Universal Music Group, a division of Paris-based Vivendi Universal, has just announced plans to revamp the way they sell music CDs in European markets. Rather than serving up every product in the same 20-year-old CD case design, Universal will divide their offerings into three tiers with different packaging and different prices.
At the bottom end, a “basic” package will be introduced, consisting of a simple sleeve made of heavy cardstock. It should sell for €9.99, the same price Apple charges for a full album download from the European iTunes Music Store. The package sounds reminiscent of Neil Young’s Mirror Ball, among other cardbord packages offered up over the years, but it’s not a one-off specialty item. Universal hopes to ship some 100 million of these albums by year’s end, starting from the planned September introduction. The basic package is earmarked for older releases and other slow sellers in the traditional jewel case package, and will come with no liner notes or other extras. According to the Guardian, the no frills concept is a “acknowledgement” of the power of iTunes.
If extra features are what you want, you’ll be more interested in the premium “DeLuxe” packaging at MSRPs around €19.99. That version, aimed at collectors and gift-givers, will feature a beefed-up case and tons of bonus features, ranging from expanded notes and bonus tracks to DVDs filled with behind-the-scenes clips and live performances.
In-between these extremes comes the “Super Jewel Box,” a sturdier version of today’s brittle jewel cases, but otherwise much the same as anything you’d find at your local Wal-Mart today. It’s supposed to sell for €14.99, comparable to today’s average CD price, and will feature new releases and popular back-catalog items.
Universal claims to understand that digital downloads are the future, but then go on to defend the need to boost physical CD sales again. The company’s executive vice-president of international marketing and A&R, a fellow by the notable name Max Hole, says that downloading has renewed interest in older titles, and that all you need to do in order to sell those albums is lower the prices. “We can grow the CD market,” says Mr. Hole. “That might be a little optimistic, but we can certainly slow its decline.”
I can see some value in the new packaging options: premium bundles will always have a following, and my CD rack is littered with broken cases, so the Super Jewel thing sounds like a welcome upgrade. But while I enjoy Mirror Ball immensely and can appreciate the Earth-friendliness of paper packaging, I’m not convinced that pricing is the only problem to solve regarding slow back-catalog sales. Those albums just aren’t promoted, and there’s also a major convenience difference between downloads and plastic discs. Besides, if all you’re getting is a plain cardboard sleeve with cover art, and you just want to rip it to your iPod anyway, what’s your motivation for getting physical? There’s more research to do regarding the true drivers of the digital revolution, and whether it’s more about price, about convenience, or something else entirely.