Compact discs are now cheaper than downloading

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We knew this day would come, but unfortunately for the music industry, it was a little too late. Compact discs are finally affordable. I just got back from the CD store near me, and for disc after disc, all of them new releases, the price of an actual compact disc was lower than the price for downloading it online.

Here's a sampling. Kelly Clarkson's new album (the top seller in America) is $9.99 on Amazon.com but $10.99 on iTunes and $12.99 to download through Amazon. The "deluxe version" of the new Indigo Girls album costs $14.99 at Amazon.com as a CD and iTunes as files, but $11.99 at my local CD store. The soundtrack CD to Twilight is 3¢ cheaper on BarnesandNoble.com than it is on iTunes.

There are still some holdouts, and mega-retailers like Wal-Mart have the buying power to price CDs a few cents cheaper than everyone because they know any loss will serve to get people into their stores, but usually, the price difference isn't wide. India.Arie's new album is $9.99 on iTunes, but to get the CD with liner notes and cover art and the security of owning a physical copy you can re-import forever, you'll pay just 70¢ more on BarnesandNoble.com. The same goes for Kanye West. Worth it, I'd say.

A few years back, the New York Times reported that compact discs cost 100 times more than the materials used to manufacture them. A price tag of $19, which a year ago was the dominant retail price for a non-sale CD, forced millions to online purchase instead, or to illegally downloading. If the record companies had priced their items more sensibly, they wouldn't find themselves so betrayed by customers.

Apple's iTunes boomed when it offered albums for $9.99 and songs for 99 cents. On April 7, that will change and the going rate will vary from label to artist, with the hottest songs going for $1.29 each, a 30% increase. Pretty stupid timing, if you ask me, since people are spending less and sales for online song downloads have plateaued. But the pricing change is widely seen as a sop to the record industry, which has made concessions in allowing songs to be copied freely between computers once they've been sold. So even for this price increase, we can blame the record companies.

My price comparisons were taken before the pricing change, but even afterward, they're going to be just as good, if not better. Rascal Flatts' new album comes out the day of the switch. Amazon.com is selling it for $9.99. iTunes hasn't released its price, but given the increase, it's a good chance that the CD price will be lower, if not match.

I wouldn't expect this oddity to last long, mostly because soon there won't be a CD store to visit. Record stores (as some still call them) are dying. Virgin will close all of its Megastores by the summer, although most of them will be selling new releases up until the end.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still prefer compact discs. They're a tangible item, I like the liner notes, and I like having the option of selling my recording later on. When it comes to downloaded music, I've been burned by data corruption before, and DRM has just left me with music industry trust issues, and a probably irrational fear that the rights holders can pull my right to own my copy anytime they want.

The biggest reason people say they don't like compact discs (that they take up space) doesn't really move me. They really don't take up much space. If you jettison the jewel case and just keep the disc and liner notes, you can fit your entire music collection in a single box. Chairs take up space. Appliances take up space. Discs really don't, unless you're sloppy.
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