Originally created 07/04/99

Music stores in tune with Web



The owner of two music stores, Robert "Flash" Gordon isn't afraid of new technology -- even if it could end up hurting his own business.

Since he opened his first Augusta record store in 1971, Mr. Gordon has seen big changes in the music business. He's seen the bulk of sales at his stores, Pyramid Music, go from records to cassettes to compact discs.

But Mr. Gordon isn't worried that music players that can download tunes from the Internet are going to put him out of business.

It's been years since the 12-inch vinyl record was popular, he says, but he still has customers who buy them.

In other words, the revolution may be coming, but it's going to take a while.

In the meantime, Mr. Gordon doesn't plan to give up.

"We have to do what we can," he says. "We will find a way to survive."

Speculation abounds about how digital sound and the Internet will change the music industry. Companies that are investing in the technology say a revolution is on the horizon.

It won't take a generation to displace the CD. It will take about five years, they say.

FOR MANY LISTENERS,downloading music is a foreign experience. Mr. Gordon doesn't listen to his tunes this way. But his 17-year-old daughter might, he says.

"Young folks are going to go for this," he predicts.

MP3 technology is popular among college students and technophiles -- the generation that grew up with computers and knows how to use them. But older music listeners may be more reluctant.

When music first was offered online, it was scratchy and sounded filtered.

The new technology, MP3, allows listeners to download high-quality recordings from the Internet -- often for free.

The name, MP3, actually is shorthand for Motion Picture Experts Group 1, layer 3. It is a method of compressing audio files into a format that takes up as little as one-tenth the computer memory as earlier formats.

Bobby Morrison, who manages the used CD store Disc Go Round, doesn't believe that the MP3 technology will hurt his business right away. It takes time for customers to get used to something new, especially if they have invested heavily in what they have now.

But over time, the new technology may take its toll.

In the mid-1990s, music retailers experienced a number of changes. Downsizing and restructuring contributed to a 6.5 percent decline in the number of CDs sold at retail outlets and a 2.4 percent drop in the dollar value, according to the National Association of Recording Merchandisers.

They just now are beginning to rebound.

But retailers might have to adjust again to compete with companies such as MP3.com Inc., based in San Diego, and RioPort, makers of the portable, pager-sized Rio.

MP3.com, which offers about 80,000 songs online, is preparing a public stock offering. RioPort started selling its music player just before Christmas for less than $200. The machine lets listeners skip, scan and shuffle through numerous song tracks -- just like a CD player, but without the CDs.

MP3 TECHNOLOGY HASpicked up controversy.

Although the Recording Industry of America Association says it is excited about what the technology can offer, it also is concerned that artists will be hurt by the use of unauthorized MP3 files, that they will siphon off royalties.

A new generation of MP3 players is designed to help curb piracy and is expected to be in stores before the end of the year.

"It's a whole new world," association spokeswoman Alex Walsh says of the technology. "It's wonderful."

With MP3, musicians can distribute their own songs via the Internet. They don't need agents, record companies or distributors. In a sense, the middlemen are cut out.

Alanis Morissette, for example, recently released a video on America Online, upstaging cable channel MTV. Other artists are following suit, circumventing the mainstream record industry.

But the debate is over how long it will take the technology to catch on.

Music retailers such as Mr. Gordon predict that it will take consumers a long time to adopt the new technology. And many never will, they say.

Stores still sell vinyl records and turntables -- even though no one makes records anymore. Entrepreneurs such as Lucky Dale have even turned nostalgia for the old discs into a business. He runs Paper Chaser, a local record shop that sells only vinyls.

And stores still sell turntables. At Best Buy, manager Ivan Hazelwood sells three models of turntables. Customers buy them to replace equipment that breaks or wears out.

But not too many people need a turntable these days, he says. He sells only about a dozen a year.

"Technology is changing," Mr. Hazelwood said. And Mr. Gordon acknowledges that.

Stores such as his will have to find their specialty, their niche.

But, Mr. Gordon isn't quite convinced that MP3 is the future of music.

"Who's to say this is not going to fail?" he asks.

Frank Witsil can be reached at (706) 823-3352.