Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ban the Box Says: "Don't Be Ridiculous!"

A friend of ours who'd bought some jazz CDs for his wife's blind parents recently found that his gift of music remained unheard--his in-laws had never managed to rip open the longboxes. Only in America. Nowhere else are CDs sold in an intractable, expensive, and utterly useless 6-by-12 piece of paperboard--throughout the civilized world, the plastic jewelbox they're stored in at home is also the retail standard. Eventually, though, a change is gonna come. By demanding that their next albums be released without disposable packaging, U2, Sting, and Joan Jett have followed the lead of kiddie bard Raffi, whose new MCA contract prohibits the longboxing of his music. And an impressive cross-section of artists--Ringo Starr and Phil Collins have joined a long list that includes the Ramones, REO Speedwagon, and Olivia Newton-John as well as Jackson Browne/10,000 Maniacs types--have lent their clout to a low-powered alliance of minor labels headed by Rob Simonds of CD pioneer Rykodisc. The Ban the Box Coalition, as it's called, wants to see the longbox gone by July 1, 1991.

Longboxes cost record companies between 20 and 40 cents and add much more to retail prices after passalongs. The labels don't need them. But retailers are reluctant to switch, for three reasons: display, pilferage, and refixturing. The longbox's merchandising appeal is probably a red herring--HMV president Tony Hirsch reports that CD sales rose 15 per cent when the longbox was eighty-sixed in Canada on April 1--but for sure the jewelbox is easier to steal; some believe resistance to change will evaporate once labels adopt a uniform electronic security system, which should take a couple of years. And refixturing is a legitimate sticking point--the main reason the 6-by-12 format was adopted was to enable retailers to sell CDs from old LP bins, and new display cases will set retailers back up to 10 grand per outlet. So Ban the Box has proposed that for each CD sold in the second half of 1990, record companies issue retailers a five per cent credit toward new fixtures--and that after recouping this credit on reduced packaging, shipping, and warehousing costs in the second half of 1991, they reduce wholesale CD prices five per cent.

Especially since it involves the preemptive surrender of cash money, this plan is obviously too good to be true--everybody except the packaging companies wins. And it hasn't exactly met with hosannas. Instead, a committee at the National Association of Recording Merchandisers is exploring 6-x-10 or 5-x-11 packages that can be folded into home storage units rather than tossed, which is what NARM's Pam Horovitz says she did with the Ban the Box release. "For one company to call another and suggest dumping the box and changing pricing amounts to price-fixing," she avers. Recording Industry Association of America attorney David Liebowitz agrees. "Antitrust is very strict on collective price-fixing, even if it's price discounting for a purpose that could be beneficial," he says. Ban the Box's proposal "raises a vulnerabiliy to an issue and it's not a vulnerability that we feel is appropriate. There are other ways of resolving this. It's up to the individual companies involved. There is a great deal of sensitivity on the part of the record labels on the environmental issues that are posed by the longbox."

Ban the Box's Simonds finds it hard to believe that the government would prosecute anyone for conspiring to reduce both consumer costs and environmental waste--price-fixing is supposed to be about keeping levels artifically high. He continues to foresee a brave new day when all present and future music formats--including videocassettes and audiocassettes, the industry's sales leader even though they're pilferable in the extreme--are displayed in reusable 6-x-12 plastic frames that can be unlocked at the register. Privately, he claims, both major labels and retailers have told him that they like his plan, and he's frustrated that putting it into practice seems so difficult. But since Ban the Box was stonewalled when it began its campaign less than six months ago, even NARM's counterproposals represent rapid progress. Says Simonds: "I'm happy that we've at least moved to a point where there seems to be a sense of agreement that the longbox is ridiculous."

Village Voice, 1990