Bruce Springsteen singing the joys of pink Toyotas instead of Cadillacs? That's what some paranoid observers are predicting should the CBS board of directors, meeting today in New York, approve the sale of the CBS Records Group to Sony Corp. of Japan for upwards of $2 billion.
Both sides acknowledged extensive negotiations but deny an agreement in principle has already been signed. Before the recent stock market plunge, CBS had indicated it might pursue an alternative public stock spinoff to avoid a half-billion-dollar capital gains tax, but the uncertain market (in which CBS stock fell from a 52-week high of 226 1/4 to yesterday's 165) made such a deal less desirable.
The Records Division is still a plum, of course. Last year, after CBS rejected a $1.25 billion offer from Sony and several other bidders, the division had a banner year, with profits nearly doubling to $162 million on revenue of $1.49 billion (figures representing 37 percent of CBS' operating profit and 31 percent of its total revenue). CBS CEO Laurence Tisch, who has said he wants to concentrate on acquiring television properties, has already sold off CBS' book, magazine and music publishing divisions.
Sony's attempts to become a major music-industry player -- and the only company that could effectively integrate hardware and software -- could have a profound effect on the future of the industry. Buying the nation's second-largest record company would provide a powerful and immediate boost for Sony and the Japanese-developed digital audio tape (DAT), a fledgling format that could quickly become a multibillion-dollar entry in the audio sweepstakes, much like compact discs.
Ironically, CBS has been a key supporter of proposed legislation banning importation of DAT players without an anticopying chip to prevent CD-quality home taping, which the record industry sees as its No. 1 problem. In fact, it's the CBS Technology Center that developed the anticopying circuitry.
"We are awaiting the results of the National Bureau of Standards' evaluation of the copy-code device," says CBS Records corporate spokesman Robert Altschuler. "Our position on the protection of copyright hasn't changed."
However, it's hard to imagine CBS' continued opposition to copy-codeless DAT hardware should Sony acquire the company. And Sony's access to CBS' huge library would position it to introduce not only DAT but also other new audio and video technologies. Some industry analysts point to Sony's experience a few years back with the 8-mm VCR and to Hollywood's reluctance to provide the Japanese with software, resulting in strong consumer resistance to that format.
"We're operating under a directive from our board in terms of DAT and other public issues that might pit us against hardware manufacturers, and I don't see any change in our posture," says Jason Berman, head of the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade association that has led the fight for protective legislation.
Berman also points out that copy-code research has now been adopted by other member companies "and I don't see that a decision made by Sony would affect our ability to proceed on that." However, Berman might consider a name change for his trade group: Should the Sony sale go through, it would leave only Warner, MCA and A&M as major American-owned record companies.
Whoever owns the companies, it's still a good time to be in the industry. RIAA reports indicate 1987 will be a record year in terms of dollar volume, up almost 30 percent in the first six months to $2.5 billion.
Cassettes accounted for almost half the dollar value and registered a 22 percent rise in units shipped (versus a 131 percent increase for CDs and a 5 percent decrease for vinyl). The RIAA's Berman isn't worried about the recent market crash, even though it came just before the industry's busy season. "I don't think there's going to be a noticeable impact this year. Whether there are serious repercussions in terms of consumer confidence and spending next year remains to be seen."
On the DAT front, battle lines are still being drawn. Last week, the RIAA released statements in favor of the legislation by 50 major stars, including Genesis, Leonard Bernstein, Kurtis Blow, Barbara Mandrell, Dexter Gordon and Herbert von Karajan. Roberta Flack echoed many artists' and major labels' fear of inexpensive counterfeiting when she said, "The time will be right for supporting the introduction of DAT equipment when we hear ... the Treasury Department is offering cheap presses for making paper money at home."
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles two new groups, Musicians for DAT and Independent Record Labels for DAT, announced a coalition to oppose what they call restrictive legislation. Claiming a membership of 200 musicians, producers, engineers and independent labels, they want to "dispel any assertions that recording industry proponents of anti-DAT legislation speak for the entire music industry" and say that "DAT technology will permit them to produce and to distribute music in a digital format at a lower fixed cost for duplication."