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CD Prices Stay High and Stable : Recordings: Demand is keeping costs up but being informed can help consumers find bargains.


What's the deal with compact disc prices?

Weren't they supposed to plummet after the medium caught on, and at least get down to the price vinyl albums used to go for?

But no. Ten years after the introduction of CDs, consumers sputter about their cost, but to little effect: Although retail prices have come down some since the very early days of the medium, they have been stubbornly stable the past few years.

And the cold, unvarnished truth is that CD prices are unlikely to fall anytime soon. In fact, if anything, there has been slight upward movement in recent days.

There is only one really meaningful reason why this is so: demand. We are the culprits. We like those little silvery wafers all too much. Last year we bought more than 407 million, 22% more than the year before. As long as we keep doing that, the record companies will continue to be unimpressed by our pained suggestions that we can't afford them.

But if we can't alter the basic CD pricing structure, we can be informed consumers.

There are essentially three tiers of CD pricing--though the boundaries of those categories are blurry, and far from uniformly applied in stores. Moreover, price does not in itself suggest anything definitive in terms of quality of sound or performance, or even the length of the recording. The three tiers are:

* Front-line discs:

Most new releases by major labels fall into this category. These discs generally carry an in-store price of $14.95 to $16.95, depending on the store and the label. Imports and specialty labels may cost more.

In the classical world, reissues of recent recordings by big-name artists such as Leonard Bernstein may also be put out at front-line prices. Occasionally in the pop world a debut disc by a new or unknown artist may carry a lower price as a device to induce buyers to take a chance. But for the most part, if it's new and it's by an artist with any kind of name, it's full price, except for big sales when they are first released.

Nearly all new recordings are recorded and mixed on digital equipment, so most front-line titles will carry the DDD designation.

* Mid-line titles:

These are typically reissues of older "catalogue" material, as well as greatest-hit and other compilations that have been newly minted for CD. They are priced roughly in the $9.95-$13.95 range.

The sound can vary, depending on the sound of the original recording and the care with which it is transferred to CD. In one celebrated case, the three-disc "Simon and Garfunkel: Collected Works," turned out to be a sonic disappointment because CBS had lost the original master tapes and had to produce the CDs from copies. But well-engineered CD reissues of analog recordings can sound spectacular, and some audiophiles assert that they sound "warmer" than today's all-digital products.

Mid-price issues also might skimp on liner notes; lyrics and other printed niceties might be jettisoned in the interest of keeping down costs.

There is also the matter of length. In the vinyl era, an LP would often be barely 40 minutes long, particularly in the pop world. A CD, on the other hand, can accommodate 75 minutes or more of music. Although very few new front-line CDs are less than an hour long, the CD reissues of old albums will run to whatever the original LP was, often far less than that. Some labels make a point of printing the timing information on the back cover, but others, especially when the figure is embarrassingly puny, do not.

* Budget discs:

Budget discs are often by obscure artists, or are reissues of material for which the copyright has expired. They are $8.95 and under, with the low end now extending to as little as $3.99 a disc. Some rock-bottom discs, sans the plastic jewel-box cases, have been turning up in some stores lately for $2.99.

In the classical world, some of the budget material, such as the recordings put out by the highly regarded Naxos classical label, are solid, well-engineered, all-digital recordings. The performers are often competent Eastern European or Asian artists who have little name recognition in this country.

Some consumers are under the impression that there is a greater proportion of defective discs in the budget category, but there's no evidence of that. Although defective discs in all price categories were something of a problem in the very early days of the CD format, they are now a negligible factor, estimated at well under 1% of all discs sold. Stores will take back a defective disc with minimum hassle, although some will only offer an alternate copy of the same title.

It is, of course, the front-line discs that have elicited the most grumbling about price. At a time when the production cost of a CD is acknowledged to be in the $2 range, a $16 CD strikes many consumers as outright profiteering. The labels reply that the price reflects bloated artists' fees, production and promotion costs, recouping of heavy investment in CD plants, etc.

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