Hidden tracks on CDs – what’s the point?

I originally thought that hidden tracks on albums were just tracks added at the end of the album and not listed on the sleeve notes but after doing a bit of reading it seems the history of why artists put hidden tracks on their albums is, in some cases, quite interesting. For example to avoid controversy (Guns n’ Roses, “Look at your game, girl”, The Spaghetti Incident?) by “hiding” the track or to sneak a track onto an album that might cause legal or copyright violations (Ramones, “Cry Baby Cry, Loco).

The methods by which tracks were hidden on vinyl records is also more interesting than I realised: I knew about the method of hiding tracks at the end of an album often separated from the “final” track by an extended period of silence (on vinyl this is sometimes visible by a different density of the groove). I wasn’t aware of the “double-groove” method though, which to me is a more genuinely “hidden” track and quite ingenious.

So in the days when everyone bought their music on pressed vinyl I can almost, maybe, just about see the point of including hidden tracks (by the way, I’m drawing a distinction between a hidden track an a “bonus” track – the latter being an additional track added in later releases of a record or for certain territories as a special edition). But these days when most of us buy music on CD or as digital downloads is there really a place for hidden tracks? For a start most CD players will tell you the total number of tracks as soon as you insert the disc so adding additional tracks not listed on the sleeve seems pointless. If you buy music downloads or rip your CDs you then you have the added problem of how to tag the track. A quick search of my music library (3281 tracks) shows 5 “untitled”, 1 “hidden”, 1 “untitled hidden” – there were probably others that were untitled when I ripped the disc but I’m somewhat “obsessive” about correctly tagging my music. No doubt there are also several others tacked on to the end of the final track after a period of silence (you could argue that these last ones are genuinely hidden because I haven’t managed to find a way of searching my library to find them!). But it’s this last category that I find the most annoying – when listening to an album I want to listen to the whole thing. I don’t want to sit through ten minutes of silence – or even worse than a nice round 10 minutes is something random like 11 minutes and 43 seconds. If I’m driving or listening on my phone’s MP3 player it isn’t convenient to fast-forward through all that silence.

Just as the double-groove was a genuine way of hiding tracks on vinyl, the “pre-gap” in the Red Book audio CD standard allows tracks to be hidden but this time in a way that may never be detected by the casual listener. The pre-gap allows tracks to be hidden before the first track of the disc. Such tracks are almost always inaccessible on a computer’s CD player but some standalone players will playback the track if you go to the start of the first track and then rewind past the start. Pre-gap tracks are too-well hidden for all but the most dedicated listeners though.  I have an album by David Ford which apparently has a track hidden in the pre-gap – I say “apparently” because I’ve still never managed to play it in any CD player I’ve tried! While reading the wikipedia page for pre-gap I discovered that I also have several other CD’s with tracks hidden in this way (Bloc Party, Blur, David Gray, Damien Rice). So really, if you can’t see the track, it’s not listed on the sleeve, and most players won’t play it: what’s the point?

So there’s my case against hidden tracks on CDs. Artists, please take note!

One Comment to “Hidden tracks on CDs – what’s the point?”

  1. Nick 14 December 2010 at 7:49 am #

    It’s a fun little present for dedicated fans, I guess.

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