Far from the record industry imploding against the threat of piracy and illegal downloading, as usual the doomsayers have again been caught out in their well-practised “shark” attack routine. One of the core beliefs has long been that the CD is dying, or more precisely the long-form album.

When the Prices Surveillance Authority broke down the cartel-like practices of the major foreign-owned record companies in 1990 and forced the lowering of prices of new release CDs by several dollars, local industry and consumer champions like Peter Garrett said it would be the ruination of local artists.

It was of course nothing of the sort and the removal of artificially high retail price maintenance did not send local artists to the wall. In fact the charts now have a much higher Australian content. Anyone who took notice of Garrett’s hypocrisy after years of railing against US imperial forces while signed to the world’s biggest (American owned) record label and pumping out all that eco-friendly vinyl, knew that even if his heart might have been in the right place, his pointy head was somewhere approximate to his buttocks.

But today no-one thinks the music biz is going broke in the age of $20 albums, even if the majors keep talking up Armageddon as their future if piracy and illegal downloading or home copying is allowed to go unchecked. Like the big US car makers, EMI and company got themselves into terrible trouble because they refused to recognise the marketplace was changing. Just as General Motors and Ford and their ilk refused to adapt their technology to a changed environment where auto gas guzzlers made no sense, the major record companies spent years fighting the principle of digital downloading of music. Napster and file sharing was seen as stealing — rather than a means by which to extend the marketing of new brands (artists) to a mostly engaged and youthful demographic that would grow into tomorrow’s legal adult consumers.

Unless the majors adapted to the times and the corporate tune changed along with the artists they were flogging, they did face becoming technologically redundant. Worse was the flight of premium acts like Radiohead who were less afraid of the digital age. Thus the final domino was the labels reluctantly embracing digital distribution — so the iTunes, Big Pond and the Amazons of this world could sell individual songs and not just whole albums. Now it’s their future. And yet the death of the CD or album continues to be exaggerated.

Last week, the industry, through its lobby horse ARIA, talked up a pre-Christmas splurge on CD albums at retail outlets, claiming a 22% rise on the same six-week period up to October 27 the previous year, seeming to make a mockery of all those past dire warnings. But ARIA had an answer: the global financial crisis. Aside from people actually wanting to buy the latest releases of the likes of AC/DC or Pink or the master recycler Andre Rieu, the global financial meltdown meant instead of people lashing out and buying big ticket items, the $20 CD was seen as good value.

The humble CD has not been saved from the grave because the digital revolution by the force of the internet or mass media continues to spread the essence of music by whatever means, but because music retailers are being flooded by consumers who can’t afford a new TV or refrigerator.

Mind you, the refusal of AC/DC to make Black Ice — its first album in eight years — available for download as individual songs means fans of the mega-selling band have little choice but to mostly vote with their feet to buy the album. But that’s another story.

Peter Fray

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