Interview With a Price Raiser
More news on the CD price-increase front. Several weeks ago Hitsville noted that prices were going up: the Eagles reunion album and an Aerosmith greatest-hits set will list at $17.98, a dollar more than standard top-line pricing from the major labels. The labels are softening up consumers with much-anticipated arrivals at the start of a heated buying season; then, over the next year, as has happened with stultifying regularity in the past, rock fans will see prices go up across the board. No better example of this soak-the-fans mentality can be had than the upcoming No Quarter, the Jimmy Page-Robert Plant reunion album, due out from Atlantic soon, which will carry a $19.98 list price. Chutzpah on this scale is almost unprecedented: the only other single album on the market with a similar price is the latest Three Tenors CD (the Domingo-Pavarotti-Carreras Dodgers Stadium souvenir), and part of its excuse is the time-honored one-dollar surcharge on classical and sound-track albums. No other non-special-edition rock album has come out above $17.98; by way of comparison, Peter Gabriel is charging $19.98 for a two-disc live set.
In that previous column Hitsville went out of his way to rap Neil Young's new album for its $17.98 list price. It turns out the album is not guilty of the charge; it's a standard Warner $16.98 release. At the time Billboard had the record down at $17.98; this was confirmed by a local retailer; and neither Young's management office nor reps at WEA, the Warner distribution arm, returned calls. I couldn't find the root of the misinformation; at any rate, retailers now say the record had a wholesale price that translates into a $16.98 list, which is what Billboard now says as well. My apologies.
One of the problems with covering this subject is that the officials involved, as a rule, won't make themselves available for comment. Through the intercession of Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis, Epic chairman David Glew agreed to chat. (Epic and Columbia are the main imprints of Sony Music.) What follows is a pretty good estimation of the labels' side of the story; readers can make their own decisions. I asked Glew specifically about the increase in the price of Pearl Jam's Ten: it came out at a $13.98 list three years ago but since has adopted a top-of-the-line $16.98 list. How can the label justify such a large increase in a catalog album?
"A lot of album prices stay down," Glew said. "Most labels have budget lines: Best Buy, or Nice Price. Why doesn't that get reported?"
Still, Hitsville said, that doesn't justify raising prices on Ten.
"Look," Glew replied. "Industry prices were lower at that time. At your paper, advertising rates were a lot lower than they are today. You don't understand the dynamic of the business. Some companies make money and some companies don't make money. As a business we have to make price increases regularly."
Yes, Hitsville said, but not only do companies like Sony make money, they make more money every year.
"That's not necessarily true," Glew replied.
Has Epic had a bad year over the last five years?
"Epic's done very well because I run a great company," Glew said. "That's the whole key. You're focusing too much on price. My job is to develop careers and I've been doing it a long time. That's my job: to break artists in the record business today."
Does Glew hear many complaints from consumers?
"There's always a certain amount of opposition,"
he said. "But what's been the number-one album the last month?"
The Lion King sound track--which lists at $18.98.
"And they're selling as many as they can make," Glew said.
In other words, consumers aren't complaining where it counts.
MTV's Unledded special (it debuted last Wednesday evening) was specifically not a Led Zeppelin reunion: Page and Plant excluded bass player John Paul Jones. (You'll recall that the fourth member of the band, the brutish John Bonham, died after choking on his own vomit in 1980.) Let us focus then on the two remaining principals and savor the disaster that ensued. The Zep songs chosen were uninteresting, the new ones forgettable; the various sites employed (a Marrakesh courtyard, villagers crowding around; a bosky glade; a quarry close to the band's beloved Bron-Y-Aur, in Wales) were uncomfortably Spinal Tap-ish; the interactions with the various exotic musicians were drearily forced. Unsurprising, most of this, but you forgot it all when you saw Jimmy Page. For a bit more than the first half of the 1970s, Page was many things: the most compelling and influential guitarist alive, the most inventive producer of the period, and a wildly imagined stage figure. These images evaporated while one watched the show. Page seemed barely able to stand, much less strut about the stage as he did in his heyday. In the accompanying interview, Plant was his normally glib self; Page--his face bloated almost beyond recognition, his eyes darting about distractedly--struggled to put together the words that made up his short, nonsensical replies. And if over the course of a 90-minute show he played a guitar solo I didn't notice it. The musicians on the reunion bandwagon are picking money off trees; the members, on balance, deserve their take, even if they look a bit awkward as they harvest. Rather pathetically, Page longed for a Zeppelin reunion; Plant always ridiculed the idea. Maybe Page's condition changed his mind. Unledded was unnerving in the way it made pity a more discomfiting display than greed.