Drew is back with another Free Talk segment here at Akihabara Renditions! What follows is a tale of 1990s Japanese Animation fandom, international piracy, and goblins.
Ok, Fine, no goblins! It’s more of Drew cleaning junk out of his house. In this piece, we’re going to talk about a staple of the anime fan scene (especially the convention scene) in the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s: Son May and Ever Anime, finest purveyors of bootleg anime CDs.
Before widespread digital music, the masses would listen to music on physical media; in my generation, most of it was on Compact Disc (CD). But this isn’t a history of how humans listened to music via media in the twentieth century, it’s only cursory to the story. Anime, being an extensive medium in Japan, would often have multiple CD products as related merchandise for fans: singles of opening and ending themes, original sound tracks or even what were known as Drama CDs (side-story, radio-play dramas). Some series had multitudes of CDs produced: series such as Bubblegum Crisis or Superdimension Fortress Macross, where music played an integral part to the story and animation or massively popular series such as Dragonball or Sailormoon would have CD after CD printed. Even cases where a show was popular but only for a brief time, like Yoroiden Samurai Troopers between 1988 and 1991, had several soundtracks and drama CDs. Anime, whether tied to commercial popular music or not, saw CDs as a strong merchandise pillar to go after the yen (and dollars) in otaku’s wallets.
However, the CD market in Japan is a weird thing. Like it’s BD and DVD compatriots, the CD market is filled with middle-companies and vertical integration, so CDs come off as very expensive – even before you consider postage or import fees. With anime being a very niche product with thin margins already slim, legitimate CDs imported from Japan were almost like luxury items if you were buying them outside of Japan. Retail prices of $40 to $50 were very common for a standard CD album in a convention dealer’s room and you’d better hope that a CD wasn’t out of print. Compare that to a standard US released CD between $10 and $15 dollars, you can already feel the reluctance of consumers. Some retailers though, made a huge leap to bring in merchandise consumers wanted at a price they were more willing to pay by importing … from somewhere else.
That somewhere else was Taiwan. Taiwan was, then as now, a technological power, growing as one of the Four Asian Tigers during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1992, Taiwan reformed it’s domestic copyright laws, with the intention of stronger international cooperation in the early 2000s. While the 1992 Copyright Act amendments were stronger than the previous Act, it was still very loose compared to most other industrialized nations, such as Japan or the United States. A company began making copies of anime CDs – Son May Records – during the 1990s, using digital CD duplication, what we typically call burning, but also including copies of inserts and silk-screening the top of the discs. While origins have accusations that the company may not have paid licenses at one time or another, others argue they did pay licenses but only limited to the Taiwanese market. Other outfits, such as Ever Anime International, Ho Son Records, Top Circle, and Smile Face International never much seemed to bother. Son May originally started with anime soundtracks and artists. Ever Anime, ironically, first released a number of video game soundtracks. Ho Son, looks like they went after pop music. What wasn’t up for debate was that by 1998, Taiwan was responsible for the second largest amount of counterfeit merchandise in the world (behind the PRC), per Wired, and anime CDs were certainly a part of that. Eventually, all of the bootleg CD labels crossed over into every genre, sometimes even making the same (or similar) CDs as the other labels. The quality of a release varied not just on the record company but even within the record company’s own catalog!
The CDs, the product we were shopping for, were relatively straight forward: many were straight up copies onto CD-R discs (Compact Disc-Recordable, kids), which was fine for playing on a car stereo or other standard, dumb CD player that was common in the 1990s. Playing the disc was reliable but some disc quality issues were easy to spot – gold discs as opposed to standard silver discs or a cloudy luster to the reflective side. Like I mentioned earlier, some of the same anime CDs were licensed for Taiwan by these same companies; I have a good hunch that those were professionally authored and contain all of the metadata you would expect to find on any other legitimate disc. I found going through this same collection, a number of them popped up with the proper metadata in software such as Sound Juicer and K3b, while others popped up with the standard “Unknown Artist” performing “Audio Track” and contained no metadata information.
Packaging design was also rough-shod from title-to-title within the same record label, many times using identical artwork to Japanese albums but just as often, using poorly edited or printed screen captures in liner notes, inserts and occasionally covers. You can see here, on the right is a CD from Top Circle from the Rurouni Kenshin Best Theme Collection (off of a similar Japanese CD) and the left is Son May’s version. Notice the cover artwork that contains multiple images, including the same cover collage from the Top Circle disc. Discs typically had silkscreen or screen-printed covers on the CDs for all releases, which makes it hard to determine exactly which ones might be legitimate Taiwanese licenses and aren’t without looking at the metadata. Top Circle’s ridiculous neon-green jewel case might have been a give-away that there was something fishy but hey, there were some legit CDs that used that as marketing, I’m sure! Inside the liner books, often there would be the lyrics printed in Japanese (just as one would find in a Japanese release) and more art. CDs also had the spine cover obi that Japanese CDs had; often a copy of the Japanese obi only with Taiwan specific information in Chinese but occasionally, either a mix of Japanese and Chinese or a Chinese-only obi.
What makes the legitimacy of these more confusing is when compared to a legitimate Taiwanese release from one of the Son May, Ever Anime, et al. releases is that they are nigh-indistinguishable from a legitimate release for Taiwan itself. Pictured right we have a copy of Morning Musume’s first album, First Morning, looking at the record publisher’s information we see the large zetima printed, and in a smaller face next to it “Distributed by BMG Taiwan”. Zetima is the copyright agent/holder for Morning Musume in Japan (they are branded on MoMusume’s Japanese releases) and BMG is a global record label. Since I picked this up from the same retailer and about the same time-frame as the rest of these anime CDs, I lumped it in together with the rest of them. Only when I started sorting these out did I notice that I’d picked up at least one, verifiable, legitimate CD from Taiwan. But the real question is how do they stack up to legitimate, Japanese CD releases?
So, without having explicit 1:1 comparisons to make, I got the best ones I could together. Pardon if you will, the cracked cases and other marks of multiple moves over the decade-plus of ownership. The CDs featured at top are single-disc, OAV & film sound tracks. The bottom are multi-disc collections of popular, long-running TV series. Some cursory, first glances, the Son May releases look like they could be legitimate releases and investigating more closely, you’re still left to wonder.
Once we look at the reverse of them, we see that they are at least similarly organized. The Bubblegum Crisis CD has a killer give-away, now that I have a lot more Japanese proficiency than I did when I bought it as a hapless teenager: All of the song titles are translated or transliterated from their original Japanese into Traditional Chinese but with the singer credited only in Japanese. This was in the minority of the CDs in my collection, if not the only one. The Dragonball & Dragonball Z leaves only SM Records’ information in Chinese, with everything else as it would appear on a Japanese release. But compared with the legitimate Japanese releases, it is pretty much down to the recording studio’s information that differs really in presentation on most of these releases. It is easy to see how these products proliferated conventions and retail outlets and found their way into many fans’ collections given their drastic price difference if you happened to be able to compare them side by side.
Given the dubious quality and having no clue if a CD was a legit overseas licensed product until you at least saw the metadata, it’s no wonder that Son May and Ever Anime got painted with the broad brush of bootleggers from part of their catalog and product for everything. The research yields that of all of the other companies, only these two even attempted for officially licensed CDs, and it seems given my sample set here, that those were in the minority so I don’t hope to spur on a shopping spree looking for Son May and Ever Anime CDs.
The end of days for the glut of Taiwanese anime, video game and J-POP CDs started on 1 January 2002: starting at the beginning of the year, Taiwan signed onto the World Trade Organization, including enforcement of copyrights of other signatory states. This meant that the number of wholesalers willing to sell these to overseas re-sellers dropped. In Taiwan, post-WTO crackdowns caused outfits like Ever Anime and smaller producers (Top Circle, Archer and the like) to cease operations or scatter and come out with new names. Son May, probably the biggest name in the bootleg soundtrack game, re-incorporated in 2001 as Shengmei CD-ROM Company, based at the same address in Taipei, presumably to go after more legitimate CD duplication business but eventually turned the lights out in 2012. Smile Factory, allegedly, started after 2002 as a shell of Ever Anime and another bootlegger, Alion, to resume their normal business, evading enforcement but were finally found out and shut down in Taiwan.
While fandom had been slowly getting the word out about Taiwanese record publishers and their dubious quality and agreements in place, the influx of bootleg Anime DVDs starting to hit convention shelves started a tide of anti-bootlegging information campaigns to get all of these materials removed from convention hall’s dealers’ floors. As Taiwan was joining the WTO, Internet shopping also grew in scale around this time, too. While eCommerce wasn’t necessarily new, ordering from Japan was easy without importers, via CDJapan.co.jp, or at bargain prices through YesAsia! and Play-Asia. However, the final nail in the coffin was that of what has become the fate of most entertainment media – digital market places. With iPod becoming the brand-recognized portable MP3 player, and itself being usurped by iPhones and Android phones and devices, the move to have your music streaming from “the cloud” or played directly from your device has reduced the need to carry these discs around with you (or in instances, buy them in the first place). Apple’s iTunes store in Japan often has songs and albums from your favorite cartoons and can be purchased with Japanese iTunes gift cards. Other music services might already mimic this. Eventually, what seemed like a glut of product tied up in the market eventually went away as there were no consumers still around looking for physical CDs necessarily on the cheap (unless they were living in or visiting Japan). Like many other music genre fandom, there will always be those who want a physical piece – a CD or a vinyl – but that market has shrunk tremendously as we’ve eliminated the need for a physical item just to even listen to our music. With a few simple clicks of a mouse and clacks on a keyboard, vintage CDs can be bought from Japan via stores and online auctions, never worrying about authenticity or legality. Dubious Taiwanese CDs are a thing of the past and I’m thankful for it.
What’s to become of these CDs though? I’m not willing to put them back into the fandom ecosystem – arguably they shouldn’t have even been there for me to buy in the first place. Even giving them away as prizes or freebies or dropping them at thrift stores leaves a bad feeling that they’re going to get re-sold again, eventually, to some fan who doesn’t know any better. They have been sitting, boxed up for years, and moved between three or four dwellings. So, I’ve gone through them while working on this article, ripped them and now they are off to be recycled. These discs are consigned to the recycling bin of history now, to be melted and re-used, much like their publishers are consigned to the waste bin of fandom history.