Whether you're a mix-tape maniac or just looking for the next round of mood music, there's a new industry on the Web that might be worth a listen.
Three online businesses -- MusicMaker, CDuctive and Supersonic Boom -- feature libraries of music at their Web sites and, for about the price you'd pay for a prepackaged disc (plus $3 shipping and handling), will put together a CD just for you and ship it to your door. Pick through a digital shop and listen to tracks in RealAudio, and the perfect (according to you, anyway) party mix is just points and clicks away.
MusicMaker specializes in old blues and jazz, features a spotty collection of classical music and has just acquired the rights to some oldies. This site has a large collection, but there are a few restrictions here.
For example, one record label whose music is featured on this site -- Fantasy, a blues label located in San Francisco -- won't let its music be mixed with tracks from other labels. These constraints aren't huge obstacles, but they do mean that if you wanted to alternate some Thelonious Monk numbers with the Kronos Quartet's renditions of the same tunes, well, you'd be out of luck. Prices at MusicMaker range from $10 to $20.
CDuctive , another CD-compilation site, may not carry Monk's recordings, but this dance-oriented site does have an acid-jazz version of his trademark tune "Monk's Dream" by 9 Lazy 9. CDuctive actually puts a reasonable amount of effort into explaining what the difference is between styles like "ambient," "drum & bass," "techno" and so on; its discs will run you $7.99 for the first song, plus 99 cents each for as many songs as you can cram onto a 72-minute disc -- I picked out 14 tracks and paid $21. When you compare this to what you'd pay at a store for an expensive import disc, or what you'd spend buying stuff at random and trying to figure out what you like, this works out to be a not-bad deal.
By contrast, SuperSonic Boom leans more toward music not measured in beats per minute. There are no restrictions on what you mix together, so if you want to put a selection from Handel's Messiah next to Howlin' Wolf's "Red Rooster," that's what you'll get. SuperSonic Boom charges a flat $16.99 per CD (plus shipping and handling), and you can load 55 minutes worth of tunes onto its discs.
Of these three, SuperSonic Boom has the most ambitiously organized search engine and the best-looking site, but the eye candy you'll find there can be a little slow loading onto your screen. It also took a while for its discs to show up at my apartment -- their order form let me get away with accidentally entering a non-existent four-digit Zip code, rather than a Postal Service-sanctified five-digit one. Oops.
CDuctive prints up the snazziest looking package, including an arty, retro-looking sleeve in the jewel case with your picks printed on it. MusicMaker, on the other hand, earns cool points by also printing your selections on the disc itself, though the sleeve is just a drab shot of the MusicMaker logo.
The numbers of tracks available at each of these sites have been taking off in recent weeks. But none of the major labels have joined in yet. Both MusicMaker and SuperSonic Boom, while insisting that the recording industry believes in the concept of custom-compilation CDs, say they're still working on deals with major labels.
As a customer, I can attest that it's more exciting to get your custom-made discs in the mail than to bring home an overpriced and repackaged box set of outtakes, lost "classics," basement tracks and so on. Furthermore, I now have hard evidence that I can put together a better soundtrack than Quentin Tarantino any day.