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Universal readies back-to-basics CDs for iTunes era

Rip-friendly minimal packaging and low price

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Universal Music Group is to bring no-frills CDs to the UK in a bid to match the iTunes Music Store's price point. The scheme targets old, back-catalogue releases rather than new or recent titles.

According to a report in the Guardian newspaper, Universal will split its CD line-up into three format. The cheapest series is expected to retail for just under £7. The CDs will ship in a simple card slip cover with no booklet.

The new format will be introduced across the UK and Europe from September. The other two are the standard jewel-case package and a double-pack which bundles as DVD with the CD.

Universal trialled the no-frills package in Europe last year, but BMG tried it too, back in 2004 before its merger with Sony to form Sony-BMG. Then, the move was about providing an alternative to free downloads via P2P networks - now, it's about competing with iTunes.

The real test will be how far online retailers discount the new discs. With most etailers selling regular-packaged CDs for less than the £7.99 iTunes charges for most album bundles, clearly CDs are already priced less than downloads. If the new discs retail online for around £3.99 or £4.99, there's certainly potential to grab business from the DRM-encumbered download stores.

Assuming, of course, Universal's discs aren't copy protected. We don't know, but we suspect they won't be. The minimalist packaging, apart from lowering the cost, may well appeal to folk who just want to rip the contents straight to the computer for transfer to an iPod or other MP3 player then archive the disc as a back-up copy. ®

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