Music downloads breathe new life into
By David Lieberman, USA TODAY
Quick quiz: What's the most preposterous
statement on this list? (a) Coming this fall, The Russell
Crowe Comedy Hour; (b) Seals & Crofts surely can sell
out Madison Square Garden; (c) let's vacation with the kids in
Nepal this summer; (d) minidisc recorders are the hot
technology among Gen Y digital music downloaders. Not so fast
on (d). Though repeatedly decked in showdowns with CDs and, to
an extent, cassettes, the decade-old format that uses digital
discs encased in 2 1/2-inch plastic squares is back.
Analysts say that minidisc recorders are
finding fans among young folks who want an economical,
portable device for music stored in their PCs.
A new generation of the recorders, just hitting the
shelves, could be intriguingly attractive rivals to MP3 and
recordable CD players. Sony and Sharp, the leading makers of
minidisc recorders, now offer units that squeeze 5 hours of
music on a disc.
"It's hitting all the sweet spots at
once," says analyst Richard Doherty, director of The
Envisioneering Group. "Five hours on one disc for $1.75? That
fits the wish list of travelers, commuters and students. We've
been surveying like crazy since April. The trend looks very,
Doherty says he has a disc with
everything The Mamas & The Papas ever recorded
If he's right about the future of the
minidisc — and it's still a big if — then it would be an
amazing story. Consensus has been that Sony bungled the U.S.
minidisc launch in 1991. It introduced the format to affluent
consumers as a sexy and sonically clear recordable digital
alternative to clunky analog audiocassettes, to CDs and to
digital cassette tapes.
But few record companies, besides Sony,
jumped on the bandwagon. And the format cost too much.
Portable recorders initially cost $750; blank discs cost
While prices have fallen considerably
since, they never dropped enough.
Sony, which remains the minidisc's
leading evangelist, attacked that problem last summer. It
slashed $100 off the price of its most popular portable
recorder — bringing it down to about $250 (others fell into
the $100-plus range). It also started to bundle units with
attachments so users could port music directly from their
That was part of a larger campaign to
change the image of the minidisc. Sony bought ads on MTV and
in Rolling Stone to persuade college students to look
at the discs as a cheaper and more flexible alternative to the
influx of new MP3 players.
Minidiscs already had a cadre of nearly
cult-like supporters among music fans who record concerts,
often surreptitiously. Many turn to the Internet to share
advice and war stories about how to hide the Post-it
Notes-sized recorders from watchful security guards. (It
apparently helps to attach stereo microphones to the ends of
eyeglasses and snake the wire through Croakies or other
Tracy Farrington, Sony's marketing
manager for minidiscs, says young people "automatically got
it. It was a product that was ahead of its time. In the past,
we targeted a higher-end consumer. Maybe that consumer wasn't
ready or didn't understand it."
She says, citing data from NPD Intelect,
that sales of minidisc players and recorders leapt 17% in the
year ending in March vs. the previous year.
But other NPD data suggest that minidiscs
still haven't caught on. The researcher says unit sales of
players and recorders at retail stores fell 31% in the first 4
months of 2001 vs. that period in 2000.
That worries Sharp, which is still trying
to decide whether to bundle its recorders with PC hookups.
"We've been trying to jump-start
minidiscs for years," says Art McKinnon, Sharp's audio product
marketing manager. "We're watching the market. It's been in
what we think is a down-spin. But I wouldn't say we've given
Some analysts, though, say the recent
figures are deceptive. The sales data don't include
e-commerce, a significant factor among minidisc's new target
audience. And it's unclear whether sales for all portable
recorders were affected early this year when it became
apparent that Napster, beset by court challenges from record
companies, wouldn't survive as a cornucopia of free
NPD Intelect consumer electronics
director Jim Hirschberg says that, even with the sales decline
for the first 4 months, he's struck by the huge increase
during that period in the number of people buying recorders
with PC connections.
"It's a decided trend," he says. "The PC
interface has given new life to minidiscs. It's an alternative
to silicon memory, and the cost is more attractive than a
memory card, which might be $100."
Joe Palenchar, senior editor at TWICE
(This Week in Consumer Electronics), agrees. "A year ago,
retailers were saying that portable CD recorders would leave
minidiscs in the dust," he says. The yearlong growth in
minidisc sales "surprised me, and it surprised a lot of
So you never know. Russell Crowe might
one day crack a smile. Nepal might become a vacation haven.
And minidiscs could become the Next Big Thing.
But don't worry. Seals & Crofts will
never pack Madison Square Garden.