By Ian S. Port
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It seems the only numbers rising at independent record stores these days are in the amounts of CDs being sold back to retailers who deal in used merchandise. Buy counters across the country are inundated with customers trying to unload their old Arcade Fire and Gorillaz albums for cash and trade — and not just handfuls of CDs, but entire shelves' worth of the stuff.
Music fans aren't getting rid of their coveted stashes completely, though. The patient ones are importing their CDs into iTunes first. And those with more money than time are turning toward services that physically downsize their collections from the size of a walk-in closet to that of a hard drive in a matter of days.
Numerous companies have sprung up over the past few years that specialize in ripping stockpiles of CDs. The details differ depending on the service, but the basics are similar. Mail them your discs, and a few days later you receive an organized digital library of your music — for a price. Palo Alto's ReadytoPlay, for example, charges $1.15 per CD and estimates a two-day turnaround for an order of up to 750 CDs. Arizona-based Ripstyles offers packages from $1 to $2.25 per disc, with free shipping if you use its spindles. The company also offers vinyl conversion, starting at a steep $35 per record. To avoid any legal issues, neither company keeps copies of your music — although both offer some form of backup for your new digital library.
ReadytoPlay CEO Jeff Tedesco says the future of the digital music industry isn't just in selling single downloads to kids. It's also in helping older customers manage "music collections they've built/bought over the last 20 years."
To some critics, these businesses are simply more proof that if you're too busy to do something yourself, you'll eventually be able to pay someone to do it for you. But the industry leaders boast that they offer services iTunes can't provide. ReadytoPlay and Ripstyles claim to clean up and correct data like garbled artist and track names, and find digital artwork for virtually any album sent their way. They also rip higher-fidelity MP3s than iTunes, keeping the audio quality closer to that of the source.
At the current price point, these services are nonetheless skewed toward an upscale clientele, especially for large collections. Tedesco sees a proportionate relationship between the amount his customers have paid for a digital home audio system and how much they'll spend having their library ripped. In other words, celebrity clients like Chris Isaak, Dave Matthews, and Barry Bonds may be more prevalent than a college student who just wants to load 200 albums onto an iPod.
But those with smaller budgets are still testing out trading a physical record collection for a digital one. Justin Kerr, who plays in San Francisco band the Blacks, recently hired ReadytoPlay to rip 500 CDs. He then sold the original discs to Amoeba Music, making back some of the cash he spent for the conversion. "It was about time for me," he explains. He and his wife "wanted to have access to our entire music collection in one place, through one device."
Ripstyle's Jonathan Kressaty doesn't see his business slowing down any time soon. "As the number of consumers purchasing digital media devices increases," he says, "the demand for CD conversion services is skyrocketing." There is one twist in the success of this business model, however. As consumers download more frequently, ripping services may become obsolete. Indie labels "often offer free downloading when you purchase the physical [product] nowadays," says Celia Hirschman of San Francisco consulting firm Downtown Marketing. She adds that services such as Rhapsody and eMusic "offer a full palette of all-you-can-eat downloads, making a CD-ripping service kind of moot."
While it remains to be seen how quickly personal music libraries will move from the hall closet to the hard drive, one thing is certain. With the advent of audio innovations, the compact disc is increasingly less a host for your favorite songs and more a bargaining tool at buy counters.