Universal Music Group to finally wise up on compact disc prices, eventually go broke anyway
Once upon a time -- in my carefree, spending-on-my-disposable-income on music days -- I was a reasonably serious Superchunk fan. What I mean by this is that while I never actually joined any Superchunk fan clubs or email lists or message boards, and though I never made any of their shows, I owned tape dubs, tape originals, and compact disc versions of several Superchunk albums and listened to them loudly when I was feeling angry or passionate about something. At the dawn of my not-all-that-special career as an alt-weekly freelancer, I even reviewed Indoor Living, their 1997 album.
Not long after that, I kinda stopped being a Superchunk fan. Not because the band said something in an interview that offended me or because I got sick of indie rock (that came later) or because Mac McCaughan punched Stephen Malkmus out backstage on a Warped Tour stop in a scrap over which Stiff Little Fingers album was better. (Didn't really happen, far as I know. But wouldn't it be great if it had?) Really, it was all about CD prices.
I didn't live by many rules at that point, but the one I never allowed myself to break was the one where I wouldn't buy a new CD priced over $12.00.
And every single record store I went to sold Superchunk CDs for $12.99 or more each, without exception. All of this probably says more about my fidelity as a fan than anything else -- or what an idiot I was in those days, anyway -- but it goes without saying that it never crossed my mind that that extra dollar might've helped keep Merge's lights on or paid the salary of some hard-working office helper who really needed the cash, or both.
This is where I segue into Universal Music Group finally wising the fuck up about CD pricing, maybe. They're maybe 7 or 10 years too late, but better late than never -- if there's a strategy behind all this, it must be a doozy - and they're much better equipped to loss-leader pop music than Merge and other small labels are. Of course, file sharing has trashed sales and become so ingrained in cultural behaviors that sales growth will be middling, at best. Wal-Mart already sells some back catalogue titles for less than $9.99; I suppose UMG's idea is to mint a price-point-as-brand to seize the attention of idle mall shoppers with $10.50 burning holes in their pocket, to buy the idea of the album-as-physical-object a couple extra years.
What's a bit depressing to consider is that on some level now and for the last couple years, the compact disc has been like a trinket, a toy, a candy bar or a tabloid placed at the checkout counter to snake a bit more bread out of your near-empty wallet; it's been bait for the Best Buys and Circuit Cities and huge chain bookstores of the world for a bit, but by reducing the price of a disc to $9.99, UMG effectively undercuts not just minor labels but its own digital music sales. In case you hadn't noticed, most significant major label albums go for $11.99 or more on iTunes; the pricing revolution the Internet was supposed to engender (no more bricks and mortar to fund, no more physical materials to buy, etc.) is a bust. And what's worse -- what no-one talks about when discussing the astronomical cost of healthcare or groceries or lawn furniture or what have you -- is the fact that because salaries have been in decline since the late 1970s across the board in this country, the incremental and not-so-incremental rise in prices feels like a slap in the face.
Realistically, we should all be paying a lot more for the music we love and love to hate, but we're getting it for next to nothing -- or for nothing, outright -- while most of the people who make and facilitate it solider gamely on, financing their passions through day jobs as bad or worse as the ones we have to drag ourselves to day after day.
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