Consumers consider $18 for a CD too much. Record labels argue the price covers expensive development and marketing costs. But what do the artists think?
"That's way too high," Lifehouse singer Jason Wade stated bluntly.
"It is one of the greatest consumer scams," fumed singer Mike Patton (Tomahawk, Fantômas, Faith No More).
"Kids don't want to take a chance because there's so much sh-- out there," the Calling's Aaron Kamin explained. "I wouldn't want to buy a record for $18 either."
"I would buy a CD if it was $10.99," added Nelly. "Coming from a consumer standpoint, if I was somebody off the street, I might even buy two."
"Who wants to spend $20 when your friend will burn you a copy of the one good song on the CD? Not me," admitted former Soul Coughing singer Mike Doughty.
Clearly, artists have sided with consumers, which could explain why labels and retailers are beginning to offer lower-priced albums.
"We can argue and fight to get them priced how we want," Stroke 9 singer Luke Esterkyn said. "We do have a say."
Indeed. But certainly the music industry has other motivations for the recent trend of price reducing, which has resulted in new Linkin Park and Bruce Springsteen albums selling for as low as $9.99.
The labels realize, as Doughty pointed out, how good downloading free music from illegal file-trading programs like Kazaa looks to consumers when the other option is spending nearly $20 on one album. While they struggle to shut down such companies, many of which are based overseas, the labels are experimenting with ways to improve CD sales, which have fallen 12 percent in the last year.
"I definitely think that sale prices help to sell CDs," said Brian Fair, singer for metal band Shadows Fall. "People will be less likely to burn a copy from a friend if they can get the whole packaging for a low price. And with such a huge emphasis on SoundScan numbers these days, it always helps to have large sales at major chains in weighted markets."
The music business is all about SoundScan numbers these days, added chart-topper Nelly. "As far as the labels go, they looking at it from a marketing standpoint."
Scanning sales figures, the labels appear to have benefited from making releases cheaper. Albums from Ashanti and Musiq both made big debuts on top of the Billboard 200 albums chart, perhaps partially due to their under $10 price tags (factoring in the rebate that came with Ashanti) (see "Musiq Tops Albums Chart, Lauryn Hill Makes Big Debut").
"It was very important to put [Ashanti] out at a reasonable price, especially the first week," Ashanti said.
Vanessa Carlton, whose Be Not Nobody was $8.98 in some stores, debuted at #5. And in recent weeks, records from the Vines and Trust Company have benefited from prices even lower than $9 in some stores — both acts made top 20 debuts.
"When our first record came out, it was like $7.99 in one of those little cheapie bins," Lifehouse's Wade said. "When everybody started selling them, then all of a sudden it's like 19 or 20 bucks. I remember when I was like 12 [years old], they were like $14.99 or something. That seems a little bit more reasonable. Twenty-five bucks is kind of ridiculous."
Sale prices have been particularly effective in breaking up-and-comers like Norah Jones, John Mayer and the White Stripes, all of whom had their CDs debut at prices under $10 at some outlets. And as radio stations consolidate and it becomes harder to get new music on the air, record companies are looking to do anything they can to expose young talent.
"I have always been a believer in discount pricing for developing artists," said Greg Spotts, a music industry veteran who co-founded the Shortlist Organization last year to reward groundbreaking artists (see "Strokes, Neptunes, Beck, Spike Jonze Nominate Discs For Shortlist"). "We need to return to the days when music was an impulse buy, especially for artists who are just beginning to receive exposure."
"This is a great way to expose new artists to a price-sensitive market," added Destiny's Child manager Mathew Knowles, who is introducing several rookie acts on his Music World Music label this year. "I see [reducing prices] as more for new artists."
Marc Roberge, singer for Ohio roots rockers O.A.R., feels music fans will be more willing to take a chance on a new artist if their music is priced reasonably. "With the low price there is a reduced risk, which creates a heightened interest and a greater desire among people to want to try it out," he said.
Alternative metal band Soil are among the many new bands that have experimented with value-priced CDs. Guitarist Shaun Glass explained that, like many artists, Soil came out of the gate at less than $7 at some outlets to bolster initial sales, and then later settled at the still low price of $10. "Everyone can benefit from the exposure," he said of the $7 or lower tag, which usually garners special placement in ads for Best Buy and other retailers.
Another factor that may be influencing record companies is the rise of DVDs, which have increased in sales in recent years as their prices have dropped. Not only could this be a retail blueprint for CDs, but labels are also looking at DVDs as competition for shoppers' entertainment dollars.
"With $100 million movies for sale on DVD for $15.99, consumers are going to think twice before buying a CD for $20," Shortlist's Spotts said.
"$18.99 is far too high for a CD when you consider that you can buy a DVD with four hours of bonus footage for the same price," added Rob Thiessen, bassist for Canadian metal band Noise Therapy, whose August 13 release, Tension, can be pre-ordered for lower than $12 via such online retailers as Amazon.com.
Movie studios, however, make back most of their bottom line in theaters. Record companies depend on CD sales to stay afloat. And without high profits from sales, they cannot develop and market as many new acts.
Musicians' pocketbooks, it is important to note, are not affected as much by the price of CDs, as their record contracts usually stipulate they get paid a standard amount, typically $1 or less, per CD sold.
"It's fine for us, because our record company takes the hit, and they're not the best people all the time," said Kamin of the Calling, whose debut was initially priced below $10. "And we get the benefit of having people want to buy our record. [Lower prices] only help the artist."
Added Wade, "How we survive is by touring. If there's going to be a bunch of people downloading our records off the Internet and that's going to make them come see us, then more power to them. I don't feel sorry for the record labels at all. I feel like they've got plenty of money."
The question facing the music industry is whether there is a way for everyone to be happy.
Some, including Pamela Horovitz, president of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, have suggested bringing back CD singles. In a letter to labels and distributors, she wrote that the once-popular singles give consumers who just want one song a more reasonable option.
Former Soul Coughing singer Doughty agreed. "I think that's the only way to get people to want to go to CD stores again," he said. "If you could buy an armload of CD singles at a buck a pop, that would be totally fun, wouldn't it?"
Perhaps we will find out soon.