Should an album be £1?
This morning BBC News reports a call by a leading record industry figure that the cost of an album should drop to £1. But is this a sensible course for the industry to take?
Rob Dickins, who was head of Warner Music from 1983 until 1998, suggested at In The City in Manchester that if record labels slashed the cost of long players to just £1 they would see massively increased sales. This, he says, would offset the loss of revenue per unit.
He advocates a 'micro economy' in which music fans would buy many more units for far lower prices.
Dickins said: "If you're a fan of REM and you've got 10 albums and there's a new album coming out, you've got to make that decision about whether you want it or not.
"If we lived in a micro-economy, that wouldn't be a decision. You'd just say 'I like REM' and you'd buy it."
The biggest selling albums could sell 200 million copies, he believes, when last year's biggest seller, I Dreamed A Dream by Susan Boyle sold eight million. As a ballpark figure, an artists might expect to get about £1 per album sold at the moment. Let's say if an album retails for £1, the artist might expect 10p. If Dickins is right, and an album sold 200 million copies, they'd see £20 million.
So that sounds all right doesn't it? Well, the rest of the record industry will resist downward pressure on unit prices. Chris Cooke, editor of music industry newsletter CMU, predicted that the major labels would "resist it hugely".
"It is a gamble," he said. "Once you've slashed the price of an album you can't really go back. It's a big risk and the record companies will resist it. But he's not alone, outside the record companies, in saying perhaps that is the future."
I believe instinctively in music as art, and should have a value that reflects that status. However, a CD or a download is a copy, not an original. You'd have to fork out millions to buy a van Gogh original, but you can buy a postcard of Sunflowers for less than a pound. It might not be strictly analogous, but maybe music should be viewed as a cheaper commodity than we're used to.
When I worked in a record shop in the 1990s a full-price CD was anything up to £16, with usual prices around the £13 or £14 mark. But in the past 15 years prices have gone steadily downwards as major supermarkets and online retailers have come to the fore. Now albums are almost seen as loss-leaders; a mere promotional item for the core revenue generators of live music and merchandising.
The partnerships between artists and newspapers for free album give-aways are an indication of the way things are going and it's difficult to argue - as N-Dubz manager Jonathan Shalit does - that music is "a valuable form of art. If you want the person to respect it and value it, it's got to cost... a significant sum of money".
If the cost of an album does collapse to £1 or so, I'm sure more people will buy them - therefore obtaining music legally - and it's obviously better for artists to be paid a small part of something rather than nothing. Whether 200 million people would find the strength to fork out for Susan Boyle's new opus is another matter entirely.
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