Cutler’s seeks edge over Internet

When Dale Herbeck was in college and was “hot for a girl,” he would make her a mixed tape using his collection of tapes and records. Today, Herbeck can download music from the Internet and burn CDs for the target of his affection.

“Boom! You can have the songs you want, the quality you want,” said Herbeck, who teaches cyber law at Boston College. “It’s very fast and efficient.”

Some three-and-a-half years after a lawsuit forced Napster to shut down, Internet users — particularly college students with easy access to technology — are increasingly using peer-to-peer file-sharing software to download songs for free. Music shoppers can also buy individual songs though the Web, or pay a monthly fee for online programs that offer access to thousands of albums. As music becomes readily available through the Internet, local music stores that depend on CD sales, such as Cutler’s Records and Tapes in New Haven, are striving to find and articulate a niche.

“Has file sharing hurt us?” asked Phil Cutler, owner and president of Cutler’s. “I’m sure it’s hurt us.”

If potential customers could not share files, business would likely be better, said Cutler, whose grandfather founded the store. Still, as the record industry’s overall CD sales grew 1.6 percent last year, revenue at Cutler’s continued to inch up. Cutler’s has remained competitive by diversifying its selection, offering labels that most peer-to-peer networks do not carry and hiring staff with expertise in different genres.

“I can tell you everything you want to know about jazz,” assistant manager Kyle Mullins said. “You don’t have that at a Circuit City.”

Helen Rittelmeyer ’08 likes that Cutler’s sells “weird, obscure, eclectic stuff” like Camper van Beethoven, an ’80s indie rock band and one of her favorites. Rittelmeyer could not find the band at the iTunes Music Store, an online service that sells individual songs and allows file sharing within networks.

Lenny Ashby, a Westville, Conn., resident who recently visited Cutlers, said he burns CDs and shares files. But sometimes he likes to buy “the actual physical album.” He likes unwrapping a CD and looking at the pictures on the jacket.

“I’m kind of old-school that way,” Ashby said, picking up the soundtrack for “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” “I like to have the disk. I do believe in supporting the artist.”

Peer-to-peer file-sharing software like Morpheus, KaZaA and Acquisition circulates artists’ music without bringing them revenue; the Supreme Court will decide the legality of such software this year. Internet music stores like iTunes and the new Napster pay artists and recording industries, and their legality is not in question. Rolling Stone estimates that in 2004, about a billion song files were traded each month, and the year’s online sales reached 140 million songs.

Robert Dunne, a computer science professor at Yale, said both technologies hurt music stores like Cutler’s.

“People don’t have to go to the record store to buy this stuff any more,” he said.

Herbeck compared record stores to travel agents and video stores: the Internet has decreased demand for all three. More people are buying airplane tickets and renting videos online, just as they are downloading music directly from the Web. Herbeck said file sharing and Internet sales will hurt independent record stores like Cutler’s more than national chains, whose merchandise is more varied.

“What will a Best Buy do? Well, they’ll sell more cell phones and more TV sets,” Herbeck said. “I think the independents will get absolutely killed.”

Some independent stores will close, Herbeck predicted, while others will diversify their stock. For now, Cutler’s has chosen the second route. The store sells extra items like posters, calendars, incense and even action figures. Last year, Cutler’s started offering DVDs.

“If one end of my business shrinks, another kind of business — like DVD movies — will grow,” Phil Cutler said. “I’ll just roll with the times.”

People share fewer DVDs than music because movie files are much bigger and harder to download, Herbeck said. But he predicted that in a few years, new technology will make DVD file sharing just as popular. In that case, Cutlers will need to diversify further.

Herbeck recognized that local record stores offer music that is difficult to find on peer-to-peer networks and in Internet stores. But with time, he said, even that edge will fade. He predicted that iTunes might eventually offer nearly every song title.

For now, though, Cutler’s manages to attract customers. Rittelmeyer visits the store on Tuesday afternoons to browse, and she ends up buying something every third visit or so. Alexander Schwed ’06 said he likes Cutler’s classical music department; He buys between 10 and 12 CDs there every year. Matthew Daly ’06 recently purchased Beyonce’s “Dangerously In Love” album at Culter’s because he wanted the CD that day and Cutler’s is close to campus.

Phil Cutler said some people frequent his store to play Pac-Man — the game machines are in the back — or talk to the staff.

Still, the future of record stores is uncertain. In the 1970s, Dunne worked at a record store in the Bronx. It was the heyday of The Beatles, he said, and the Internet was still a pipe dream. Dunne is relieved he no longer sells music.

“That’s a business I wouldn’t want to be in right now,” he said.

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