The End of Hidden Tracks?


From cover of In Utero, Nirvana, DGC, 1993

by David Beer

Holding down the fast forward button on your CD player, eventually the sound of a mysterious hidden track would rush by. An all-too-quick blur of noise. Then you’d have to skip back a bit to get to the start of the song. In other cases it was rewinding into the space before the first listed track – listening to the track in rapid reverse motion before letting it play back.

The hidden or secret track was tucked away in the recesses of the CD – only to be found but those who knew where to look.

Despite its allure, the hidden track seems to have had its day. It was not exclusive to the CD, but that was the format that best suited it. When it came to concealing songs, the grooves of vinyl were tricky and the linear spools of the cassette tape were impossible. This meant that the dominant years of the CD, which roughly covered the 90s through to about 2006, was also the time of the hidden track.

On reflection it’s hard to be sure why any musicians bothered with it. What was the point of concealing a song they had taken the time to write and perform? They could have just included the track on the album, or used it as a B side. Yet there was something about the insider-secret of a hidden track. It was something extra to discover and discuss. Something else to make you feel like a part of a movement or cultural event. It was a little sprinkle of enigma on the bland shiny disk.

Beyond the mystery, it’s hard to see what purpose they served. Maybe musicians or labels enjoyed setting up a game for fans to play. Maybe there are other motives. I remember my CD copy of Nirvana’s album In Utero having a sticker that simply read “devalued American dollar purchase incentive track” . It was a reference to the secret song it contained. It’s hard to believe that the extra track would really help sales, and its obvious anyway that the sticker wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. It’s hard to imagine, of course, that there was a financial incentive driving the hidden track. Although it could have been a product of the more lavish budgets that many record companies had back then.

The question remains: just because a CD could facilitate it, why bother with a hidden track? Maybe there was just something appealing in creating bit of shared mystery. The discovery is what music is often about, the finding of something new. Finding or uncovering music that feels like it was out of sight is part of the joy of music fandom. Maybe these concealed songs were an extension of that.

These concealed songs are still likely to crop up from time to time on CD releases, but streaming leaves little space for anything to be hidden. This is a common property of today’s media – they leave little space for mystery. They are often based on revealing as much as possible. These media are also premised on putting as much as possible out front. Generally, with our expansive media, there is less mystery about. The technology has shifted and left the hidden track behind, it is unlikely to make a comeback. The B side looks likely to be going the same way. Washed away by the flow of streamed content.

Piece originally published at Fragments of Modernity.