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The Practical and Ethical Considerations of Sourcing Album Versions for Each TBVO

Josh Mound

A few of my first Club TBVO posts dealt with how to be an ethical music fan in the age of streaming. In the second of those articles, I concluded that ethical music consumers should purchase in-print media, but that the ethics are a bit murkier when the release in question in out-of-print. In this Club TBVO entry, I'd like to lay out how I research my TBVO columns and how I acquire all of the necessary releases in light of these rough ethical guidelines.


My research always begins at Discogs. While the Discogs page for a given album occasionally misses a very new or exceedingly rare release, it's the best resource for all of an album's physical releases. Using Discogs, I'll look at the scanned liner notes from each physical release to determine which CDs, DVDs, and SACDs contain the same mastering. Any release where I cannot definitively nail down the mastering goes on my "to buy" list.


Discogs does less well when it comes to download- or streaming-only versions. To suss out those, I look at Qobuz, HDTracks, 7Digital, Acoustic Sounds, and ProStudioMasters. With some exceptions, these sites tend to have the same selection, but occasionally one will have a unique release or more identifying details about a particular release. (Acoustic Sounds and ProStudioMasters tend to provide better source information, in my experience.)


Finally, I'll read relevant discussion threads on sites like Steve Hoffman Forums, Audiophile Style, Quadrophonic Quad, and other audiophile sites to make sure I haven't overlooked a release. In the process, I'll also take notes on what fans think are duplicate masterings, but absent clear proof, I won't use others' claims to cross a release off my list as a duplicate.


My final master "to buy" list will include release that I know to contain unique masterings, as well as ones whose mastering lineage is unconfirmed.


From here, I begin the often costly process of purchasing all of these releases. For in-print releases, a purchase is automatic, especially when the release is the product of an audiophile or boutique label that needs audiophiles' support to stay afloat.


When it comes to out-of-print releases, I can in theory avail myself of rips that can be found in various dark and not-so-dark corners of the interwebs and still comply with the aforementioned ethical audiophile consumer code. However, in reality things aren't so simple.


The goal of TBVO is to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the often copious number of releases for each classic album. Prior to writing my TBVO on Steely Dan's Aja, for example, it was unclear which CDs contained what's thought to be (perhaps erroneously) Steve Hoffman's mastering. Moreover, CDs containing this mastering were believed to be incredibly rare, with only a few thousand existing in the world. Making matters more difficult, one could only differentiate these CDs by looking at the matrix information etched into the inner-ring of each disc's underside. The artwork and catalog numbers were the same. What I found is that, despite different track lengths and peak levels, many of these discs actually contained the same (possible) Hoffman mastering. However, I could've never come to that conclusion unless I actually confirmed each disc's matrix info.


Needless to say, most pirates don't take the time provide a hi-resolution scan of the underside of the CD whose rip they're placing online. Instead, it's likely that they'll only provide the catalog number and perhaps a scan of the front and rear of the jewel case. In most cases, this isn't nearly enough information for a TBVO. 


As a result, I end up purchasing the vast majority of the releases analyzed in each TBVO.


The total cost for each TBVO varies, depending on the number of known different masterings and undetermined masterings, as well as how common or rare each is. My TBVO of Kate Bush's Hounds of Love came in at the lower end, with a grand total of just over $150. Tracking down all of the relevant releases for my TBVO of Muddy Waters's Folk Singer, on the other hand, cost just under $350.


While I haven't added up all of the other TBVOs' cost, I can comfortably say that Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which I've been chipping away at for several years, is shaping up to be the costliest. Here's just one section of my Discogs purchase for that upcoming TBVO:


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The above represents only a third of the single-disc copies that I've purchased thus far. I've also had to buy two copies of the Shine On box, for more than $100 each, plus the recent "Immersion" Dark Side box.


Ultimately, the math for each TBVO is tricky. For Hounds of Love, I spent less on versions than I made writing the TBVO. For Folk Singer, I spent a little more than I made. And all this isn't factoring in things like purchasing books, or the time I spend writing (though the fact that I find writing each TBVO fun means that it doesn't feel like "work" in the traditional sense).


I don't expect to make a profit on every TBVO, but I'd like to do my best to break even. That, in part, is why I started Club TBVO.



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