Eschewing MP3s for a Modern Music Bazaar

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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