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  •   Music: You Better Shop Around

    By Richard Harrington
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, November 22, 1998; Page H5

    Shopping for music online is a totally different experience from the familiar visit to the mall. For one thing, mall music stores rely heavily on impulse buying; there's less incentive for that online.

    There's also something – romantic or archaic, take your pick – about actually handling CDs, though old-timers will tell you it's never been the same as handling vinyl albums and singles. And while better music stores feature knowledgeable, informed sales people, there are also some staffed with clerks hostile or indifferent to customers with tastes different from their own, which can prove intimidating. You may not get the same personal support in cyberspace, but you won't get the judgment either.

    Today there are three major sources for Internet music shopping, though that number will shrink to two early next year. Amazon.com, which expanded from its core book business to music in June, immediately moved into the lead position. In second place is CDnow, which has been around since 1994, followed by N2K's two-year-old Music Boulevard. N2K and CDnow plan to merge in early 1999.

    The three majors offer essentially the same service: voluminous inventory (300,000 to 500,000 titles, 10 times the stock of a stand-alone retail store); heavily discounted prices (though with shipping and handling, the prices are not that much less than in real-world stores) and products easily searchable by song or album title, artist, composer or performer. The sites also provide music reviews and news, biographies and discographies, audio and video bites, computerized shopping assistance for recommendations based on consumers' musical preferences, and loads of links to related music sites.

    And all offer the same basic lines: CDs, cassettes, vinyl (including imports), music videos, laser discs, DVDs, CD-ROMs, audio books, custom CDs, T-shirts, and in some cases, music gear and downloadable singles (Music Boulevard's E-Mobs).

    The major beneficiaries of Internet music sales are jazz and classical music, according to a recent industry survey. So far, R&B and rap have been slow to the Internet. As for the rock/pop category, it's the top-selling genre on the Internet as well as in the real world.

    I searched prices on both Alanis Morisette's current chart-topping album, as well as Phil Spector's classic seasonal album, "A Christmas Gift for You," and the 1991 "Back to Mono" box set tracing the legendary producer's legacy. Morissette's "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie" (Maverick) cost $12.58 at both CDnow and Amazon.com, $12.88 at Music Boulevard. The Spector Christmas album was $12.88 at Music Boulevard, $12.99 at Amazon.com and $16.49 at CDnow. "Back to Mono" was $60.88 at Music Boulevard, $63.87 at Amazon.com and $66.99 at CDnow.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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