Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Browsing The Cut-Out Bin At The ITunes Music Store

Over the years record store cut-out bins and comic shop $.25 boxes have been pretty good to me.

Oh, that's right--you're under 30. You don't know about cut-out bins. Hell, you probably don't know about record stores. Let me explain.

Back before the turn of the century, when the only way to buy music was to buy it carved into one or more pieces of plastic, most people bought their music at "record stores." These were like head shops but instead of bongs and rolling papers they were full of CDs, records and, for a few years in the 80's, cassette tapes. For a few years in the 1970's they also had 8-track tapes but most people who remember this don't like to talk about it. It's embarrassing. Actually, record stores were a lot like head shops. In fact, some of them were head shops, the old Co-Op Records in Iowa City, for example. Bongs on the left, 12" vinyl to the right.

Imagine that the 36" of shelf space Hot Topic devotes to music were expanded to fill the whole store. That's what record stores were like. Some of them, believe it or not, were independently owned and run by people who gave a fuck about music. Only a few, mind you, but those few were pretty damn cool.

Cut-outs were records, tapes or CD's that had a notch or hole cut in their packaging. Record companies or distributors would do this with releases they made too many of to show that these items were only to be sold at a discount. There was no floor under the price of an album once it was cut-out. If it was a turkey and the label pressed millions of them they could end up selling for next to nothing.

For music junkies like myself cut-out bins were magical places where the back catalog of semi-successful artists came my way for $2.99 an album, sometimes less. "This Bin Only-Any 5 Cassettes-$7.95." At those prices you could afford to buy some crap. Just a few good songs in the bunch and you've still beat the system.

So, what happens to commercially marginal digital downloads? This, apparently.

A co-worker gave me an iTunes gift card and I stumbled upon this album while looking for nice, fast psy-trance. You read right: 160 tracks, $11.99.

My guess is the artists see 0 or near 0 from these sales. That was the case with cut-outs too. Record companies have been screwing artists as long as there have been record companies, so this isn't news, but you divide the ITMS payout of a $12 sale 160 ways and the cents per song really do approach zero.

To my knowledge the iTunes Music Store does not sell pipe cleaners, screens, papers, hit-pipes or those goofy bongs made from melted Coke bottles. They also do not sell 8-tracks, thank God. Even so, the cut out bin appears to be alive and well in a new, digital form.

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