Have you ever wondered why it costs roughly the same for you to purchase a CD of, say, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde — an universally acknolwedged classic of 75 minutes of sublime music, and Bob Dylan’s Down in the Groove — a universally acknowedged piece of crap that barely breaks a half-hour? As a music fan, of course, you’ve probably come to expect that all albums, then CDs, then downloads all cost pretty much the same. It’s just that some enrich your life forever and others get you maybe a buck and for sure a snide look from the guy at the used CD counter.
In a lot of ways, this pricing is kind of like paying the same amount of money for a McDonald’s hamburger and a Prime porterhouse at Morton’s. Only in entertainment do we risk essentially the same money for such wildly varying degrees of pleasure. Part of that is wrapped up in our understanding of art: not even the greatest are great every time out — and of course, to be fair, even Down in the Groove no doubt has its defenders — but part of that is wrapped up in the methods of those who control the distribution.
In this case, that would be the major labels — these days they are configured as such: SonyBMG, Universal, EMI, and Warner — in the past, configured differently, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is, no matter how they are configured, from the consumer standpoint they’ve artificially set the prices to be the same, regardless of quality, regardless of manufacture cost, regardless of length (except that a 80-minute double-CD could be sold for twice as much as a 78-minute single CD), regardless of just about anything. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end amen.
For awhile, it looked like that the internet was going to change all of that. Which, of course, was one of the reasons that the major labels were screaming “apocalypse” just a few short years ago: the net was wild, free, and people who had been chafing at paying those artificially set prices forever leapt right in and experienced that freedom. Some were using it as a giga radio station, downloading to discover new music and purchasing the things they came to loved; some used it to digitialize music they already purchased on vinyl, cassette and CD; and some, yes, were flat-out stealing music that they would have otherwise purchased.
The majors, of course, saw all of it as stealing, and finally realizing that it was too big to ignore, they came on board, and decided to treat downloads as just another revenue stream, with all that implies. And a lot of people who had been downloading for free started paying for their downloads. Not every single person, of course, but enough for Apple to sell 1,000,000,000 downloads in just three years.
So pardon me for not getting excited about the latest probe by the Department of Justice into major label pricing — this one focusing on downloads. This follows hard on the heels of a similar investigation by the State of New York late last year, where supoenas were issued to all four major labels.
The two music industry sources on Thursday said the Justice Department’s probe appeared to be focused on the same issues, which included whether the labels colluded to set wholesale pricing for song downloads.
The investigation also could be related to licensing renegotiations with Apple, maker of the wildly popular iPod digital music player, for its iTunes store, industry sources have said.
Those renegotiations were what led to Steve Jobs calling the Major Labels “greedy,” as if he had just discovered that fact for the first time. (And doubly rich, considering the price of an average Apple product.)
Well, of course record compaines are greedy; of course they screw the artists; of course they screw the fans; of course they are price-fixing, duh. Look, for decades now, record prices all seem to be the same, and they all seem to be going up. Even after high-profile promises to lower those prices. Same as it ever was. Every now and then, there is a lawsuit or class action settlement over some egregious violation, and we all get a free CD, as if that makes up for years of being screwed. But prices don’t vary, they don’t go down. Same as it ever was. Meanwhile, a college kid shares the wrong file at the wrong time, and gets slapped with a huge-ass fine.
Still, it’s a shame that, just as legal downloads are exploding, the majors have apparently just recontextualized their same old bullshit. The difference, of course, is that if they end up driving legal prices too high, the fan base will just collectively shrug its shoulders and go back to what it was doing a few years ago.