Why Do CDs Cost Money?
[original version appeared in "Unpeeled" fanzine]
|It sometimes seems that hardly a day goes by I don't
find myself being flung roughly across the precinct and
battered to within an inch of two-foot-six by a gang of
fresh-faced pop-kids demanding to know why they have to
pay money for the new Trembling Blue Stars album.
"CDs cost almost NOTHING to make," they cry,
"so why can't you just leave them in a pile outside
your flat, or hand them out at tube stations, or stick
them on railings like lost gloves? In a progressive,
democratic, highly-cultured society such as ours, CDs
should be free for all, just like dental-care, museums,
and public transport are!"
And it's true. A so-called "naked" CD costs just 43p to make. Sadly, being naked, it can't be sold to under-18s (who buy 97% of all popmusic, and twice that amount that during school holidays) without first being enclosed in a plain brown wrapper - or perhaps a brightly coloured sleeve, designed by a designer (if you're lucky, for "expenses" only - i.e. photo-printing, colour scans, hire of an AppleMac, sick-leave...) and printed using expensive metal plates, one for each colour for each side. Oh, and a childproof plastic case, of course, which will snap when thrown from the delivery truck and need to be replaced at your own expense, because by the time it hit your doorstep it was no longer "in transit".
Moreover, punters get really upset if the CD they've just bought turns out to be blank, or sounds like it was recorded in a roofless shed by people in mittens, or suddenly morphs into a large frog and tries to eat their pets. So, if you're serious about this record label lark, you'll also need to (a) get hold of some music, which means hiring a recording studio and finding a band - who'll want royalties, especially once they sign a publishing deal and find out about mechanical copyright - and (b) master your disc in a £150 p.h. studio with smoked-glass tables on which copies of Arena and GQ have been arranged in disturbingly neat rows. You can't do much about the frog thing, no batch is perfect.
You'll also need to spend a day on Kall Kwik's colour-copier making "sales-packs" for your distributor. These are needed because chainstores will place orders only if you can prove a CD exists by producing a signed colour photocopy of it, and because indie shops will be so impressed by you being able to afford colour photocopying that they'll go all doe-eyed and flimsy and order 50 boxes.
After that, you can organise a photo-session - not forgetting that the photographer's fee only covers actually taking the shots, not the developing, or the run of 10" x 8" hand-prints you'll need (NB Boots black & white developing and printing service is not the best in the world, even if you do get a free film). And maybe you should also hire a press-agent (because Melody Maker will only review bands with press-agents, because spending money on a press-agent proves you're serious), a radio-plugger (because Radio 1 will only play bands - oh, see previous bracket) and gig-agent (you can do this bracket yourself).
And then you can mail the entire first pressing to everyone in the entire world who's ever contacted you claiming to be from a magazine or radio station, even that moustachioed Italian with the forged ID, because how are you supposed to know what an Italian Press Pass looks like, or that Radio Brindisi doesn't have an indie-show every third Friday, or that Margharita Pepperoni is a made-up name? You must also listen to the Evening Session for a month so that you can write crawly letters to Steve Lamacq: the resultant bill for non-prescription medication can be absolutely crippling for a small label.
And then shops will decide not to stock your records anyway, because they took something a bit similar five years ago which nobody bought and, well, given 17.5% of the till receipts go straight to the VAT and 20% on heating and lighting and 20% on business-rates and 20% on security-men (otherwise anarchists protesting about Capitalism steal CDs to re-sell at Camden Market) and 20% on matching jumpers with name-tags and 45% to the accountant... well, it's hardly worth the risk, is it, they say, not when we could have Elton John - people've been buying Elton John records for 30 years, we all know we're safe with Elton - well, obviously not "safe" in the sense that you'd ever go upstairs on a night-bus with him, but - and then they'll relent, and order 500 copies, provided you give them an 83% discount, make it sale-or-return, and clean their fridge. (They will, of course, return 499 of these the day after you've ordered a re-press, and 6 months later your distributor will ask you to pay for them to be destroyed, as they're fucking up the feng shui in the warehouse and making the forklift truck driver all lackadaisical.)
Yes, a CD costs 43p to make; but all these other costs - most of which are the same whether you sell 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 - add precisely £13.55, which is why CDs retail for £13.98. Or £13.99, actually, as it costs a penny to print the price sticker.
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