EW Staff
October 11, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

At Manhattan’s Virgin Megastore, a reporter asks a salesclerk where to find the enhanced CDs. ”What’s that?” she asks. They’re CDs, he says, that can be played as regular music discs or popped into a CD-ROM drive, allowing you to read lyrics onscreen, watch videos, or see band photos. ”Oh,” she says sheepishly. ”I knew that. I think they’re down in the computer section.”

Enhanced CDs first appeared a year ago, and if clerks are still confused about the once much-hyped, now much-maligned format, pity the poor customers. Even if they could find them — most stores don’t separate ECDs from regular CDs, and many ECDs give no indication on their packaging that they’re enhanced — it’s likely folks will have trouble playing them, due to compatibility problems with certain CD-ROM drives. The performance of ECDs is so erratic that avant-rockers Pere Ubu offered this label on their new ECD, Beach Boys: ”Lots of times it works!”

And even if you could play ECDs, you might not want to. Plenty of record buyers don’t: Elektra released Jackson Browne’s Looking East as a CD and ECD; the CD sold around 160,000, the ECD fewer than 5,000. No wonder, then, that labels are stymied. Sony’s strategy has lately been to put multimedia enhancements on some CDs, but to give no clue on the disc’s packaging. Only after opening, say, Harry Connick Jr.’s Star Turtle or the Spin Doctors’ You’ve Got to Believe in Something does one learn that they’re ECDs. ”We don’t want to alienate consumers,” says Fred Ehrlich, senior VP of new technology at Sony Music, which has released about 15 ECDs. ”When enough people can play them, we’ll let them know they’re ECDs.” Of course, if you actually want to buy an ECD, this is not making it any easier.

Elektra has played it safe by putting out less costly ECD singles, such as Natalie Merchant’s ”Wonder.” ”The disc with multimedia content isn’t dead,” says John Mefford, Elektra’s director of multimedia. ”This is just the first stage. Sales haven’t been spectacular, but what do you expect?”

When it comes to enhanced CDs, the answer appears to be: not much, really.

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