HMV Wimbledon. On the left the 'limited edition' cardboard gatefold copy, on the right the standard edition plastic jewel case copy.
What's the difference? Nothing, in terms of the content: disc, inlay card with some of the lyrics (yes, some). The 'limited edition' is already deleted though - once the cardboard-sleeved copies have gone, they're gone.
However - and here's my beef - surely the fan would be most likely to want a durable physical copy? I wanted to buy my copy as soon as it was released. When I went into HMV Oxford Circus on 1st April I made a point of asking whether it were possible to buy a standard plastic cased copy of the album and was told no (so first black marks to HMV; clearly it is, as evinced above).
Indeed, this was the case when I bought White Chalk, which was only initially available in an envelope (also marked special edition). Later it became available in the UK and on the continent in a plastic case from the date of release, although not in the 'special edition'... although one wonders if there is a difference, given that there clearly isn't between the copies that I saw on the shelf today.
A trend is underway. I also have copies of WALL-E and There Will Be Blood (both 'special' 2-disc editions) in cardboard DVD cases in my living room, already a little frayed at the corners. Both these discs have subsequently been released in plastic cases. When In Rainbows was physically released in 2008 it also came in a White Chalk-style envelope.
Clearly, given the content of WALL-E (the future environmental ruination of the planet), There Will Be Blood (the history of the ruination of the planet) and In Rainbows (meditations on the imminent ruination of the planet, i.e. the track House of Cards) there is some sort of moral imperative to show a will to engage with the content of the media in the manner in which it is packaged, amongst many others. Biodegradable packaging is *to be commended in this respect.
So why is this right-on packaging only used at the time of the product release? Why is it not the only packaging in which this media is available? I suggest it's because there is disproportionately more media scrutiny of the product during the first week of its release and that this is the time for the record company to have its eco-commitment credentials on show. Then, after the first month of sales, no-one's watching any more so a company can revert to plastic, which, being ubiquitous/industry standard is probably cheaper to use.
Additionally, this creates a multi-version market, rather like having an edition of a single or a magazine with a different cover. The fan may feel under some pressure to buy all the available versions for completionist's sake. This becomes even more of an issue in the light of Radiohead's recent pay-what-you-like approach (I'm avoiding calling it a 'stunt' in fairness) for In Rainbows. I paid for the download - 4 months ahead of the physical release - but I'd really like to own the CD, for which I will have to pay a second time. A recent article noted how this approach did nothing to affect the total sales of the physical release.
For Pet Shop Boys fans the irritation is compounded by the cardboard gatefold packaging of their special edition release of Yes... (a week prior to A Woman...) being ever so slightly larger than a CD case as so sitting stubbornly proud of the the rest of a CD collection on a shelf.
Ultimately, what matters is the music. Whether you've downloaded it to a PC, bought it in an envelope, cardboard box, plastic jewel case or tin can, whether it comes with videos, out-takes, little posters or CD-ROMs it's the (in this case 10) tracks that are the draw. I am just disappointed that the companies' producing and distributing the product don't organise the product release to the optimum benefit of the fan (i.e. the core customer base) but rather take advantage of the fan to optimise sales. Which in this time of economy-environment-globalisation contraction seems to rather contradict the whole point of having a 'low carbon' release.
I might add that in this case the artist, who would probably find this all a bit troubling, is totally oblivious. Asked what her website address was (on BBC 6 Music on Monday), Polly didn't know.