RECORDS / The price of silver: Almost everyone now thinks CDs are too expensive - except those who issue them, so good value is still hard to find. Rosanna de Lisle offers some tips

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The Independent Culture
A YEAR ago, with the invaluable help of readers of Jack Hughes's column, we published our Guide to Cheaper CDs. It listed 150 sources of cheaper CDs, compared prices across chainstores and independents, and investigated mail-order companies, the second-hand market and importing from America. Demand for the guide exhausted supply and the quest for the cheaper CD continues. A year on, the campaign has made an impression, and the record companies are soon to be investigated by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. But they have yet to lower their prices. The only way to make them do so is to seek out the best prices you can find. So here we offer a refresher course, and a table (below) showing at a glance how much prices vary from one shop to another.

SHOPS: When the Campaign for Cheaper CDs began, in January 1992, the only shops offering discounts were independents; the chainstores, bar the odd special offer, kept their prices around pounds 12-14. Now it's a bit different. The record companies have put up wholesale prices - to more than pounds 8, for many of the most popular albums - which makes it virtually impossible for shops to charge less than pounds 10.99. Secondly, the chains, which had bullishly ignored our cry, started listening. Walk into any chainstore now, and you'll find a smattering of discounts on chart CDs. However, the price- cuts don't reach as far as back-catalogue, where shocking prices still abound.

Chainstore discounts pose a dilemma for the punter: whether to lap them up, and thereby persuade the chain that lower prices are a good thing, or to stay loyal to the independents, which have consistently undercut the high street, despite operating on tighter margins. When the chains discount, it is often on special terms from record companies. When independents discount, it is more likely their own profit being sacrificed. It has been known for CDs to be on sale in Woolworth for less than the independent down the road would have to pay his supplier for the same titles.

To find a cheaper CD shop near you, look up record dealers in Yellow Pages, and check out prices. The shops that we listed last year were spread far and wide - from Yeovil to York and Newport to Newcastle. They can be identified by a red and white Independent on Sunday 'Recommended Retailer' sticker in the window. Inevitably, some have changed hands, and new managers may or may not cut prices. Equally, there may be new shops offering discounts (or old shops which have seen the light). A ring-round of a few of last year's recommended dealers suggests their prices, around pounds 10.99 for a full-price disc, are little changed.

Medium-sized towns are the easiest hunting-ground. The chains cosy up to each other in the high street or mall, and the independents lurk in side-streets. The big cities are tougher going, but persistence pays. Find indies via Yellow Pages. For classical discs, head for the student zone - some campus bookshops sell CDs - or try the in-house shops of concert halls and arts centres.

In London, cheaper shops are spread around. The nearest thing to a concentration can be found in Soho, especially Berwick Street, on and around Charing Cross Road, and, for second-hand, Notting Hill (including Portobello Road) and Camden Town. Ask around. And when you find a discount shop, tell a friend. Indie shops depend for their survival on customer loyalty - and we depend on them for keen prices.

SECOND-HAND: As CDs are fairly durable, buying second-hand ought to be the obvious escape from over-pricing. Ironically, this market's growth is stunted by original prices. When a CD costs pounds 14, you are less likely to risk making a mistake than you were when a vinyl LP was yours for a fiver. (Small wonder our album chart is so tame.)

Expect second-hand CDs to cost half to two-thirds what they would new. Ask if they are guaranteed - you can't tell a CD's condition by its face. Explore trade- ins - some shops allow you to swap vinyl for CD, though inevitably you end up with less music. And be patient - second-hand shopping is an imperfect science.

MAIL ORDER: Firms are often cheaper than shops and can score on range - most will order anything. If you order by phone or fax, and pay by credit card, your discs could be with you in as little as 48 hours. But there are drawbacks: sometimes you have to join a club (for a fee), or order substantial quantities to earn a worthwhile discount. Also, few provide free catalogues, so you have to know what you want. Choose a company that seems accountable - with a telephone number answered in person or with its own shop as well.

A few names to try (many more advertise in the music press):

Bee Bees, 3 Knightswick, Canvey Island, Essex SS8 7AD (0268-699727). Also a shop. Mainly rock and pop, but will order. Credit cards, P & P free, delivery within a week.

Page 43, 28 Brixton Road, London SW9 6BU (071-587 3795). Rock and pop. Special orders. CCs, small charge for P & P, delivery in a week.

City Radio, 24 Charles Street, Newport, Gwent NP9 1JT (0633-840728). Mainly classical. One purchase earns discount on others. P & P free, prompt dispatch.

CDs FROM AMERICA: Is it worth going to the US just to buy CDs? The National Heritage Select Committee seemed to think so. Coming back, you have a tax-free allowance of pounds 32, ie about four CDs at main-street prices (equivalent to pounds 7.85- pounds 10.45, plus sales tax of around 8 per cent). Further CDs attract customs duty of 4.9 per cent and VAT of 17.5 per cent, adding pounds 1.75- pounds 2.35 per disc. Return flights to New York start around pounds 200 (and give you access to tax-free CDs at the airport). The alternative is to use mail order. The most recommendations last year went to Bose Music Express, The Mountain, Framingham, MA 01701- 9323 (tel 010-1-508-879 7330; fax 875 0604). Good prices, modest subscription, monthly catalogue, all kinds of music. -

Jack Hughes on the select committee, page 30