Did David Byrne Learn The Wrong Lesson?

David Byrne has a new album, Here Lies Love, a kind of rock opera paean to ousted Philipines first lady Imelda Marcos. It’s a collaboration with Fatboy Slim.

Byrne’s last effort, the Brian Eno collaboration Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, was as a multi-tier release, available as a digital download, physical CD, or a deluxe physical edition.

This was a great experiment and it worked well enough to convince Mr. Byrne to follow a similar approach for the new album. But there have been some changes.

The download-only release for Everything That Happens was $8.99. For Here Lies Love, it’s $16.98. The CD + Download option went up from $11.99 to $19.98. The special edition is now $34.98, down from $69.99 (though it looks to be much less special than the Everything That Happens package).

The increases are puzzling, particularly for the download-only option.

Here Lies Love is a double CD, so the physical CD costs should reasonably be higher, and $20 is about what I would prefer to see physical CDs cost in a record store (even though it represents a significant mark-up over the physical manufacturing costs). $19.98 appears to be the full publisher’s suggested retail price. The label in this case is Nonesuch, which notoriously overprices its releases, so I’m okay with this price, so the $20 cost is more palatable.

I can get the same CD from Amazon for $14.99, without the digital download, and I would have to wait for April 6th.

The CD + Download cost represents a 66% increase. The digital download only cost is nearly doubled. What is the thinking behind this? Yes, the data volume is increased, but the $8.99 covered the storage and delivery costs by a wide margin.

Most cloud storage services charge based on data volume. This makes eminent sense and is of course reasonable. Amazon’s S3 storage service charges by the gigabyte (1,000,000,000 bytes). A typical album encoded as 320 kbps MP3s is less than 100 megabytes, or one tenth the size. Doubling the length of the album keeps the size well below the gig threshold, and does not effectively increase the cost, figured on a per-transaction basis.

Topspin Media charges a fee based on the transaction cost (20% for the first $20). The more you charge, the more it costs. The storage and download costs appear to be covered by this fee. If they charged the same $8.99, it would cost the same $1.80, no matter if the download is 100 MB or 200 MB (or even the 200 MB or 400 MB of a typical FLAC download).

So, David Byrne appears to believe that the digital version of one CD’s worth of music is about $9, regardless of the actual overhead. By that logic, is a physical CD plus a download is only worth about $10?

To be fair, the extra cost may have something to do with the large number of big-name guests that appear on the album. But that cost is clearly not proportional across formats.


So, what should an album cost?

My personal feeling is that $9 for a digital download is too much. I hate paying more than about $12-14 for a physical CD in a store. I expect to pay less online, between $10-12.

I rarely purchase download music unless I am in a rush, it is unavailable in a physical format, is available in a lossless format, or is significantly cheaper than the physical version.

I would rather order the physical CD, spend a dollar or two more, wait for the album to arrive, and make my own MP3s and FLAC files. That way, I get the original audio, can make files in exactly the format I want, and I get a physical backup to boot.

The actual value of a digital download, without all those physical CD perks, must be considerably less, not just $1-2 less. $1 is a convenient amount for a single track, but a full album at $1 a track could quickly become more expensive than a physical CD.

Amazon has over a million MP3 albums for sale, and nearly 150,000 of them are priced at $5.99 or less. Each month, Amazon has a selection of 100 albums for $5. And not just the crap that isn’t selling – there is a wide variety of musics, including new releases and older library titles.

$5 is a good album price. That’s an easy impulse purchase. That’s an I-always-wondered-about-that-album-but-never-bothered-buying-it price. It’s cheap enough that I don’t worry so much about it being a lossy compression format and the lack of artwork and all the other drawbacks of an MP3 album download because if I end up liking it that much, I an go buy the CD.

That’s why albums in the Bangsplat Download Store are $5. It’s hard enough getting visitors to an independent music store – they don’t need additional barriers keeping them from making a purchase.

And if $5 is too much, it’s just the default price. The amount can be adjusted down (or up) as desired.

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