ARTS / Cries & whispers

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The Independent Culture
A YEAR ago tomorrow, I quietly launched a campaign to bring down the price of compact discs. Many record shops were selling 'full-price' CDs (translation: the ones you're most likely to want) for pounds 14. There was a widespread feeling that this was too much. The price in America (around dollars 15) was more like it: music lovers in Britain were being ripped off. 'I recognise that this little gesture may not change the world,' I wrote, 'but you do what you can.' All the record-buyer could do was seek out discounts: it seemed the only language the music business would understand. So I invited readers to recommend discount shops, and said I'd pass on the tips. I imagined the campaign would run for a few weeks, and give the biz a little to think about.

I was wrong. It is still running now, and it has given the biz a lot to think about. As one executive told me, late last year: 'the BPI hasn't had one meeting this year that your campaign hasn't been discussed at. You've ruined their year, basically.' This wasn't quite the idea, but it beats being ignored.

A newspaper campaign is only as good as its readers' response, and we were lucky. Letters flowed in from every corner of the country - except, for some reason, Reading. There were far more than I was able to answer, and if yours went unacknowledged, I can only apologise. The tips ran in this column, a few at a time, for a few months, and in May we rolled them up into a bumper, six-page directory, back issues of which have now sold out. Britain's two best-selling CD bands, Dire Straits and Simply Red, supported the campaign. I found myself going on national television and a string of local radio stations, and even into the witness box at the Old Bailey (C&W, 8 Nov). We received the ultimate compliment: Music Week, the voice of the industry, called us 'tedious'.

More importantly, things changed. The record companies put their hands over their ears and hoped we'd go away, but the people who actually deal with the customers listened. For the first time in the 10 years of CD, the big chains competed on price, offering pounds 3- pounds 5 off batches of quite decent albums.

The music business is in a bad way. Profits are holding up, but sales are not. In the week before Christmas, sales were 20 per cent down on 1991. CD sales are still rising, but only because people are replacing their old LP collections. That won't happen for much longer, and then the business will feel the heat of its biggest problem: the fact that only only half as many homes have CD players as have turntables. The reason is blindingly clear: people are put off by the high prices.

So as not to bore everyone rigid, I will now be making this point less often. But as long as prices are high, and readers feel strongly, and there's something to say, the campaign continues.

IT'S sad when a great man dies, and sadder still when he goes on the same day as a greater one. Dizzy Gillespie did it with Nureyev. Bernard Miles did it with Peggy Ashcroft. Poor Aldous Huxley and CS Lewis did it with JFK. Gillespie naturally got less attention than Nureyev. But one outlet treated them equally: Teletext, new holder of the Oracle franchise. It gave them six sentences each. Even its ugly sisters, the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard, did better. Teletext's boss said recently (in the Standard) that he had 4,000 pages to play with, and would offer fuller coverage than broadsheet newspapers. No doubt that's what he said in the franchise application, too.