Music retailers work around MP3’s impact

Clark Morton, of Lawrence, flips through his inventory of newly arrived music at the CD Tradepost, 4000 W. Sixth St., one of the Morton family businesses. Clark's father, Jerry, said that because they sell a lot of used CDs, the digital download trend doesn't hurt their bottom line as it might for retailers who sell new music.

The way in which consumers have been buying music has significantly changed in recent years, and that hasn’t been easy for the music industry – or the music stores where everyone used to go to get the latest hit CD.

With the rise of the Internet and the digitization of music, increasing numbers of people are buying their music online at services such as the hugely popular iTunes, downloading their favorite songs by the hundreds or thousands into must-have portable storage devices like iPods or using online file-sharing sites.

These developments have many music stores anxious about the future as they watch CD sales stumble and consumers forsake the tactile pleasure of collecting hard copies of music in favor of storing away gigabytes of digital information.

Steve Wilson, manager of Kief’s Downtown Music, 823 Mass., said that the popularity of iTunes and MP3 players like iPods has affected many independent music stores across the country.

“Definitely, everybody feels it, and I think it is being particularly felt in college towns right now. I do know merchants who are seeing their sales slack off as much as 20 to 30 percent,” said Wilson, who’s worked at Kief’s since 1973.

“In college towns, you have a young population for whom being technically adept is practically second nature. And then there’s a second age group for whom the whole model of going out to buy hard goods is pretty tenuously established.”

In other words, many young people don’t think of going to a music store to buy a CD they like. Instead, they automatically turn to iTunes, where they can download the whole album, or pick just a few tracks for 99 cents apiece.

Even Wilson – who said that CD sales at Kief’s are still doing fine – has succumbed to the allure of MP3 players.

“I have an iPod that has 12 days worth of music on it – call me a sinner,” he said.

“But 99 percent of that is music I’ve added from my CD collection, for portability. For me, it’s just a high-tech cassette player for my car, so I don’t have to carry a bunch of stuff.”

Biting into profits

Jerry Morton, co-owner of CD Tradepost stores at 4000 W. Sixth St. and 2540 Iowa, said the shift toward iTunes and MP3 players has affected his business.

“Our CD sales are down a bit, in the range of 5 percent. Certainly, people burning CDs has something to do with it,” he said.

His stores sell used CDs, DVDs and video/computer game systems.

Innovations like iTunes and MP3 players, Morton said, probably hurt stores that primarily sell new music, as opposed to those who sell used CDs like his.

“The reason they’re affecting the new-music stores is because many of the people who use iPods are only interested in the latest and greatest songs that they hear on the radio, and then they go and download them. Just one or two songs from most CDs,” he said.

Because he also sells used DVDs and gaming platforms, his stores are more insulated against this trend, he said.

Hard-good holdouts

Still, there are many consumers who prefer to buy their music in the form of hard goods, whether that’s a new CD or an old record album.

“There remains a customer who has a curatorial impulse. He or she wants to actually possess the record or the CD or whatever that they can kind of hold in their hands and show people and carry to a friend’s house,” said Wilson, who owns about 5,000 albums himself.

Morton also sees a lot of that type of customer.

“A lot of our customer base is made up of audiophiles, people who like the look of a (CD) jewel box, want to read the liner notes. They’re like a bibliophile who has to have the book,” he said.

“We have people driving to our stores from Kansas City and Topeka to buy CDs that we have that they consider vintage.”

One such music consumer is Isaac Lewis-O’Connor, 18, a senior at Lawrence High School.

“I like to actually own the (original) CD. It’s nice to have a hard copy. I would say that I probably have about 50 CDs, but my older brother Gabe left his CDs here. So with those, I have about 300,” he said.

Lewis-O’Connor can be seen rocking around town while listening to music on his 30-gigabyte video iPod. It currently holds 3,586 songs.

“Most of the stuff on my iPod is my music, my brother’s music, my parents’ music, all the music we have in the house – (downloaded) from CDs,” he said.

Lewis-O’Connor, unlike many of his peers, doesn’t use iTunes that much.

“I don’t particularly like buying music online. You really have to know exactly what you want, because of the sheer volume available. I actually like to go to the store and buy it,” he said.

That fits in with what Wilson observes about downloading music iTunes and other such services.

“A lot of what concerns me is the way this model is changing how music is appreciated by people. Once everything becomes digital files, we run the risk of diminishing that curatorial impulse (to collect actual albums),” he said.