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Where to Buy Music Online

You don’t need an intimidating superstore to buy records–just use your phone or computer. But how does the electronic shopping compare with browsing the aisles?

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First it was vinyl records. Now, according to future-shock wisdom, record stores are next on the firing line. In the 21st century, we’ll supposedly be able to purchase music via computer or interactive TV, or even have it delivered directly onto our hard drives.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Today’s record chains, with their tidy, antiseptic rows of compact discs, resemble nothing so much as appliance stores—huge, intimidating appliance stores at that. If you can find a clerk amid the assaultive video screens, he or she will most likely know where to find the new Garth album. But what about that East River Pipe indie, or which of the new O’Jays reissues is really worth owning? Listening booths rarely help; those found in most chains offer an extremely limited selection, thereby putting the store, and not the customer, in control.

What I didn’t know (and you may not either) is that the future is already here. Thanks to a slew of on-line and phone-line music emporiums, you can buy records without changing out of your rattiest concert T-shirt. Surf onto the Net and you’ll find a massive cyberspace record convention with over 180 online record stores selling new and used CDs. Surfdog, for instance, offers ”CDs of cool street-happenin [sic] bands that make sense with surfing” — the kind with water, that is.

One of the largest such vendors — or so it claims — is the Norwalk, Conn.-based CDnow!, which boasts 165,000 titles and ”the best service.” After clicking on more ovals than I can remember, I found the on-sale list: everything from Melissa Etheridge to Tha Dogg Pound to Alice in Chains, each for a respectable $11.97. If you have a particular act in mind, type in its name, and you’ll be presented with a list of CDs that, with another click, can be arranged alphabetically, chronologically, or qualitatively (according to star ratings from the proficient record-guide book The All-Music Guide). You’ll also read a brief, simplified description of the artist’s music and influences, courtesy of All-Music writers (Frank Zappa inspired the Beastie Boys?). Move your cursor to the album title and you can get a list of tracks, or click again and hear a sample of one of its songs.

At this point, the ugly side of technology reared its head: As I was attempting to download a Smashing Pumpkins sample, my system crashed. Aaaargh! After restarting my computer, then resolving the technical problems, the results weren’t really worth it. Clicking on Shania Twain’s hit ”Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?”, for example, I heard her sing the title phrase — and nothing more. (Other services have longer samples, up to 30 seconds.)

To put CDnow!‘s stock to the test, I ordered a recent but obscure release (the 1991 Smashing Pumpkins EP Lull, for $10.77) and a British import (Nils Lofgren’s Live on the Test, for $20.97) and typed in the billing and shipping information ($2.49 postage for the first item, 49 cents each for the next five). Seven days later, the discs showed up. The only thing missing was instant gratification: that surge of excitement when you’ve just bought a record and immediately run home to play it.