A record for total irrelevance: The price of CDs should be low on the list of important issues, says Simon Garfield

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The Independent Online
BACK and forth it goes, this feverish CD price spat, the record industry and consumer bodies and Gerald Kaufman trading insults and inanities. And now we're all unwitting players in the game because the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is spending our money on a nine-month investigation into something marginally less important than the Gold Blend romance.

The arguments go like this: MPs and consumer champions say CDs in Britain are too expensive compared with the United States; the music industry says prices are not expensive enough given the record companies' precarious investment in new talent. Campaigners say people are not buying CDs because they are too expensive; the industry says people are buying more CDs than ever because they are such great value (orders from retailers were up 32 per cent in the first quarter of this year compared with the first quarter last year). The free-traders say the music industry is dominated by a handful of multinationals and restricts competition; the suits at Sony and PolyGram say it is no more oligopolistic than film/video or publishing companies (in fact, they say it is 'oligopo-tastic'). A select committee says CDs should be at least pounds 2 cheaper; the suits say the price is right because the companies have held vinyl and cassettes at an artificially low price for so long, and CD prices reflect high VAT, and are anyway cheaper than in Germany . . . blither and blather, hither and yon.

Everything but health care and theatre seats seems to be cheaper in America: newspapers, Ford cars, apples, Apple Powerbooks. Partly this is to do with economies of scale - perhaps we should launch a Campaign for a Larger Country. And partly this is to do with exchange rates. At present, CDs are about one-third cheaper in New York. (So are cassettes, so why no campaign for them?) If exchange rates begin to slide again, say to dollars 1.20 to the pound, then prices will move towards parity. And suddenly it won't look so appealing to fly to America just to purchase CDs. Such a venture was being considered by this paper's Sunday sister last week. Call me old-fashioned, but I always thought the young and adventurous thing was to go to America to see America, meet people and catch the hot movies (at cheaper prices). Nice to go shopping, but the thing to buy is Hershey's chocolate Kisses and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Spending days at Tower filling your trolley with 70 CDs - that's up to 5,180 minutes of shiny music - then coming home to face the customs people - isn't that a little crazy? If you have the urge to buy 70 CDs in one go, you should consult a physician, not the Office of Fair Trading.

Use a longer lens and the whole debate seems still more absurd. Cheaper CDs? A tireless nationwide campaign by responsible people? Timex jobs - now that seems like something to campaign for. Or cheaper food (crucial); cheaper books (could be educational); no-VAT fuel bills (could save lives).

Something's happened since, but a couple of years ago I thought of CDs as a luxury item, a cheap luxury, a bit of a treat at the end of the week. You made a selection and you went to the counter. You vaguely knew that they only cost 79p to produce, but you couldn't produce them at that price yourself, and so you went home and had a happy musical weekend. Now about 30 per cent of our households need these things just to get through the day. They must have the new Janet Jackson, they'll bleed for the new Karajan boxed set. They've got their pounds 200 CD player and they're damned if they're going to keep on forking out pounds 12.99-plus on the software. They will pay pounds 9.99, and no more.

There are lots of pop CDs you can buy for pounds 9.99 or less - some of them just out of the charts. There are lots of classical CDs going for pounds 4.99 - including ones not by Romanian orchestras.

Some of these provide good value, some don't. This depends on whether they are any good. A subjective thing, of course, but I find that the best CDs are often the ones that last 45 minutes and fit on one side of a C90 cassette. These CDs tend to be well-structured things, 10 tracks or so, like the old days (we're talking pop here, which is how the big companies reap the bulk of their terribly ill-gotten gains). The rubbish is usually to be found on tracks 12 through 17, wherein some seven-year-old is let loose in a pounds 700-an-hour Soho studio to produce endlessly 'remixed' versions of songs that they'll never get to sound great. What we really need is a Campaign for Shorter CDs. We say Prime Cuts Only] And there would be a little logo, maybe a mixing desk with an ugly red slash across it. Popular, too: the campaign would affect about . . . 30 per cent of households.

More households contain bookshelves than CD players, but you can't mention books in this debate or the whole thing falls to pieces. Thankfully, there's no VAT on Barbara Taylor Bradford. (But does she provide more teenage educational succour than Lou Reed?) People shell out pounds 17.99 on some spunked-up teenage novelist's first shot at immortality, and get peanuts for it when they flog it second-hand. Do they call Sir Bryan Carsberg, director-general of the OFT? No. Sir Bryan has an uninterrupted evening, probably listening to some nice CD, safe in the knowledge that the Net Book Agreement holds firm (and when some shops tried cutting book prices last year they found that it had little or no effect on total sales).

Anyway, we don't want to spend our money on expensive - or cheap - CDs: we want to spend it on the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It's some line- up - a solicitor, an economics professor, a chairman of an investment trust, a former managing director of BT and the chairwoman of Barnet Family Health Services Authority - and they are all set to sit for up to nine months, deciding whether our copyright laws should permit cheap imports from the US and Taiwan. That's the main brief, but as they may also delve into all aspects of possibly unfair practices, some good may come out of this crazy thing after all.

With luck - and they'll have to work nights - they will tackle the truly important stuff: finally we may find out what becomes of the broken-hearted; at last we may learn who, exactly, put the bomp in the bomp-shoo-womp.

(Photograph omitted)