The thorniest problem for independent electronica artists and their adoring devotees has always been distribution. The majority of electronic music (techno, house, drum 'n' bass, trip-hop and so on) is pressed into vinyl and sold to DJs at specialist record shops, and never sees the light of day as digitized merchandise. What does show up in your local Virgin Megastore are the few major-label hits, along with piles of indecipherable Euro-dance compilation albums. There's certainly no shelf space for the smaller labels in those tiny "electronica" sections.
In other words, if you're hoping to buy that groovy tune you were boogieing down to last Friday night, the odds that you'll find it on CD are pretty slim.
Into this gaping hole has stepped the 6-month-old CDuctive, a Web service that sells customized CDs of electronic music that's a textbook case of how the Web can fill the gaps in the mainstream consumer marketplace.
Started by three club-loving business school grads, CDuctive offers a constantly evolving catalog of 2,000 to 4,000 electronic music tunes from 100 record labels around the world, ranging from genres like illbient (trippy hip-hop) to trance (orchestral and fast-paced) to house (groovy and danceable). You choose up to 72 minutes of music from their catalog of music; they burn your CD and toss it in the mail. Elementary.
The streamlined site categorizes each song by genre and includes 45-second RealAudio clips, so you can hear what you're buying. Customers select their music, reshuffle the tracks into the preferred order and title their creation. The CD is pressed and printed in New York, and ships within 24 hours (mine showed up on my doorstep within two days). It's a contemporary-looking package -- nothing flashy -- and the sound quality is just fine.
The first track on your CD is $4.99, and each additional track is $.99; with 72 minutes available, you can fit roughly 10 to 12 songs for a cost of around $14 to $16 plus shipping and handling. In hopes of roping in first-time customers, CDuctive also offers over 150 free "sampler tracks," which means that I walked away with a 12-track CD for a grand total of $11.94. Cheap, considering the cost of expensive import albums ($20 and up) or a DJ-mixed tape ($15). I also knew in advance that I wanted every single track on the album.
CDuctive's primary drawback is that the assembly isn't quick: If you're not sure what you want on your CD, going through hundreds of unfamiliar clips could take well over an hour. You can't assemble more than one CD at a time, and a partially assembled CD can't be saved for completion at a later date (though co-founder Alan Manuel promises these features will be available soon). Their server is clearly overloaded already, and clicking on an artist or label will occasionally pull up a blank page or a broken RealAudio file.
But these glitches are pretty small. Hands down, there's no better nonvinyl way to assemble this kind of music, and it's a great introduction to the different labels and their artists.
The main hurdle for make-your-own-CD projects like CDuctive is that the library is limited to its licenses. Bigger labels and bands are less likely to offer their tracks up individually; why discourage fans from buying the whole album? But for smaller labels, the concept is a godsend.
"The indies like us because we expand their distribution channel, and we attract music customers who are more willing to buy the music because it's all in a related genre, rather than a Tower Records setting," explains Manuel. "But the major labels are resisting because they make a lot of money on full-length album sales."
Other make-your-own-CD Web sites, like superSonicBOOM and MusicMaker, have tried to work around this problem by licensing major labels' back catalogs -- songs that have been played out on the radio and aren't selling in record stores anymore. But those sites lack coherence: What customers see is a strange mishmash of older tracks from big names and new tracks from unknown artists, and a smattering of everything from punk rock to contemporary jazz to electronica to gospel.
For CDuctive, this is less of a problem -- electronic music has been ignored by many major labels, which means that most of the music is still indie. The founders have also learned that record labels are more enthusiastic about signing with a specialist site like CDuctive than with a generalist site where their techno tunes will get lost in a wash of blues ballads. For a true dance-music enthusiast, though, there are still some major holes in CDuctive's catalog.
This kind of music isn't for everyone. So if you're put off by 160-beat-per-minute music or categorically refuse to listen to a track entitled "Astralasia Alien Love Song," you might be better off just heading to Virgin Megastore.
Then again, CDuctive wants nonconnoisseurs to stop by. The idea, says Manuel, is to make it easy to test out this new kind of music -- to listen to the different genres and piece together the songs that you do like. For that purpose, the site provides a layman's guide and sampler songs that illustrate the facets of each genre. They've been surprised at just how much of their traffic does go to techno-newbies -- many of whom return repeatedly as they build their collections. (I'm already plotting my second CD.)
Still, the odds are pretty slim that CDuctive's founders will make millions peddling personalized techno to wired-up youngsters. Which is probably why they're already hoping to expand into more mainstream genres, hip-hop and indie rock, which they feel fit naturally with their current demographic of 18- to 35-year-olds.
CDuctive is one of those rare "only on the Web" projects that takes an underground idea and turns it into a service that would never exist in the physical world. It may not take on Amazon-ian proportions. But as online CD sales take off, it's a great model for how Webby independents can take the distribution chain for a ride -- or a boogie, as the case may be.