media with things like Earbooks – luxurious hardbound pressings with blown-up artwork – and yet for those who don’t know where else to look, they offer up such pathetic, cheap bottom-of-the-barrel pressings that you can almost taste their contempt.
But hey – there’s an easy way to test that ignorance-or-malice hypothesis I posed earlier: if you’re suspicious about a listing, email the seller directly and ask them if what they’re selling is a licensed pressing, or if the case lists the album as being “under license to” anybody. Use those exact words. If they say no, then you’re good to go; if they say yes, look elsewhere for the album; if they say no and you still receive a licensed pressing, then you have recourse to have your money refunded.
So I’ll ask again – if you value the physical copy, why on earth would you want this?
The answer is, you wouldn’t.
Collector’s Watchdog, out.