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The cost of rocking

The suggested retail price of a record album in 1974 was $6.98; by that reckoning, we should now be paying almost $29 for CDs. But we aren’t, are we?

One of my favorite idle-time Web sites is the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator site. Nothing will settle your nerves quicker when you think prices are spiraling out of control than a little perspective courtesy of the consumer price index. And nothing will more quickly quiet down an oldtimer who won’t stop going on about nickel candy bars.

Many of the rising prices that people get so exercised about are actually right about where they should be when they’re adjusted for inflation. For instance, that outrageous $2.10 per gallon you paid at the gas pump last week is exactly in line with the 33 cents per gallon folks paid 40 years ago. The same goes for a loaf of bread and other household staples. Even everybody’s favorite inflation whipping boy, the humble postage stamp, is priced right about where it should be.

And as it turns out, a lot of things–many in the area of recreation and entertainment–are cheaper now when seen through the lens of inflation. What you paid to see a first-run movie in 1974 should now be about $10, not the $6 or $7 that’s the current norm in most theatres. A best-selling hardcover book that went for eight bucks in the ’70s should cost $35 now, not $25. And here’s one that’s near and dear to my heart: The suggested retail price of a record album in 1974 was $6.98; by that reckoning, we should now be paying almost $29 for CDs. But we aren’t, are we?

It hasn’t been often that I’ve used this column to stick up for the record industry (in fact, let me just check É nope, it’s never happened), but I’m afraid the numbers don’t lie. In purely economic terms–that is, setting aside impossible questions of quality now versus then– music has never been cheaper. (That’s recorded music. The $100 you paid to see Rod Stewart recently? Sorry, you got gouged.)

After adjusting for inflation, we now pay considerably less for a music product that often contains twice as much content and is of a demonstrably superior sonic quality and durability than its 1974 predecessor. And still we whine about $16 CDs? What are we, a bunch of spoiled brats?

Yes, we pretty much are. The primary rationale used by many people who try to justify free, illegal downloading of music is that compact discs are an unconscionable ripoff, because we usually only buy the CD for one or two songs anyway. But is the filler-riddled new Usher CD really more of a ripoff than that Doobie Brothers LP your mother bought when the only decent song on it was “Black Water”?

Until recently, you could’ve argued yes, because in Mom’s day one usually had the option of skipping the album and paying a buck for the 45 of a favorite song (which would cost you $4 now…OK, somebody stop me). But thanks to services like Apple’s iTunes and Real’s Rhapsody, the standout track available as a separate purchase is quickly moving back into prominence. Even the standard price per download, 99 cents, has a nice ’70s ring to it.

Once you see that arrangement for the relative bargain it is, it’s heartening to realize that the arrangement is only likely to get sweeter. As this online avenue of distribution gains steam, the product is only likely to get better, the selection more vast, and the price lower.

Don’t be surprised if someday soon, after hearing a catchy song on your satellite radio system, you can punch a button that sends an MP3 of the track directly to your player, with the only damage being half a buck or so on your credit card statement. I know, it’s not as much fun as walking to Woolworth’s to pay a dollar for a scratchy, breakable 45, but in the brave new world of digital audio, it’ll have to do.

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