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Opening Arguments

Everything old is new again

This year, for the first time in history, more old albums will be sold than new ones. In the first half of 2012, "catalog" albums -- those released more than 18 months ago -- sold 76.6 million units. New units tallied 73.9 million. And the difference are likely to increase -- "new" will never outsell "old again." Why is this happening?

Industry executives point the finger at online piracy, streaming and the death of radio. Huge chunks of fans complain there has been nothing worth listening to since the Beatles broke up or Led Zeppelin called it quits or Kurt Cobain killed himself. Those explanations are bogus.

While radio stations tend to play older artists instead of breaking deserving new ones, there’s no evidence people are stealing and streaming “21” more than “Abbey Road.” And anyone who thinks old music is better than new music isn’t listening to new music. Neko Case, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire and a hundred other young acts are delivering brilliant art.

There is a simple, straightforward reason so many catalog titles dot Billboard’s album charts this summer: price cuts.

Labels and retailers have slashed prices on catalog releases, making them, on average, $5 cheaper than new releases. This has had a dramatic effect. Phil Collins couldn’t be less hip, but last week, when Amazon’s MP3 store cut Collins’ “...Hits” to 99 cents, Mr. Sussudio popped in at No. 6, ahead of such contemporary stars as One Direction, Chris Brown and Maroon 5 on the Billboard 200.

OK, I buy that price is a major factor, but it's not the only one. Something else is going on because of us old farts. We've spent a lifetime accumulating a library of our favorite music. And when technology has changed, we've tended to move our collections to the newest medium, whether it was eight-track or cassette or CD -- maybe not always everything, but a major portion of it. And now we're going digital. For every one new artist we discover, we have 10 old-favorites to convert. The cheaper pricing on the old stuff just makes it easier for us to update.

And add to that the fact that people are influenced by those who came before them. Once music enters the "catalog," it becomes part of our continuing and evolving musical heritage. There will always be more young people interested in catching up on the old stuff than there old people dying to try the new stuff.

I haven't seen any comparable statistics to know if the same thing is happening in the world of literature, but I can at least say my personal experience is the same. The older a book is, the cheaper it is for the digital version. So for every one or two new books I put on my Kindle, I'm likely to download 10 of my favorites from the list of "classics" (that's the "catalog," for all you non-readers."