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Tower Records, iTunes and Napster

The impending demise of Tower Records has prompted a bunch of odes to the 1970s, when LPs were $5 and record stores were social honey pots. Much is being made by commenters about Tower's "stack 'em high, sell 'em low" approach, that is, its strategy of maintaining a huge inventory in stores and selling at a discount. Maybe I have freakish tastes, but Tower's inventory didn't do it for me. I like places where the clerks not only know the inventory, but will play it for you. That's what the folks at 99 Records on MacDougal St. in Greenwich Village used to do. I shopped there a lot in the early 1980s. It was a hole-in-the-wall storefront related to the indie label by the same name. I'd walk in, ask the guy behind the counter what new stuff he liked, and he'd start spinning it for me on a turntable next to the cash register. Almost everything was from the UK or Germany. The first Smiths single. The first Blue Nile single. Holger Hiller. Weekend. It all sounded, well, different. Rather than trying to stock everything I might be looking for, the people who worked there told me what to want.

Much to Tower's disadvantage, the Internet can outdo it on inventory while also replicating the music-discovery magic of 99 Records. Ann Powers makes this point well in her eulogistic Tower piece in today's Times. Online music shops let you hear songs before buying them, get recommendations (from individuals with similar tastes, from critics or from the masses), buy at a discount, and thumb through the complete digital catalog from thousands of artists. And once they have a title, they never run out of it.

Still, online stores don't have LPs that never made it off of vinyl (Fingerprintz, anyone?), and they're short on foreign releases. That's why the real analog for Tower online is the original Napster and its file-sharing successors. Once they had attracted millions of users, p2p networks could offer the deepest catalog imaginable -- not just songs from CDs, but tracks from LPs, live shows and TV appearances. They also offered a sense of community, particularly in the early days, before the RIAA's lawsuits led users to stop showing their collections to the world. Oh and yes, everything's free.

I don't think there's anything magical about p2p technology, at least not for music shoppers. Song files are so small, the efficiencies that p2p provide aren't meaningful. The exhaustive p2p catalog, though, is a different story. It's a shame the labels, artists and music publishers have failed to make everything available for sale, and that they (and Apple) have resisted the idea of cheap, bulk sales of older material. The urge to dive deep into an artist's work is what separates a casual listener -- the kind who's satisfied by the selection at Wal-Mart and Best Buy -- from a real music fan. The latter were the Tower Records shoppers of yore, and they are the lifeblood of the industry today. They need to be indulged.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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