DualDisc: Double the format, double the fun

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

All eyes are on the latest music-industry merger: a disc that has a conventional CD album on one side and a DVD on the other.

The new format, called DualDisc, plays in most CD and DVD players and retails for $1 to $3 more than a regular CD. The hybrid discs feature a standard recording on Side A, and content such as music videos, concert footage, interviews, and photo galleries on the flip side. Most of the DualDiscs also feature a 5.1 surround-sound mix of the album for the growing number of consumers who have high-end speaker systems hooked up to their DVD players.

That's not to suggest that the discs are narrowly aimed at the audiophile crowd. Record labels are hoping that a high-profile release such as Bruce Springsteen's "Devils & Dust," which will be available only on DualDisc upon its release at the end of the month, will make ordinary CD buyers aware of the product's potential.

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The industry's adoption of the DualDisc is part of an effort to reduce the steady decline of CD sales. Illegal file sharing, not to mention the dramatic growth of MP3 music sales, have flummoxed an industry whose decades-old distribution network has been geared to deliver products to record-store racks. Though recording companies are getting into the MP3 business, they're also bundling multimedia material onto albums to shore up the traditional sales model.

"The industry is very much trying to add value to the CD," says Brian Garrity, a business writer at Billboard magazine. "We're basically operating in a time where physical-product music has been substantially devalued."

Mashing a DVD onto a CD may be good news for retailers, since more customers are buying visual content. "The largest percentage of our volume still comes from music, but obviously DVD is still a large part of it, whether it's music or theatrical," says Jerry Suarez, senior music product manager for Virgin Entertainment Group. "It's a growing segment of the business."

Record labels have also noticed that their cousins, the film studios, are selling billions of DVDs by stuffing them with bonus features. That's led record executives to conclude that music buyers can be enticed by new albums or back-catalogue reissues by adding similar extras to DualDiscs, which have the capacity for 30 minutes of video in addition to a surround-sound mix. For example, a reissue of Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue" includes a documentary about the making of the celebrated work. The Springsteen album, which will retail for the price of a regular CD, includes, among other things, footage of the Boss playing songs acoustically. It's surely only a matter of time until some artist includes a "commentary track" to play over the music.

At least one observer points to a DualDisc feature that will make vinyl-lovers swoon. "One of the downsides of going from an LP to CD is that we lost a lot of visual content," says Buzz Goddard, a senior writer at highfidelityreview.com. "When you had a 12-inch LP sleeve, the art was a little easier to appreciate." He notes that DualDisc allows any music fan with an 8-foot high-definition TV screen to gaze at gallery-size album art. The format also offers other compelling visuals, he says.

At least, that's the theory. To date, some record labels have filled up the B-Side of DualDisc with padding and perfunctory extras such as music videos. If the discs are ever to gain an audience, it's essential that the bands create uniquely tailored content that's buzzworthy. They might want to take a cue from Simple Plan, the pop-punk outfit from Montreal who have sold close to a million copies of their second album, "Still Not Getting Any...," on DualDisc alone. A key selling point was video footage of Simple Plan in the studio.

"We cut it ourselves, we filmed it ourselves, we edited it ourselves, and we basically gave it to [the label] and said, 'Put it on our disc,' " says Chuck Comeau, the band's drummer, in a phone interview. This is one way to make fans feel as if they have greater access to the band. "Kids want more than music. They want to love a band for everything: the music, the personalities, the shows. They want to love everything that they symbolize," Comeau says.

DualDisc presents labels with an opportunity to use the DVD part of the disc to define the image and brand of their artists, says Garrity.

It remains to be seen whether DualDisc will just appeal to hard-core fans or whether it will draw casual buyers, as was the case with Jennifer Lopez's "Rebirth."

Thomas Hesse, president of Global Digital Business for Sony BMG Music Entertainment, views the format as part of an industry trend of moving away from selling only one homogenous product: the CD. "We'll have a DualDisc and we'll have a CD, and we may have a DVD from that same artist," Mr. Hesse says. "On the electronic front, we'll have downloads. You can get the music as a subscription. You can download the ring tone to your phone. Increasingly we're geared to a world in which there is a multiplicity of products."

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