Thanks to Ashanti, music buyers are feeling the luv. When the R&B rookie sold 502,000 copies of her debut album out of the gate in April, many credited the sweet opening price of $8.99. Since then, a flock of new artists have scored with cheap CDs: Aussie rockers the Vines bowed at No. 11 on the Billboard chart with a tag as low as $7.99, and metal newcomers Trustcompany also hit No. 11, selling 78,000 copies for about $6.99 each.

”There’s a price war going on,” says Billboard charts director Geoff Mayfield, adding that the cut-rate deals reflect labels’ and stores’ desperation to lure consumers after a 5 percent drop in total music sales in 2001. And bargain pricing isn’t limited to upstarts. New albums from Bruce Springsteen and Counting Crows have sold for $9.99, well below last year’s $14.99 average. Since discs cost around 30 cents to manufacture, the payoff can be big: The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ By the Way ($9.99 at one chain) moved 282,000 copies in its first week, 93,000 more than week-1 sales of 1999’s Californication.

But not everyone’s in the price-slashing groove. ”Often the label pays [major retailers] to put CDs on sale,” notes Mayfield. As a result, many indie record stores are struggling. Philip Ley, manager of Baltimore’s Soundgarden, has been driven to purchase discs from a big chain and then sell them at a slight markup. Says Ley: ”If we don’t lose any money on new releases, we’re happy.”