Eschewing MP3s for a Modern Music Bazaar

With its iconic clubs and secluded party venues, Sunset Boulevard has long provided a backdrop for the colorful history of rock 'n' roll.

Today, it tells a new story of the music business.

On Sunset in West Hollywood, the iconic Tower Records building has been boarded up and abandoned since the company went into bankruptcy in August. Meanwhile, to the east, past the exclusive bars and clubs, the line for Amoeba Records' parking lot stretches around the block.

As a professional touring DJ, I am always looking for new places to find music. At age 9, I purchased my first tape -- New Order's "Substance" -- from Walton Records, in my hometown of Birmingham, Mich.

Twenty years later, living in California and performing music to audiences all over the world, I found myself swimming in a river of digital music and only occasionally visiting the drought-stricken record stores where I met so many friends, band mates, and fellow music geeks.

Most of us have become accustomed to clicking our way through reviews and digital previews rather than browsing aisles for our music. If the Amoeba phenomenon is any clue, the total shift away from brick-and-mortar music might not happen as fast as we thought.

Enter Amoeba

From the crowds that pack the aisles of Amoeba's Hollywood location, you'd never know that, industrywide, album sales are down 5 percent from last year, or that sales of digital singles are up 65 percent and that 10 percent of all music is sold in digital format, according to The Associated Press.

Despite this clear trend away from the traditional commercial model, other figures indicate that digital music sales will never fully kill the CD as a format. Amoeba's success may suggest a reason why.

The three-store chain, which started in the Bay Area of Northern California, has established a modern music bazaar that serves as a destination unto itself rather than a casual stopping point in some suburban mall.

At the Los Angeles outlet, which has concrete floors and Costco-high ceilings, fellow DJs and music lovers tear through the used CDs like vultures and argue over what Led Zeppelin record is the best. In fact, Amoeba's inventory is so huge that it has to rotate its stock to make sure every disc sees the light of day.

As owner Marc Weinstein explains, Amoeba's collection is so broad that just about anyone can go there to sell CDs, which drives its reputation as the central music trading post in Los Angeles.

Many of us also go there in search of something new. The store even maintains several unprofitable departments -- like posters and seven-inch records -- simply because no one else does.

ABC News contributor Michael Smith is an internationally recognized DJ and has a music-services business. He works with a variety of national brands www.smitheventmusic.com or info@smitheventmusic.com.

Because the music is housed under one very high roof, Amoeba acts like a magnet for die-hard music fans or even casual listeners who want some exposure to coolness.

"There's a huge social event built in. It's the distillation of all the music-loving people around town all in one place shopping for music," Weinstein said. "What person from L.A. wouldn't be proud to look out and see all the way-into-music wackos out on the floor of that store?"

"It's like you're in New York," he said.

Offline Social Networking

What draws people to the store is a kind of network effect. That is, the more people use a certain service, the more useful that service becomes to others. Being around other Amoeba shoppers is desirable on its own.

While online retailers like Amazon can provide infinite inventories and convenient shipping, their personalized recommendation systems will never be a substitute for the people-watching that follows part-and-parcel with our interaction with music.

While you could learn, with a click or two, that users who bought the Lily Allen album also (surprisingly) liked The Decemberists, there is something qualitatively more meaningful about seeing hipsters in leg warmers, dads in cotton T-shirts, and teenage girls in low-rise jeans all shopping within five feet of each other.

Sometimes bands are shopping in the aisles, too. In addition to its slate of nearly weekly in-store performances from bands as big as The Shins, artists like Beck and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers are Amoeba fans. I once bumped into the artist Dangermouse from Gnarls Barkley who recommended a CD by an incredible group named Grand National.

The lesson from Amoeba's success is that divorcing music as a product from the experience of purchasing it may be more difficult than Internet prognosticators could have predicted.

Just as DVDs have failed to stomp out all demand for going to the multiplex, MP3 distribution of singles and albums have not yet made the record-store experience irrelevant.

ABC News contributor Michael Smith is an internationally recognized DJ and has a music-services business. He works with a variety of national brands www.smitheventmusic.com or info@smitheventmusic.com.

Indeed, just down the street from Amoeba, the giant ArcLight Cinemas complex provides a telling analogy.

ArcLight celebrates and enhances the moviegoing experience by allowing viewers to choose their own seats, focusing on quality control in the presentation of the film, and hosting film events for industry insiders.

Similarly, Amoeba has capitalized on what the die-hards demand as a way of attracting the casual consumer who occasionally wants to feel like an insider.

"Anyone who believes in music sees us as kind of a mecca. It reinforces a lot of people's belief systems to go into the store," owner Weinstein said. "It's hard for people to quantify what they experience when they come in. There's a feeling of togetherness and community that is unparalleled in the retail world."

Even if physical media like CDs are becoming obsolete, and even if real estate prices prevent new music stores from opening in major cities, consumers may find the digitally mediated musical experience cold, isolating and transitory.

Until Amazon and iTunes figure out how to create a virtual space like Amoeba's cathedral of commerce, one that doesn't collapse when its servers crash, there may be room left for the brick-and-mortar stores -- even if they aren't the smaller, more intimate stores like the Walden Records of my youth, which closed five years ago.

Though it has no plans to expand to new locations, Amoeba is aware of the service it provides to its home cities.

"Metropolitan museums teach people about art or history, and there are no such equivalent institutions devoted to music," Weinstein said. "To that extent, we are such a huge presence."

ABC News contributor Michael Smith is an internationally recognized DJ and has a music-services business. He works with a variety of national brands www.smitheventmusic.com or info@smitheventmusic.com.

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