Downloading the Amoeba Music Way

In an age where traditional brick-and-mortar record stores share space on the endangered species list with 8-track tapes and VCRs, one company seems to get only bigger and better while others downsize or fade away into retail history.

Known throughout the world as the go-to store for rare vinyl, obscure CDs and hard-to-find merch, Amoeba Music started with one store in Berkeley, Calif. in 1990 and quickly grew to … well, three stores, with locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles in addition to the company’s East Bay starter city.

But don’t let the small number of stores fool you. As chain retail music stores claw and scratch for every little bit of sales turf they can hold on to, Amoeba keeps building customer loyalty (and sales figures) the old-fashioned way – by keeping customers satisfied.

And that’s why the company’s first digital download promotion is newsworthy. When you have a company that prides itself on the personal touch and in-store atmosphere, the very idea that the same company trying something as modern as digital downloads is pretty amazing.

But then, this is digital downloading the Amoeba way, which isn’t quite the same as buying from Napster, Amazon MP3 or iTunes.

Matter of fact, Amoeba’s first downloading venture isn’t even about buying at all. Instead, it’s about giving away free music in hopes that people will buy music.

Amoeba launched its own record label, Amoeba Records, in 2007 and is now on the verge of issuing its first two releases on the Amoeba imprint: Gram Parsons & The Flying Burrito Bros. Live At The Avalon Ballroom 1969 and Brandi Shearer’s upcoming album, Closer To Dark. To promote both releases, Amoeba is giving away free downloads from each album.

However, there is a catch. While the downloads are free, they are not archived, and there won’t be an opportunity to grab either album in its entirety in one single download. Instead, you gotta play along with Amoeba, which means going back to the company’s Web site every two weeks for the next round of freebies.

"If you don’t want to pay for the CD, you can get it this way and it’s legit," Amoeba co-founder Dave Prinz told Pollstar. "So, over the course of 26 weeks you can get the first side for free and we don’t have any problem with that. We hope over that time maybe you’ll decide to buy the CD … But if you don’t buy anything that’s cool too. It doesn’t really matter. At least we’re getting Gram out there to the world and letting people see how great a singer he really was without having to pay. And if they like him, they can pay."

The first round of downloads featured Shearer doing a version of Parsons’ "Hickory Wind," which was recorded during an Amoeba in-store appearance by the artist, and The Flying Burrito Bros. doing "Close Up The Honkey-Tonks." As the promotion started during the holiday season, you can also snag a download of Shearer doing "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."

"This is sort of a midway point between what Radiohead did and … nothing," Prinz said. "I can’t see doing what [Radiohead] did. You’re relying too much on the public to do the right thing."

Along with enticing visitors to return to Amoeba’s Web site by making them come back every two weeks for more free downloads, the company / fledgling record label is also demonstrating its promotion acumen by bundling its up-and-coming artist with the legend that is Gram Parsons.

"Once upon a time, there was a girl singer who nobody had ever heard of and nobody would have ever heard of if Gram hadn’t brought the public’s attention to her," Prinz said. "And that girl was Emmylou Harris. If it wasn’t for Gram she never would have been heard. She was singing in the back room at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. And the front room wasn’t that big.

"In my heart, I’m hoping that Gram’s fans, through this promotion, can hear Gram for free, and hear Brandi, too, and say, ‘Wow! That girl can really sing!’ And from afar, from another place, Gram will help one more great girl singer be heard."

There is an Amoeba download store in the company’s grand plan. But because Amoeba doesn’t quite operate like most record stores, it’s a sure bet its download store will somewhat different than the current breed of online music services.

"Hopefully, it will be just like your experience going into the store," Prinz said. "You’ll go to an artist you like, or some genre you like, and find something you didn’t know existed, and go ‘Wow! I need that!’

"Hopefully, our download site will be the kind of site where you’ll have that same kind of experience. ‘Oh, look! There’s a really cool picture sleeve I can download. Or The Beatles singing ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ in Italian!’ Just crazy stuff that you can’t get anywhere else."

With no announced beta testing or even a tentative launch date, Prinz indicated that an Amoeba Music download store will be ready when it’s ready, and not a moment sooner. Kind of like those old Orson Welles TV ads from 30 years aback where the entertainment legend boasted that a certain winery would "sell no wine before its time." Meanwhile, Prinz and the Amoeba staff continue to nurture that small-store image known around the world.

"Almost every day in L.A. a tour bus pulls up in front of our store and maybe like 200 Japanese kids come into our store. In the course of a year that’s like, maybe, 7,000 kids, right? In seven years that’s 50,000 Japanese kids coming into our store," Prinz said.

"So, we’re not unknown. Around the world a lot of people do know us. To really experience [Amoeba], you have to come to the store. Maybe we can create a little bit of that online for everybody else. There’s really no in-between for us. Either we do a great online site or we don’t do anything. We’re working on it. Hopefully, it will be ready – one of these days."


And Then There Was One

Music from Warner Music Group is now available sans DRM on Amazon’s MP3 download store, making Sony / BMG the only major label insisting on protection.

Like songs from Universal Music Group and EMI, WMG tracks on Amazon MP3 are encoded as MP3s and not copy-protected, making it almost hard to believe that it was less than a year ago when all the major record companies were insisting on digital rights management technology for their online offerings.

Known for frustrating consumers and generating ill-will toward the labels, DRM really hasn’t protected music from being pirated. Most of the pirated tunes available via P2P networks originated from unprotected CDs. And if the past few years of technological embarrassments are any indications, it’s pretty doggone difficult to copy-protect a CD and still keep it compatible with every CD player that’s ever been sold.

And now the DRM pendulum is swinging the other way as the labels try to realize the same profits from online sales as they once did from over-the-counter CD sales.

But what is most significant about WMG dropping DRM is that the label is doing it only for tracks sold on Amazon, leaving many industry watchers speculating that this is yet another major-label dig against iTunes.

Currently, the only major label selling unprotected tracks on iTunes is EMI. With rumblings of iTunes discontent among the majors, mainly over control and pricing, Warner’s DRM-free Amazon debut has all the markings of a major label supporting what appears to be the first serious competition for online music dollars Apple has faced since launching the iTunes Music Store in 2003.

So far Amazon appears to be able to undercut iTunes’ standard 99 cents-per-track policy. Many Amazon downloads are priced at 89 cents, giving iPod owners another reason to switch from the company named after a fruit to the one named after a South American river.

Who knows? It might not be very much longer before we look back and wonder why the labels were once so insistent on DRM in the first place.