Virtual and vinyl-like, it's the cyber CD shop

From obscure Indie to early Elvis Costello, you can buy it on the Net.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Like many another independent record companies, west London's Demon Records is continually frustrated by its inability to get its releases into the shops. Nor do its problems end at the doorway. Because its material tends to defy easy categorisation, the CDs are liable to be put in the wrong racks.

Now, though, it has a shop of its own - only this one is on the Internet. Demon is not the only company to sell music over the Net. Last month, for instance, the Internet Music Shop (IMS) - an offshoot of the Internet Book Shop - joined the many already in existence. But the company does believe it is breaking new ground.

First, Demon is hardly a mainstream company, so the shop set up by its mail-order arm, Blackmail, is not meant to compete with such high-street retailers as Our Price or even the larger Tower and Virgin Megastore outlets. Rather, it is designed to counter those companies by offering the more obscure recordings released by a number of other similarly minded independent labels that such stores either do not stock at all or hold in such small quantities they are difficult to find.

Second, it has been painstakingly designed to appeal to more than just the technophiles who have been happily browsing cyberspace for years. Anybody logging on to the company's site is greeted by what looks suspiciously like a shop. It is, in fact, a series of graphic images based on photographs of shops in various parts of the country and assembled by Nick Pinson and Ian Gordon of Funky World Interactive, the company that developed the site to the specification of Blackmail's chief, Alan Price.

The idea is to make using the site as close to the experience of visiting a local store as possible - with the difference that the shopper has the opportunity to browse through hundreds of rock'n'roll, blues, country, psychedelic and alternative rock records instead of the Top 40-based fare that is usually available in the high street. In fact, traditionalists will probably find much to favour because Funky World has recreated the sort of record-rack dividers that were used when LPs were still king.

One feature that has been available since the store was opened a few weeks ago is the ability to cross-refer to the Web site devoted to the life and works of Elvis Costello, whose extensive back catalogue provides Demon with its biggest sales.

But Alan Price wants to go further. "We're talking about putting soundbites on," he says, to help shoppers decide on which records to purchase.

Another facet that should appeal to its customer base is the inability to buy straight from the site on your first visit. Instead, callers have to leave their telephone number and await a call from the company within the next day or two. This, says Price, is to enable the company to establish a personal relationship and, perhaps more importantly, to provide some kind of security assurance. Rather than submitting their credit card numbers to cyberspace, customers give it to the person who calls them.

Funky World's Nick Pinson points out that fraud of this kind is less likely than losing your wallet in the street but accepts that the device comforts some users as well as providing Blackmail with the choice to find out more about its customers.

Because they do not have to fund high-street premises, the Internet retailers can generally undercut on price, even when the postage and packing is included, though buying from the VAT-free United States carries the risk of the package being accompanied by a hefty duty demand. But it is this ability to know their customers - and cater for them - that stands to get the hitherto somewhat sluggish Internet trade roaring ahead of the traditional retailers. The arrival of "intelligent agents", small strings of computer code that pass readers information about consumers by managing information on the Internet on behalf of their users, can only make that more likely.

And if this greater customer knowledge is linked to the ability to satisfy the most demanding of tastes, the previously all-powerful large stores could find themselves concentrating even more on the mainstream. The growing fragmentation of the music industry into ever deeper niches, combined with the re-releases of material associated with the introduction of CDs, has meant that no conventional shop can offer a comprehensive selection, let alone cater to all those that are fanatical about acts that are outside the charts. But one like IMS or Blackmail can.

As Christopher Codrington, IMS managing director, explains, the key is to be "very honest" about the time it takes to obtain and mail the more obscure orders. The company has devised a "time flag" system to indicate the likely delay, which "helps the confidence factor". Most orders are dispatched within a week, but some take twice as long to get out.

Although there is greater acceptance of different musical styles than there was a few years ago, the appeal of many of these records is still limited enough to make even a virtual shop of questionable viability. But Codrington and his colleagues are increasingly marketing the company by forging links with radio stations.

A growing number of specialist stations already operate services whereby listeners can order records they have heard on the air, and IMS is extending this to more general-interest regional commercial stations. "It is an opportunity to generate additional revenue and to get a better understanding as to the music choices and purchases of their listeners," says Codrington.

What is likely to drive this sector of the virtual shopping market more than anything else is the convenience. People who are too busy to snatch the time to struggle with the crowds at their local megastore can probably still find a few minutes to browse through the racks of something that, for all the technology behind it, resembles a throwback to the days of vinyl.

The Internet Music Store: (http://www.musicshop.co.uk) Blackmail: (http:www.blackmail.co.uk)

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