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For the Record: Used-CD Trade Is Not a Ripoff

<i> Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition. T. Jefferson Parker's column resumes in this spot next week</i>

If I’m getting this right, every time I buy a used CD, I’m taking food out of Garth Brooks’ mouth. Hence, if I buy enough used CDs, Garth might finally be able to lose that baby fat. I’d like to help, but on the other hand, if he keeps eating, maybe he wouldn’t talk with his mouth full, and would be less inclined to make the sort of idiotic statements he’s been uttering lately.

What we’re talking about here is his role as poster boy for the recording industry in its battle against the used CD trade. He maintains that stores that buy and sell used CDs are ripping off the artists. No wonder the industry is upset: Everybody knows ripping off the artists is its job.

Remember when CDs and disc players first came out? Both were expensive, but that expense was reasonably justified by the research and development costs incurred and the high cost of manufacturing a new technology. That expense, however, has long since paid off, costs went down, volume sales took off and the price of a decent CD player has dropped from about $1,000 to less than $200.

The players are the complicated part, with the lasers, motors, computer chips and all. The CDs are relatively simple four-inch discs of encoded aluminum film and plastic. It had been promised and expected that the cost of the CDs also would become more reasonable. Instead, the list prices have jumped several times to the present $16.98 for front-line product.

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According to people in the trade, to manufacture a CD costs about 50 cents, cheaper than a vinyl record. Many of the stores that sell CDs--generally for $12 to $14--only make a couple of bucks per sale. That generally is a couple of bucks more than is made by most of the artists Brooks says he’s so concerned about.

While Brooks and a few other mega-stars do make enough to afford to buy their own worlds and live in them, as a journalist, I’ve talked to scores of real-world artists who have next to nothing to show for their lives in music.

Most of the history of the music biz is filled with shameless exploitation of the artists. There have been R & B stars, country singers and more than one rock kid with a million-selling hit who might only have seen $500 from it. Some blues artists made records that are still selling decades later on compact disc, and all they were ever paid was a bottle of schnapps.

The business has changed quite a bit on the surface since then; some modern bands might have legal representation before they even have a name. But the bottom line is often the same. Exorbitant recording and promotion fees are charged against performers’ future earnings, and with accounting, that’s every bit as creative as in the film industry (where mega-million-dollar hits can be fudged to look like they never showed a profit). It’s a rare band that sees a payoff.

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Bitter artists have told me, “Man, we’re the last guys to get paid, the last guys.” Given that no one would buy a blank CD--that it is solely because of the artist that someone is buying a CD--it is a pathetic state of affairs.

So, in short, it isn’t any skin off the artist’s nose if you buy his album used, for all he’s ever going to see from it. It might even be argued that in many cases, used CDs help an artist’s career.

For starters, used CDs are one of few things on which independent record stores can make sufficient profit to afford to stay in business, especially since the recording industry squeezed out the import record trade a few years back. These stores are a vital link in promoting new, original artists, so it is in the artists’ interest that they be able to survive in this era of faceless chain stores.

Additionally, many listeners might be unwilling to hazard $15 on a new artist, where they might spend $8 on a used product, and maybe become a fan.

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And even if artists were making money on new CDs, what should make them more important than anyone else putting in a solid day’s work? It’s a hell of a lot easier hanging around a recording studio than it is working in an auto factory, but nobody’s questioning your right to resell your Dodge Dart.

See, part of the appeal of buying something is that you then own it, and one of the defining tenets of ownership is that--quaint notion-- you can do what you like with the thing. And that includes the right to sell it used, unless you’re talking about toothbrushes or underwear.

What does the industry expect you to do if you don’t like the reputedly indestructible CD you’ve bought? Hate it forever? Bury it in the flag? Don’t give it to the Salvation Army because, land sakes, they might sell it.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a whining bully. Used CDs are crippling the recording industry, it moans, having previously claimed it was being crippled by DAT machines, album-oriented radio, home taping, import records and live bootleg recordings, not that any of these scourges ever kept it from turning in record profits.

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If Brooks actually gave a damn about his fellow artists, he might complain about how the industry forced the need for the used CD market by gouging the public with its ridiculous prices, which even CD player manufacturers have gone on record as resenting. But when his label used his last album as a leading wedge in jacking CD prices up to $16.99, Brooks voiced not a syllable of protest.

I attended a “think tank” dinner at Orange County band manager Sam Lanni’s house recently, aimed at exploring alternative ways of getting original music to the public. I came away from it thinking that maybe the best thing to do would be to circumvent the whole stinking industry.

Instead of jumping through the constricting hoops it takes to sign to a major label, maybe bands and small labels should finance their own recordings. Then, instead of trying to market the recordings as CDs and cassettes, they could forge a network of college and independent radio stations willing to play the works in their entirety. (In the near future, this network conceivably could be replaced by a few of those vaunted 500 channels that are supposed to be pumped into our homes on cable.)

The idea would be that anyone who wanted to would be welcome to tape the stuff off the radio, with the “honor code” proviso that he or she would send $4 or so to the artists. In return, perhaps the artist could mail the person a cassette insert card with artwork, lyrics and such. Not bad for the environment, all told, since it not only gets rid of the long box but the CD as well, and there isn’t unsold product to dispose of.

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Suppose only 30% of the people were honest about sending the money in--I suspect it would be higher if they knew the money would be going to artists they like--that’s still $4 more per person than the artists typically would be seeing. Of course, that’s also $9 or so that the recording industry won’t be seeing, but they’re used to complaining by now.


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