Major retailers like Borders are bundling free goodies with CDs by Paul McCartney, Sarah McLachlan, and more

If you’re a music buff, nowadays it really pays to shop at the right place. Sarah McLachlan fans found that out as word spread that a two-CD limited edition of her new album, Surfacing, included a bonus CD-ROM featuring two otherwise unavailable audio tracks (”Prayer of Saint Francis” and an alternate version of ”Sweet Surrender”) plus 40 minutes of multimedia material — at no extra cost. The caveat: This package was available only from Lilith tour sponsor Borders Books and Music, and if you haven’t picked it up by now, you may already be a loser.

The McLachlan twofer is just the latest enticement from a major chain trying to herd an artist’s entire fan base into its stores with exclusive offerings. Sometimes this takes the form of an actual album: Wal-Mart wooed record buyers earlier this year with Made in America, an Aerosmith rarities EP, and Blues Hat, a Charlie Daniels studio album, neither available anywhere else; coming soon to Blockbuster, meanwhile, is a low-priced live album from Ringo Starr.

The more common incentive, though, has been ”value-added” packages, in which mass merchandisers bundle key CDs with everything from posters and patches to temporary tattoos and guitar picks. Only lately, though, have these prizes crossed over from Cracker Jack-level trinkets into actual bonus CDs.

If you bought one of the initial copies of Paul McCartney’s Flaming Pie at Best Buy, your reward was a free disc containing one of the Oobu Joobu BBC radio shows that Macca did two years ago, including a sound-check performance of ”Mother Nature’s Son.” This followed Best Buy’s Beatles promotion, in which archival Fab Four interview CDs were offered as premiums with all three Anthologys. And there was a run on Borders last month by McLachlan fans; the chain accounted for 6 to 7 percent of Surfacing‘s initial sales.

”It’s almost too good a trend to be true,” says Pete Howard, publisher of ICE, annotator of CD minutiae. ”Everybody loves a free T-shirt or pick, but it’s hard to imagine a better tchotchke than a disc of unreleased music…. You have to look at it and wonder how the label makes any money.” They don’t, typically, but value-added CDs do carry the dual benefit of spiking first-week sales and establishing a very cozy relationship with one retail chain.

But is it worth alienating the others? Despite ongoing entreaties from the Wal-Marts of the world, Capitol Records general manager Lou Mann says his label has nixed any more value-added pieces because stores that don’t get the giveaways get resentful. ”We have been approached and asked to keep it a level playing field,” says Mann, ”and I want to do that, because I really value these other retailers, too.” How to explain the Beatles and McCartney bonuses, then? Best Buy did an end run around Capitol and licensed those from other sources — in the latter case, making a direct deal with Macca’s management.

Arista marketing VP Jim Swindel isn’t keen to leave anybody out either. His label created a second bonus CD — an EP featuring four rare McLachlan tracks (including her cover of Joni Mitchell’s ”Blue”) — to give away with Surfacing at shops belonging to the Independent Coalition of Retailers. The gesture, Swindel says, is intended ”to give something back to Sarah’s base, because her success stemmed from those mom-and-pop stores.” The value-added trend may be turning into a political headache for labels, but for collectors, it’s a buyer’s market.