Digital Nation: 'Napster Killed My Record Store'

Indie music retailer blames popular program for plummeting sales.

It's not exactly like recalling where were you when Elvis Presley died.

But record store owner Charlie Robbins remembers precisely when he first heard of Napster, the popular but controversial MP3-trading software that has taken the music industry by storm.

He was working in Oliver's Records, his shop in Syracuse, N.Y., one afternoon in December, when a student from Syracuse University dropped the bomb.

"Some kid came in and started waxing poetic about the thing, going on about how great it was," Robbins said. "He looked me in the eye and says, 'How long you gonna be in business?' "

Five months later, Robbins says Oliver's days are numbered. With compact disc sales plummeting in the past 10 months, his cash register has gone quiet. The store's long-distance service has been cut off. A staff of eight has been pared to two, neither of whom is full time. Robbins has tried to make up for the crunch by specializing in vinyl. Now he's looking for a new location.

And Robbins is sure that just one thing pushed his store over the cliff.

Napster.

The Numbers Story

The fate of Oliver's Records has been inversely proportional to Napster's success, Robbins said.

It's hard to confirm Robbins' suspicions, although the sales figures he quotes bear him out.

Napster debuted late last summer, but it had really taken off by November. In December, the program scored a healthy dose of rebel cachet when the Recording Industry Association of America sued Napster Inc., charging the program enables music piracy.

Oliver's typically does between $18,000 and $30,000 in business in December, Robbins said.

Last December's receipts: $4,000. And it gets worse.

April is historically the store's second-best month, bringing in $30,000 to $40,000. Last month — as hard-rockers Metallica and rapper Dr. Dre made headlines for suing Napster for copyright infringement — sales skidded to just $3,500.

A publicist for Napster said the company had no comment.

Josh Fine, coordinator for the college marketing department at Sony Music (Rage Against the Machine, Macy Gray), said Robbins is not alone, although he's seen no store hit as hard as Oliver's.

"Napster is having a great effect," Fine said.

If Napster and similar programs — such as Gnutella, Scour Exchange, iMesh and CuteMX — are suppressing sales, other stores in college towns likely will be the first to feel it.

Napster — which links users online, allowing them to search each others' MP3 collections and download near-CD-quality songs — has exploded on campuses, which often have high-speed Internet connections for speedy downloading.

Napster Not to Blame

But Brian Matiash, an active MP3 user who graduated from SU last week, said Robbins is looking for a scapegoat. He suggested that a previous move off the main business drag in the college district is one of several non-Napster factors hurting Oliver's.

Matiash uses Napster as an in-home listening station to sample new releases before buying. He recently downloaded tracks from Billy Joel's 2000 Years — Millennium Concert, which includes "New York State of Mind" (RealAudio excerpt). He was so impressed that he bought the double-CD release, he said.

But he bought it at Soundgarden, an indie record store in downtown Syracuse, away from campus, that he says offers superior selection to Oliver's.

That's Robbins' point exactly: Sales have been so poor that last week, for instance, he couldn't afford to stock major college-crowd releases, such as Pearl Jam's Binaural and Phish's Farmhouse.

"[Customers would] ask for something," Robbins said, "and you'd go, 'No, we don't have it,' and they'd turn to their friend and go, 'That's all right, we'll go download it.' And it's like slapping you in the face."

Dylan Posa, manger of Reckless Records in the Northwestern University burg of Evanston, Ill., agreed with Matiash. If anything, Napster sparks album sales, he said.

"We haven't seen any effects at all," he said.

Then again, Napster is blocked on the Northwestern campus.