By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Pricing is nothing special--at CD-Now, an average of 10 percent below suggested retail for both domestic and import titles, plus shipping charges. Buying music online is not about saving money, though, but about convenience. In fact, according to their demographic research, 45 percent of people who shop in CD-Now do it while at their jobs--an edge which conventional stores would be hard-pressed to match.
Access to customer demographics is another edge online stores have. CD-Now, like most websites, incorporates advertising links into its information pages. Because it tracks and recalls each user's movements through the "store," CD-Now can target advertisements--or, as online marketers prefer to call it, "customized information"--to individual customers. Thus, if I've spent time in the jazz section, I'm more likely to be greeted by ad links for jazz records when I log onto the site, where someone who usually browses for chamber music will see ads for classical labels in the same spot. Orwellian, to be sure. And it works.
Now as a rule, I support local, independent record stores. I like talking music with knowledgeable staffers and picking up recordings on the spot. And I understand that if buyers don't go out of their way to support these stores--even if it means paying that extra dollar or two for a particular title--they'll cease to exist. But even independent record stores are looking at online marketing as a way to expand their sales reach, and keep them afloat in a fiercely competitive marketplace. Schoolkids Records in Ann Arbor, Michigan is one of the Midwest's best independents; they began selling records online back in 1994, thinking it would be a huge boon. It didn't exactly work out that way, according to Anne Dickens, the store's head of advertising and marketing--it was fairly expensive to get into, and the sales numbers have been moderate. But with weekly online sales averaging between $300 and $500, according to Dickens, the site (http://www.schoolkids.com/) is more than paying for itself. And it offers the sort of informed bias of a good small record store, highlighting unusual CDs (especially classical, jazz, world music, and indie rock) with informed commentary from staffers and a few sound samples.
The latter--the opportunity to audition records--is an especially big appeal of online music shopping. Recently there's been a shift from downloading soundbites onto the hard drive (which can take many minutes for even a 30-second clip), to setups where the clip or song is playable in real time using a software utility called RealAudio. Still, the sound quality is marginal, even if you've got a 28.8 (high speed) modem and all your peripherals are in order. And most stores have very limited access to sound clips. CD-Now has what they call an "Internet Jukebox," which will play select songs all the way through in RealAudio. But the ideal of being able to sample multiple tracks from every record in a stores catalog is still a ways off.
Most techies agree that online audio won't take off until the quality improves, and also that substantial improvements are likely to happen soon--probably in six months to two years. But few agree on exactly what the new technology will produce. Some anticipate the introduction of cable modems that will replace narrow-capacity phone lines with greater-capacity cable feeds. Others argue that cable companies will be unwilling to invest in expensive system modifications at this stage in the game; they predict advances in compression technology along the lines of what RealAudio and other software packages use, which will enhance the ability of 28.8 modems to carry high-fidelity sound. Ken Rutkowski, a Chicago-based computer consultant and host of the broadcast and online computer show Tech Talk (http://www.ttalk.com) believes that companies like AT&T and IBM have been sitting on advanced data-compression technology for years, waiting to see how the market plays out; now that the stakes are high, he anticipates big changes in a very short amount of time. That would mean a brave new broadcasting world not only for CD marketing, but also for online radio.
The Death of Radio, Part 2
For music fans, not to mention information junkies, online radio portends great things. As a fan of Jamaican reggae, a scene which churns out vast quantities of music that's mostly impossible to get stateside and gets next to no airplay, I'd be delighted to log onto a Kingston radio at my computer. Or Radio Havana, to catch the latest U.S.-embargoed sounds. Or a Johannesburg pop station, to see what's happening in a post-apartheid programming mix.
Technologically speaking, all this is possible to do now, if the stations had an interest in doing so. Using html programming, you simply set up a website, purchase a hardware/software package (such as the Streamworks Solution package sold by Xing Technology Corporation in Arroyo Grande, California; see sidebar, right), and off you go.
In the year-old (give or take a few weeks) medium of net-casting, Minneapolis has already earned itself a place on the map. Net.radio is a local operation that claims to be the first Internet-only broadcast venture, as opposed to radio stations that are simply feeding their on-air signals onto the net. Net.radio went up last November; at present, their site (http://www.netradio.net) features three separate music feeds: "Vintage Rock," "Indie" (a mix of demos and some independent releases that leans heavily on pop/rock styles), and "Maestro," a classical music format. It also features links with music-oriented websites, news and information (mostly Internet-related), access to video clips, and occasional live broadcasts. (Dr. Mambo's Combo performed online earlier this year.)