Now that compact discs are dying, are record stores next? Of course, brick-and-mortar buildings won't vanish anytime soon, but the public humbling of Tower Records, by way of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing (and a subsequent financial restructuring to keep it afloat), was deeply symbolic of the new, Internet-driven realities of the music business. On March 23, another telling event occurred when Wal-Mart debuted its online record store (musicdownloads.walmart.com), barging into the legal-download arena now ruled by iTunes, Napster, Rhapsody, and a few others.
Yes, that Wal-Mart -- the place where, shockingly, most people buy their records (four to five times as many as those who shop at record stores). It's clear downloading is catching on when a chain of this magnitude enters the fray, and with such vengeance. The site features what the company argues is the lowest price yet -- 88 cents a song, 11 cents cheaper than iTunes' standard offer.
As someone always underwhelmed by the music departments of the few Wal-Marts he's popped into, I found a visit to the site on its second day in business both surprising and predictable. The expected hits were there -- as well as ''exclusive'' tracks by the middlebrow likes of Tim McGraw and Jessica Simpson -- but so were the nearly complete discographies of Leonard Cohen and A Tribe Called Quest and a suggested list of ''Chill Out'' tunes that included Beth Orton, cult French icon Serge Gainsbourg, and Viennese DJs Kruder and Dorfmeister. Complete albums of such acts, when available, could be had for between $8 and $10.
But that was the problem -- availability: As you might expect, the site relies heavily on major-label releases. Bob Dylan, Depeche Mode, and Nelly are here, but Death Cab for Cutie, El-P, and Yo La Tengo, to name three indie stalwarts, aren't. Replacements fans will have to settle for their Warner catalog (nothing from their earlier Twin/Tone days). Inconsistency rules: Public Enemy loyalists seeking It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back will find nothing but later, lesser albums. The site also suffers from Wal-Mart conservatism: Hip-hop albums are available in edited versions only, and Eminem is represented solely on two compilations, one of which, the 8 Mile soundtrack, is his least representative work.
To test-drive the site, I selected a random set of six songs -- including Neil Young's ''Barstool Blues,'' Orton's ''She Cries Your Name,'' and the Carpenters' ''Hurting Each Other'' -- and, with one click, inserted them into my shopping cart. After typing in address and payment info, I clicked a few more times and the songs materialized on my hard drive, downloaded in about 15 seconds each. (It helped that I had broadband and was using a PC, since the service isn't compatible with Macs.) My total bill was a reasonable $5.76.
The transaction was efficient and quick, yet something was missing from the experience. Typing in names of singers or bands isn't the same as roaming the aisles or discovering a new act by way of a store's PA system. At last month's South by Southwest music conference in Austin, I attended a panel called ''The End of the Record Store?'' in which independent retailers from around the country disputed media reports that their business was on its death cot. ''If prices are reasonable, then they will buy CDs,'' argued the owner of one college-campus store, adding that thousands of file-sharing students still wandered in every week. Even with my new downloads resting comfortably on my desktop, and even though Internet-shared music is now a fact of life and the future of music, a small part of me wished I were in that store too.