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for November 20, 2003

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Less Is More?
by Sean Carolan

The latest trial balloon floated by the music industry seems about as cynical as a trial balloon can get. Here's the bumper-sticker version:
Customers complain about two things: the insanely high price of CDs, and the overwhelming mediocrity of the discs offered. So, their thought process tabulates (and according to comments recently made by Howard Stringer, who runs Sony Corporation of America, and recently echoed in the music press) the solution must be CDs with fewer songs sold for cheaper prices.
I'll continue when you stop laughing. Ahem.
There is value to a limited-length release. U2's "Live At Red Rocks" was a significant milestone in their burgeoning career. Even the "longer" original Beatles releases in the UK clocked in at no more than 35 minutes (though it does beg the question of why the White Album is a double-CD set.) A shorter format allows an artist to focus better, and not concern themselves with overextending themselves in an attempt to fill the entire 80-minute space available on a CD.
Looking back into the mists of history, we see that there was once a very popular limited-length format: the single. Of course, it's been completely abandoned by the record industry as a format for breaking new artists, for no readily appreciable reason other than greed. So shorter releases, even only featuring one or two songs, actually do make sense.
Even so, record companies need to rejigger their thinking to make this a reality, because "short" releases, in the past, were regarded by record companies as something less than a true album. Thomas Dolby, for instance, sold about a million of the "Blinded By Science" EP, but found (much to his dismay) that the label regarded it as a promotional item, and thus didn't have to pay him a royalty on it. At all. Sell a million, make no money - that's the artist's life, apparently.
The problem with shorter releases is this: if I'm any judge of the record industry, I'm quite sure they'll remain overpriced. Right now, according to the FMQB article cited above, artists contracts are centered around 16-song releases wholesaling for US$ 12. My guess is they'll attempt to wholesale 10-song releases for US$ 10.
Once again, the music industry does not exist in a media vacuum, though it often acts as though it does. In an environment where a DVD that guarantees roughly two hours of entertainment costs roughly the same as a 16-song disc with maybe three good songs, and where video games promise an even more engrossing environment for far longer, the customer's perception will remain that CDs are not worth spending money on.
So is a $5 album the answer? Perhaps, but it's only targeting a facet of the issue. The real issue is value for money paid, and unfortunately, the record industry doesn't know how to see that for the calamatous market force that it is.

©2003 Sean Carolan

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.


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