What's up with those screwy CD prices? David Browne hopes that record labels are finally waking up to the obvious fact that if they charge less for albums they'll sell more
Andrew W.K.
Credit: Andrew WK: Eric McNatt/Retna

What’s up with those screwy CD prices?

Speaking with the president of a record company last month, I was finally able to ask someone in his position an important (well, relatively important) question for our time: What’s up with CD prices? Why does one new album cost $15 or $16, while another is 5 bucks less?

With a sigh, he explained why. A longtime and well-regarded American band he had just signed would have its new summer release priced at the standard $18.98 list price. But a young, punkier act he was hoping to break would list for $12.98. Older fans of the veterans, he said, would pay extra, while the latter band’s teen fans would only be able to shell out so many dollars.

Finally, someone in the business admitted what anyone who walks into a record store has known for years: CD pricing makes no sense whatsoever — and, in fact, it seems completely arbitrary. List prices extend from $18.98 down to $12.98 depending on the musician and record company. The worst offender by far is the Universal conglomerate, which had the nerve to just RAISE the prices of new albums (Ja Rule, Ludacris, the ”Scorpion King” soundtrack) by a buck, to $19.98. Call it Ja nerve.

For such relentless gouging despite falling production costs, the business is paying its own hefty price. Record purchases are plummeting faster than the Dow. One week last month, according to Billboard, overall sales were 12 percent lower than they were at the same time last year. People are tired of shelling out nearly 20 bucks to find they only like a couple of songs; no wonder they’re downloading so much. Sales have dropped so drastically that to get into the top 10, an act only has to move about 50,000 albums — about half of what it took in years past.

Executives appear to be learning, albeit slowly, from this people’s court. In a desperate bid to get consumers to sample music by new musicians, labels are actually dropping prices for what may be the first time ever. Those $5-to-$10 stickers on releases by N.E.R.D., Norah Jones, Nappy Roots, and Andrew W.K. are no mistake. (And they’re each worth investigating, from W.K.’s steroid hair metal to Jones’ folk-jazz dinner-party music to the frisky, unconventional hip-hop derivations of N.E.R.D. and Nappy Roots.)

In a development that shouldn’t surprise anyone with functioning gray matter, the strategy is working: Those discs are all moving up the charts. Some also credit the success of the Ashanti album to sale prices way below its $18.98 list. How about that: If you price music lower, they will come.

Maybe the business will learn from this lesson; maybe prices will continue to drop. Yeah, and maybe terrorism will be eliminated forever from the planet. As we’ve seen in concert halls, ticketbuyers no longer seem to mind paying up to $200 for the best seats at a classic-rock show; there’s always someone for whom money is no object. But the trend in cheap CDs, even if it’s newborn, is still a small victory. The season of our disc-content has arrived.