Music hath its virtues

Cellophane Square and its used CDs go New Economy.

TWO YEARS AGO Cellophane Square, that well-known Seattle record haven, scored a "Best Used Vinyl and CD Site" mention from Yahoo! Internet Life. The writer (that would be me) liked their "highly eclectic collection" and said that if you'd overindulged at other music-buying sites, www.cellophane.com "comes to your rescue." In any case, I snorted to myself at the keyboard back in '98, it ain't Tower or HMV. I shopped indie stores; that made me, obviously, a virtuous music consumer.

That was 1998. In fall 2000, Cellophane Square's collection continues to be highly eclectic. But the last music-related site I overindulged in was Napster, glutting myself on tunes I keep telling myself are fair (though not, even in my own head, virtuous) pickings for various reasons ending in the word "free." eBay and half.com nibble at and add to my holdings. And when I click to cellophane.com, I get jacked up and sent to Djangos, a Portland-based outfit that wants to own the used-music space online.

What happened? How did a local hero like Cellophane go from online success to becoming a cog in a war machine pointed at the eBays of the world?

Let us be frank, if we cannot be virtuous: There's no such thing as "used music," unless it is each person folding and spindling for herself inside her own head. I will, however, be using the phrase "used music" to describe the masala of CDs, cassettes, vinyl and even, lately, DVDs to be found in a respectable indie. The media of transport can be new or old, but the music—the sounds on the disc or the tape or the stream—is the same, ever itself, ever defining its relevance to each listener over time.

So we've noticed, especially those of us who have gone through a few media iterations. I have replaced vinyl with cassettes and cassettes with CDs, in some cases buying the same collection of songs three times plus however many it takes to replace losses to theft and cross-country moves. I was, until I got more organized, notorious for double-buying. (I won't even tell you which album I triple-purchased, lest the very few people in Seattle who still think I'm cool wise up.) I'm glad the college crowd is out there winning the MP3 revolution, but as a veteran music consumer I'd like to grumble to you that frankly they have no idea what it used to be like. How we suffered.

Before there were online stores and exchanges, there were used-music stores that allowed idiots such as myself to resell their excess music for a small amount of money usually spent right in the store. Fueled by consumers such as myself and by music professionals (journalists, radio folk, etc.) selling back unwanted material, stores like Cellophane Square, LA's Moby Disc, and even Portland's pre-dot-com Djangos (yes, Virginia, there is a brick and mortar entity called Djangos) catered to the kind of folk who cared more about price and availability than about shrinkwrap and pristine condition, making about 70 percent of their sales on used music.

The best indies had dimension—local depth (often indies have been the best place to find new or local music that your local behemoth store won't stock, although many musicians argue that buying a disc used is even worse for artist profits than skeeving songs off Napster), historical breadth, and every so often the kind of super-rare score that makes a music junkie's heart fibrillate.

Scavenging was the heart of the experience—finding a rare disc after rooting through dozens of stores for months made it that much more precious. (A lot of the music I own never sounded better than it did when I pulled it off a remote shelf and let out a shriek that let the guy at the counter know that allowing that particular title gather dust in inventory was all part of God's plan, and he could've priced it double what he did.) But to indulge the scavengers you've got to have inventory—an average indie store carries about 10,000 titles, with big stores sporting more than 30,000. And keeping inventory costs space and therefore money.

Which is why Cellophane Square couldn't afford to be a purely-Seattle purely-indie any more.

Steve Furst, the president of Djangos, knows that folks like the cramped stores from where they scavenge: "People migrate, but they never forget their roots." You will always be able to walk into a Cellophane Square and root through the stacks—but once you've done, there are now kiosks in each store that can root remotely through inventories at the other 19 Djangos-affiliated stores, checking first the Portland inventory, then the locations nearest your ZIP code and so forth, ending up with a search encompassing about 1 million titles. This system doesn't discourage folks from walking into a single indie record shop; it diminishes the possibility that they'll walk into a second.

Convenience also keeps Furst sanguine about another threat to indie shops: consumer-to-consumer sales at places such as eBay, half.com, GEMM, and Amazon's zStores and auctions. eBay is in fact, says Furst, not a bad guy here—"eBay made [buying] used [music] respectable for all of us."

I tried selling an item on half.com— a double-purchased disc, in fact. I'd already shuffled a copy to Cellophane a while ago, getting about $3 for the little darling. I listed it at half for about $5. Within six hours, some nice fellow in Pennsylvania bought it; within a few weeks, half.com will send me a check for 85 percent of that amount— but first I had to find an envelope and stamps, not to mention a parking place at the post office. The payout was nifty, but unloading a lot of CDs could turn out to be a complex undertaking.

Which works in Djangos' favor, says Furst, who notes nonetheless that Djangos has put a certain amount of Cellophane Square's inventory on half.com, eBay, and so on. Working with those sites lets Cellophane Square move excess inventory and gives folks a glimpse of what a real record store with really knowledgeable clerks, as opposed to an ordinary jane with too many CDs, can offer. (And to their credit, Djangos has increased the payout on used CDs, dropping selling prices and paying a 33 percent bonus on stuff they buy if you'll take payment in trade.)

And MP3s? Don't (gulp) worry, says Furst. Djangos has already partnered with MP3.com to produce a streaming service, "if," he rues, "they ever get out of the Universal [lawsuit]." He also describes a plan to make Djangos, in kiosk form, "a major movie and music store on campuses—Djangos everywhere. The Napsters and the MP3s of the world [exist], but students love to buy music, especially used music." He suggests that something like leasing (buy the disc, enjoy the disc, sell the disc back to Djangos) may prove an attractive way to buy music down the road—like leasing a car, or renting a video without the fear of fines.

When I walk into Cellophane Square, the kiosks are out of order and the clerk behind the counter jots down my purchases on a clipboard. For a minute I'm torn between relief that Cellophane Square continues as its slightly discombobulated self and dismay that everything I've been led to think about the great Djangos merger/acquisition is all vaporware. I ask the clerk what the deal is. He's happy to help and promises the machines will be ready very soon—"they're really new." And so is he, hired since the May acquisition.

Wait. They're hiring? No jobs are being lost to this particular dot-com?

Good enough for me. I decree Djangos . . . unexpectedly virtuous.

 
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