If you’re an anime fan in the mid-to-late ’90s or a collector of anime soundtrack CDs, you may notice that in some CDs, there are these initials that appear at the back of the cover: S.M.
You’ll also notice that those initials mean something: Sonmay Records Co. Ltd.
Who are these people and what are they doing to your anime/Jpop CDs you ask? That’s where I come in.
Nowadays, you can purchase your favorite anime soundtracks from digital music stores or listen to them on platforms like Spotify or Tower Records’ Recochaku service, but back in the days of 56k dial-up internet, you have no choice but to either record the opening and ending songs on TV or go to Japan and buy the CDs directly from there.
Collecting CDs, whether it is audio, video, or even video game ones, can drain your wallet in an instant, especially if we’re talking about finding limited releases. This is the case if you’re afraid of going into the bootleg market.
Enter Sheng Mei Trading, a company based in Taiwan. Sheng Mei, or Sonmay as we will call them from here on out, started out dabbling with anisong soundtrack replication back in the late 1980s with OSTs for Hayao Miyazaki movies.
They may not be the first one that comes to mind with Taiwan and anisong, which belongs to Xinxing Records and their anisong tapes in the 70s and 80s, Sonmay became the most notorious name within the international anime community mainly because their CDs are the ones that end up being distributed outside Taiwan.
This has something to do with Taiwanese law, in case you ask why didn’t the government of Taiwan put a stop to this. See, before 2000, enforcement of copyright law in Taiwan isn’t that strict and thus companies like Xinxing and Sonmay could create 1:1 copies of anime soundtracks and just slap their respective logos on them.
At first, Sonmay went with the piracy route of distributing anisong CDs back in the 1980s but starting the next decade, distribution methods changed, and thus, the higher quality of releases from these companies came into being because various recording labels have used them for distribution purposes outside Japan. So in a bit of technicality, companies like Sonmay records are not violating copyright law…because they only sell these CDs in Taiwan, and their licensing rights cover the Taiwan region.
Outside Taiwan though, things can be a problem.
Here’s what’s going on, since Sonmay CDs are much cheaper and more accessible than their Japanese counterparts, what scalpers would do is they would buy a bunch of these CDs and sell them overseas at a much higher price.
Since it’s their label that’s present in these CDs, people equate Sonmay with piracy and thus the image of the company has been dragged to the mud. So much so that they released a statement about this, focusing their attention on neighboring Hong Kong and South Korea.
Thus the debate amongst amine fans regarding the legitimacy of these CDs began to spark on the internet: are Sonmay CDs legitimate CDs or bootlegs? That is a discussion in legality and it depends on you, the consumer if you want quality or something that can save you a couple of bucks so I am not tossing my hat on that. Besides, it’s 2022, and unless you’re a collector like me, there’s no point in buying CDs for the sake of listening to them.
Do you want to know if your anime CD from the 1990s is “legit”? Let me give you some pointers. I’ll be using “Dragon Ball & Dragon Ball Z: Great Complete Collection” as an example here because that’s the one that I have and the Sonmay copy.
As you can see on the right, the original set’s presentation is much more detailed and presentable with each CD in the collection having its own jewel case and the booklet being its own thing.
The Sonmay copy, on the other hand, has all 5 CDs in one jewel case, being separated by this book-style case with the booklet stuck inside the case itself.
The original release also has freebies inside the box with scenes from the first Dragon Ball anime to the second death of Son Goku after the Cell Games. The Sonmay one doesn’t.
While I haven’t seen the insides of the original release’s booklet, the Sonmay release has the booklet pages printed in black and white but it retains the liner notes in Japanese with the layouts from the original release.
January 1, 2002, would signal the end of companies like Sonmay’s foray into anisong CDs as countries like Taiwan and Malaysia would join the World Trade Organization and this put a curb stomp to their practices. This would also mean the end of the companies themselves since, after 2002, they would be out of business.
I just wanted to revisit this part of my childhood and piece of anime fandom history as these paved the way for Japanese companies to start distributing music CDs outside of Japan through legal means. I hope you enjoyed this one and have a good day.