ARTS / Cries & whispers

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The Independent Culture
ON Thursday the Monopolies and Mergers Commission declared, after a 13-month investigation, that there was no evidence of price-fixing in the record business. This is being hailed as an exoneration. If so, it is a dismally unconvincing one.

There was never likely to be evidence of price-fixing. What did the investigators expect to find - fuzzy recordings of car-phone calls from the chief executive of EMI to his opposite number at Sony / Columbia, saying are you free for tennis on Sunday and by the way shall we both charge the shops pounds 8 for a new CD?

This column has been campaigning against the pounds 14- pounds 15 album for 21 2 years now. But we have never claimed that there is evidence of a cartel. What we have said is this: if there were a cartel, the situation would be just as it is. There might as well be one, because all the big companies charge about the same price for a CD, and that price is too high. We've said so, you've said so, the Labour Party has said so, the all-

party National Heritage Select Committee has said so.

Most significantly, W H Smith has said so too. Smith's runs more record shops in Britain than anyone else - more than one company ought to. But it is not among the villains of this piece. Along with its rivals, HMV and Tower, it can see that record-buyers are fed up, and offers them discounts. Meanwhile the people who actually produce CDs bury their heads in the sand.

They will continue to, while government agencies issue judgments such as Thursday's. We knew the Monopolies Commission was out of touch - this is the body which thinks that perfume is not overpriced. What I for one didn't realise was just how out of touch. Half of its report on CDs is anodyne. The other half is asinine. A few examples:

'The major companies compete vigorously among themselves.' Not on price, they don't.

'Prices for full-priced popular CDs were on average 7 to 9 per cent higher in the UK than in the USA.' The MMC and I must visit different shops. In my experience, and that of the Select Committee, the difference is 30 to 50 per cent.

'There is a monopoly but it does not operate against the public interest.' I ask you.

Never mind the bollocks, advised the Sex Pistols, who knew a bit about record companies, having been fired by two of them. Bollocks is a fair description of the MMC report. But we ought to mind. Enough to shop around, and thus let the business know, in the only language it speaks, that prices are too high. Now more than ever, don't pay full price if you can help it. Start at Tower, where the Top 40 is on sale for a tenner - the figure we had in mind all along.