Can Peter Gabriel Vanquish the Box?

It's finally showdown time in the record business over the controversial CD longbox.

If longbox foes and supporters agree on anything, it's that the true test of the longbox's future would come when a major rock star put out a CD without its bulky 6x12-inch package.

The future is now. Two of rock's top stars, Peter Gabriel and Sting, are about to release albums that either ditch the longbox entirely or offer a replacement package that cuts down on paperboard waste, which has made the longbox such an ecological eyesore.

A major force behind the recent series of Amnesty International concert tours, Gabriel puts out his Geffen Records album "Shaking the Tree: 16 Golden Greats" on Dec. 4. He'll be followed by Sting, another Amnesty participant and a longtime environmental activist, who'll release his new A&M; album "The Soul Cages" on Jan. 22.

Gabriel's CD simply comes in a jewelbox. Sting's album uses a proposed longbox replacement, the Digitrak. It's a multi-paneled 5x11-inch paperboard package that is displayed in removable--and potentially recyclable--plastic holders, which allows it to fit in current CD retail bins but fold up to jewel-box size for use at home.

The Gabriel CD poses the biggest test of anti-longbox fervor. Many retailers, most notably Show Industries chief Lou Fogelman, who runs several major record-store chains including Music Plus, have vowed not to stock or sell CDs distributed without a longbox.

"When Peter came to us a few weeks ago and said he wanted to put this out without a longbox, I told him of all the consequences," said Geffen president Eddie Rosenblatt. "He knows this means he's going to lose a lot of sales, but he's willing to take the punishment. It's difficult to quantify, but judging from our discussions with our sales and distribution people, it could cost us 40% of the records we'd normally ship to our accounts."

(Rosenblatt would not provide specific figures, but gauging from past release patterns of superstar-hits packages, it's probable that Geffen is shipping about 100,000 less records than its normal 250,000.)

Rosenblatt isn't eager to antagonize retailers, saying he believes they're willing to phase out longboxes "in an orderly" fashion. But he says his label wants to ban the box entirely, not settle for one of the many proposed alternatives now being touted by retailers.

"The halfway measures don't solve the problem--they simply continue it," Rosenblatt said. "You're still having to throw away or recycle a lot of material."

THE STING: A&M;'s upcoming Sting CD package has already stirred a noisy debate, especially among longbox foes. They say the pop star, who's been an outspoken environmental activist and has the commercial clout to influence label decisions, hasn't practiced what he's preached.

"We're very disappointed to see Sting, who's been so vocal about other environmental issues, making so many obvious compromises when it came to his record," says Rykodisc president Robert Simonds, who runs the Ban the Box Coalition, which has the support of dozens of major pop artists. "It's frustrating to see an artist with his environmental consciousness not taking a stronger stand--as Peter Gabriel has with his record."

Still, A&M; is proud of launching a longbox alternative. Al Carfaro, A&M; senior vice president and general manager, says that the label has taken "a step in the right direction" with its Digitrak experiment, which he calls "a potential solution to the problem."

Asked why A&M; is using a 5x11 replacement package instead of simply going with a jewel box, Carfaro acknowledged that the label was responding to retail pressures. "We simply couldn't run the risk of not having this record everywhere. A label our size can't dictate to the marketplace, which just isn't equipped to stock CDs without some kind of packaging."

But what has peeved activists is that A&M; is shipping up to 300,000 initial copies of the Sting album with a longbox. The label says that's because the record is being released 10 days before AGI Inc., the company which makes Digitrak, can begin mass production of the package.

Which begs the question--if A&M; and Sting are such ardent environmentalists, why couldn't they wait 10 days? "From a marketing standpoint, we just had to get the record out," Carfaro says. "We had to have the album out by Feb. 1, which is when Sting's tour starts, and the dates are booked and couldn't be changed."

The Digitrak's other drawback is its throwaway plastic holders. A&M; says they are recyclable--but only if there's a system to collect and return the plastic. Carfaro says it's up to the retailers to provide such a system and admits that "we don't have any assurances yet that they're ready to set one up."

So far the artists are letting the packages speak for themselves. Peter Gabriel's manager said he was in the studio and "too busy" to comment. Sting's label reps said he was in London and was unavailable for comment. (Incidentally, Rykodisc's Simonds acknowledged that his label's CDs are distributed in longboxes.)

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