Britain's two leading specialist music and entertainment retailers have locked horns as the row over Prince's CD "covermount" reaches a new nadir.

Virgin Megastores has slammed rival HMV, describing the company as "opportunistic" for its decision to sell the Mail on Sunday newspaper which will carry a free "covermount" of the artist's new album, "Planet Earth," this weekend.

"We're stunned that HMV has decided to take what appears to be a complete u-turn on their stance towards covermounts and particularly in this case, as only a week ago they were so vocal about the damage it will cause," comments Virgin Retail managing director Simon Douglas in statement.

Douglas went on to accuse HMV of making an about-face, suggesting its actions would hasten the retail sector's demise. "Simon Fox [HMV chief executive] labelled the Mail on Sunday deal as 'devaluing music' and 'absolute madness', now they appear to have joined forces to sell more copies of the very same paper."

He continued, "It's not only retailers that suffer; the public will suffer in the long term by restricting choice on the high street. Of course people will take a free CD by a platinum-selling artist like Prince but you only need to look at what's happened to Fopp going into administration to get an idea of the potential long-term impact."

An HMV spokesman said, "HMV does not condone the use of covermounts as a primary channel for distributing music and film content, and we understand and acknowledge the issues that they raise. Clearly, we would have much preferred to have stocked the new Prince album, but his decision to effectively release it in this way means that this will, unfortunately, not be possible."

The giveaway of the 10-track CD -- billed by the Mail on Sunday as "The World's Greatest Newspaper Giveaway Ever" -- has kicked-off a heated debate within the U.K. music business. In light of the Mail on Sunday deal, Sony BMG in the United Kingdom has refused to handle the release, which was signed to the major on a worldwide agreement.

The U.K.'s Entertainment Retailers Association has also entered into the argument, with the trade body's co-chairman Paul Quirk condemning the freebie as an action which "beggars belief."

Stephen Miron, managing director of the Mail on Sunday, counters Quirk, arguing that he and other retailers are failing to grasp a rare opportunity. "I think that all these people are taking an old, defensive, archaic, traditional approach to things," Miron tells Billboard.biz. "This is an innovation. It's hardly going to happen every week of the year. Celebrate it. Make the most of it. And try and jump on the bandwagon, because there will be huge opportunity for those people who are savvy out there, including the retailers."

"Planet Earth" will also be distributed free to the thousands of fans who bought tickets to his 21-date "The Earth Tour" residency at London's new O2 Arena, formerly known as the Millennium Dome, beginning Aug. 1.

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