For the most part, the pop channels--"alternative rock," "modern country," "lite jazz," "hottest hits"--don't outperform their commercial counterparts by much, except for less repetition. (The "rap" channel is an exception; it pulls no punches, mixing West Coast and East Coast, gangsta, pop, and progressive. And because there are no FCC sensitive language regulations for cable, records stickered with "parental advisory" warnings get played unexpurgated.) Still, DMX is clearly about micro-programming for a variety of tastes, and the diversity is expanding.

While home subscribers are still limited to 30 channels, worldwide businesses can now get 97 channels via satellite feeds (with Cajun, bluegrass, acid jazz, Indian, flamenco, Japanese, and Chinese music channels, not to mention 4 German slots--German rock, German oldies, German folk, and yes, German easy listening). And another 23 channels are about to be added.

Despite its superiority in terms of content and fidelity, DMX doesn't present an immediate threat to radio. It can't get into a car or an individual's office space like radio can. And it doesn't provide the sort of companionship that radio does, with its hosts and information. But as a trouble-free soundtrack source in the home, and as a music information source, its benefits are plain.

Furthermore, DMX's potential as a marketing tool has yet to be exploited. A clue to its future lies in the button on the remote control labeled "BUY." Though inactive at the moment, the company eventually hopes to have an interactive setup that lets listeners order by pressing a series of buttons whenever they hear something that piques their curiosity. The purchase can either be charged to a credit card or tacked onto the monthly DMX bill.

It's fairly impressive stuff. But looking ahead, DMX seems like an interim step toward online music services, at least in the home. With the advent of cable modems--which some observers are guessing will revolutionize the online world in the next few years by enabling transmission of high-fidelity audio and video on the Internet--and the imminent arrival of Internet TVs, which will move web culture into the home entertainment space, DMX's little decoder box is already looking quaint. Instead of 120 channels, there may be 200, or 2,000. And instead of an LCD text strip, there may be a full-screen reproduction of a CD package and liner notes. Plenty of online folks are already working to make it happen.

The Online Record Shop

As the number of CDs in print globally increases at a frightening clip, the chance any conventional record store will stock precisely what you want at any given time gets slimmer and slimmer--especially if it's not a current hit or widely acknowledged classic. Specialty stores are useful for certain genres (indie rock, Latin, DJ music), but even these operations have problems maintaining deep-catalog stock. The two main problems conventional stores face in this regard are display space and cash flow, and the latter problem is exacerbated by the rise of discount record clubs and electronics stores such as Best Buy which, for promotional purposes, sell new CDs at near or below cost.

For that matter, record shopping isn't what it used to be. Unless you're doing business with mom & pop operations, chances are the staff will be ill equipped to advise you on purchases or place special orders (most of these jobs, after all, are high-turnover, close-to-minimum-wage drudge work). Some retail outlets have experimented with computer-assisted, in-store shopping services. The defunct local Title Wave chain used what is known as an I-Station, an interactive kiosk which allows customers to sample bits of songs on thousands of releases, and special-order them on the spot if they aren't in stock. The irony is that technologies like the I-station are rendering the stores around them practically redundant.

The number of online record stores is growing; with some creative website construction and a warehouse space, almost anyone can set up shop. Right now, most observers consider CD-Now (http://www.cdnow.com/) to be the largest and best-run operation going. According to President Bill Brennan, they did roughly $6 million in business last year, and expect things to go up from there.

Having spent some time browsing in CD-Now, I confess I found it a great source of information. If you search for a CD, you get not only the title, label, and price, but also frequently an image of the cover art, a song list, a personnel list, and a short review of the band and/or recording. If a record is forthcoming, it includes the title and release date. For those obsessive and/or bored enough, their are various chat options to discuss music with other customers.

CD-Now also proved a good source for obscure records. In their jazz stacks, I found 24 John Zorn titles (including Japanese imports) and 17 Cecil Taylor titles. On the rock shelves, there were 10 titles by German rockers Faust, and a half-dozen by the kindred Amon Duul/Amon Duul II, along with American indie records by Tortoise, Folk Implosion, and Ui. World music was less impressive, but still not too shabby. Brazil's prolific Caetano Veloso had 13 titles listed and Cuba's seminal Trio/Groupo Matamoros had nine; the late African superstar Franco was only represented with two titles out of the dozens available on CD.

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