Friday, July 07, 2006


Universal Records have revealed their plans to allow the physical CD to fight back against the digital download: they're inventing a format they see as the equivalent of a paperback book.

The idea is to release catalogue CDs in a stripped-down format, the basic CD. It'll come in a card sleeve and sell for about nine euro (roughly seven quid), shorn of all extras like insert booklets and those little bits which are meant to hold the CD in place but break off and rattle about in the jewel case.

There's some problems with this strategy.

First, there's the belief that setting the price at roughly the same level of cost as buying a full download album is the right way to go. But, of course, the joy of online purchasing is you can skip the fillers and padding and tracks you've already got on single, so being able to buy the whole lot of Shimmery Songs by the Bibble-Bobbles for price X isn't automatically going to be attractive, as for X online you could get all the tracks you want from, say, three albums.

Second, setting the price of the basic product at the same level as the cost of an album download underlines that downloads are over-priced: if Universal can make, ship and store a physical product for price X, why are you paying the same price for the same thing when there's no crate, shelf space, plastic, card and so on involved?

Meanwhile, with the news that HMV are trying to reverse their own physical sales decline by offering full-package catalogue CDs at a fiver (and a similar price for most old CDs in supermarkets), Universal's seven quid for a stripped down disc seems to be hugely overpriced for the marketplace. Faced with the choice of an EMI disc with booklet and lyrics and photos for five quid, or something on Universal in card with just the name of the tracks, and what would you go with?

Besides, offering just the music shows that Universal have missed what should be the physical product's USP: that it's a lovingly produced, complete package. If I can spend seven quid, and have the music now, or else take a trip to town (or wait for the post to come) and have just the music for the same price, where's the value in the delay? It might be worth the delay if I'm going to get some glossy photos of my favourite artists (perhaps in their pants) or some mini-essay by Paul Morley putting the skiffle movement into the context of post-Gaudian art, or at least a box I can lean on when I write a letter to the council.

It's hard to imagine what the attraction to Universal is of this plan. They do claim to have sold three million bit-rubbish format discs while trialling the idea in Europe. We wonder if they're keen to shore up CD sales this way because they're able to sting their artists for more cash (to cover the costs of manufacture and distribution) when the songs are sold on a physical disc than they can when they're sold in a digital download.

But that would be cynical, wouldn't it? And we all know that the labels do what they do for the artists, not for themselves.


Andrew said...

the joy of online purchasing is you can skip the fillers and padding and tracks you've already got on single...

Precisely! When will the record companies figure that out?

AC @ bloggedy blog

Anonymous said...

Around the time that CD joins minidisc, vinyl and cassette. The ones I feel sorry for are the people who handcraft CD racks from bamboo or beach wood. What will they do now?

Chris Brown said...

This isn't actually quite as new as it looks - for the last three months or so they've been flogging some of these cheapo things in Woolworths for about six or seven quid a throw. Most of it seems to be Greatest Hits albums, apart from Jamie Cullum.

I presume some people must be buying them, but I wouldn't. Talk about falling between two stools.

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