Universal to reissue 10,000 deleted albums as downloads

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes, Music, Technology
January 23rd, 2006 • 10:28 am

It’s about time.

For me, the real benefits of on-line music stores selling downloadable tracks have always been obvious: It’s all about choice. The cost of making deleted recordings available as downloadable tracks is much lower than the cost of actually releasing them on CD. It makes total sense, from an economic point of view.

If an album by a currently popular artist is sold on-line as downloadable tracks for $9.99, and that same album is also available on CD for $12.99, then for me the choice is a no-brainer. I’ll get the CD. I don’t need the “instant gratification” of on-line purchases (which is theoretical in my case anyway, since I’m still on dial-up) and I have no problems with waiting for a few days until the CD is shipped to me. I can avoid shipping costs altogether by making purchases of $39 or more from most on-line retailers. And with a CD, I get a true CD quality sound (obviously), liner notes, and a durable physical copy of what I’ve just purchased, which is far less likely to fail than my computer’s internal hard drive containing my electronic files (which I then have to back up on a regular basis).

If the music that I want, on the other hand, is no longer available on CD, and the record company has no incentive to release it on CD, or it’s only available on CD as an “import” from a faraway country at an outrageous cost, then purchasing it as downloadable tracks starts making much more sense.

But until now, this has been pretty much impossible, because the record labels have done very little to make their huge back catalogue of deleted albums and singles available in electronic form through on-line music stores. It is so obviously a win-win situation that it’s hard to understand why it has taken so long for the record companies to realize that they could actually benefit from this. It costs them almost nothing to make the tracks available in electronic form, and therefore even a relatively small number of sales (something like 10,000 copies) becomes economically viable. That’s what the Long Tail is all about.

Unfortunately, of course today’s record companies are so hopelessly focussed on promoting the latest teen sensation to death in order to sell millions of copies of the same crap that they have done little to try and take advantage of this “long tail” of potential customers.

Are things finally starting to change? This recently announced plan by Universal to release a batch of 3,000 back-catalogue tracks on-line seems to be an encouraging first step. And apparently Universal’s plans are to reissue as many as 10,000 deleted albums…

Of course, there are still outstanding issues. First of all, what on-line music store/format are they going to use? Is it going to be the iTunes Music Store selling music in AAC format or one of the Windows-only stores selling music in WMA format? If Universal are smart, they’ll release the music in both formats—but there’s no guarantee that they are smart, of course.

And then there is the big outstanding issue of country-specific on-line music stores. As we all know, if you live in Canada, you can only purchasing on-line music from the Canadian iTunes Music Store. You cannot purchase anything from the American iTunes Music Store or from the French iTunes Music Store. It is immensely frustrating, especially for someone like me, who has pretty diverse musical tastes. Why should the music I have access to be limited by where I live in the world? I don’t live in theocratic Iran with a nation-wide ban on western music, for heaven’s sakes.

Until issues such as this one are really addressed by record labels and on-line retailers in a way that truly benefits music lovers, as well as music creators wishing to reach the widest possible audience, then things like this recently announced Universal plan for deleted tracks will only be baby steps towards the ultimate goal of a on-line world that is truly global and truly open to all.

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