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Platinum MusicPass will go over like a lead balloon

Glenn Gamboa
Newsday (MCT)

Like so many things major labels have tried recently, SonyBMG's Platinum MusicPass - a plan that debuted last week where people buy plastic cards in stores that let them download albums at home - is destined to fail.

It won't go down because of cost. Obviously, it's much cheaper for the company to manufacture and distribute plastic cards than actual CDs. There is also much less overhead associated with the plan compared with making and shipping CDs, which, when returned unused by retailers, have to be stored and/or destroyed.

Nevertheless, Platinum MusicPass will fail for many reasons, mainly because it doesn't serve the customer at all. It doesn't offer music the way customers want it; it offers music the way the company wants. It creates more hoops - an extra step, an increased price, another trip to the store - for customers to jump through in order to get what they want.

Why would anyone think this would work?

Well, things are starting to get a bit desperate in the music industry. CD sales were down 15 percent in 2007, compared to already-bad 2006 sales. When the 45 percent growth in digital song sales is factored in, album sales were still down nearly 10 percent.

The biggest-selling album of 2007 was Josh Groban's holiday album "Noel," followed by the soundtrack to "High School Musical 2" and The Eagles album "Long Road Out of Eden," which was released by the band and distributed only through Wal-Mart. That means major labels and their regular channels - music retailers, radio, TV and the Internet - came up short against, respectively, the promotional power of "Oprah," the Disney cable channel and, albeit the world's biggest retailer, a distinctively nonmusic outlet. These are not good signs.

So, yeah, plastic cards it is. But, in 2008, it won't stop there. Major labels will be testing any number of new formats and marketing schemes to get fans to buy albums.

What they refuse to accept is that most fans already are getting their music the way they want - by buying CDs, by subscribing to Rhapsody or eMusic, by downloading songs from iTunes or Amazon.com or from countless peer-to-peer sites.

Common sense dictates that it would be easier to work through those existing channels to find a solution. If the major labels really wanted to put the illegal downloading sites out of business, they'd create a network that works like those sites, offering high-quality versions of albums at a price low enough to render the sites obsolete.

Label heads say it's impossible to compete with free. That's not true. There is a price point that is low enough - a nickel? a dime? a quarter? - that makes all the hassles of illegal downloading not worth it.

Why waste time searching through fakes and low-quality radio rips - and why risk computer viruses and RIAA lawsuits - to use a peer-to-peer site if you could get the song you wanted for a dime or the album you wanted for $1?

The interesting part of SonyBMG's Platinum MusicPass is that the albums available for download will be in high-quality MP3 format, without annoying digital rights restrictions. The MusicPass albums will also generally include downloadable photos and lyric booklets.

Unfortunately, those enhancements also come with a higher price tag. MusicPass albums will sell for $12.99, which is not only about $3 more than the same music would cost on iTunes, but more than a physical copy of the CD would cost in stores - even though the overhead is next to nothing.

One way they are trying to boost sales further is by bundling the MusicPass version of Celine Dion's new album "Taking Chances" with one of her previous albums for $19.99.

It's actually kinda fitting. You can almost hear Dion desperately beckoning, "Whaddaya say to taking chances?" for the whole MusicPass program, just like you can almost hear music fans collectively saying, "No thanks."

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