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Tired of trolling for Phish?

There's a point-and-click solution to that nightmarish CD clutter.

March 18, 2004|Adam Tschorn | Special to The Times

You know that ugly pressboard behemoth lurking in your living room? The one sagging under the weight of the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of music CDs you've collected since college? That you paw through like a bear in a campsite every time a party guest wants to hear the "Grease" soundtrack? Imagine replacing it with a device smaller than a cereal box that connects to your computer and lets you access any song from any album you own, display it on your TV screen and stream it through your stereo.

Or maybe you got an iPod for Christmas that's still sitting on the stereo on the off chance that 10,000 songs will migrate there by osmosis and save you the weeks you'll need to stock it. (At roughly a minute a song to convert your audio CDs into MP3 files, it would take roughly 20 eight-hour days to top off your tune tank.)

College students, computer geeks and hard-core audiophiles have been transferring -- or "ripping" -- CDs for years and enjoying the simplicity, portability and compact storage space of music stored in MP3 files. But for the rest of us, enjoying those benefits has been hampered by the need to reconcile our day jobs with the time-consuming task of ripping thousands of CDs, one at a time.

Where some see frustration, others see business opportunity. Within the last year, three companies -- including one in Los Angeles -- have started offering a service to help music lovers bridge that digital divide. Spurred in part by the popularity of the iPod and the lowering costs of computer storage, they've been moving thousands of CDs a week out of dusty jewel cases and onto portables, hard drives and DVDs. Each recordable DVD can hold about 100 CDs' worth of MP3s.

"We did our market research," says Dick Adams of New York's RipDigital, which launched in November 2003. "And we found that there are a lot of people out there who will spend money to save time, and some people who will spend time to save money. We're focusing on that first group."

Doug Strachota, founder of Indianapolis-based Get Digital, likens ripping CDs to changing your car's oil yourself: "Not too many people do it; they'd just prefer to take it somewhere." Aaron Grosky of L.A.-based Shift Music is even more emphatic: "What am I doing that you can't do? Nothing. It's just a service to make your life easier."

Though geographically disparate, the three companies offer very similar digital music conversion services and pricing (see accompanying article). There is one major difference for Angelenos, though: Get Digital and RipDigital are mail-order only, and Shift will pick up and deliver your discs.

A friend told me about Shift one night after she watched me burrow through the dark recesses of my entertainment center looking for the "Grease" soundtrack with a flashlight clutched between my teeth. At her suggestion, I called and explained my current setup to Grosky:

I have a 4-year-old Dell Dimension desktop with 2-gigabyte hard drive, with software that allows me to play music and display photos from the computer through the TV using my TiVo as a conduit. The sound for my TV and TiVo are already routed through the stereo. I told him I wanted to access my 375-disc catalog through the TV screen to play it through my stereo.

Grosky arrived with cardboard boxes, a printed estimate and a few suggestions. With such a small hard drive and no DVD player, he recommended putting my music on an external hard drive (I chose one for $140). For a format, he suggested MP3s.

As he boxed up CDs, Grosky evangelized about the possibilities of my all-MP3 music library. "Do you want to synchronize your house so every room is playing the same song at the same time? How about sending your entire collection wirelessly to your car just by pulling into the driveway?" He left me with visions of technological sugarplums dancing in my head and promised to return in five to seven business days.

He was back in six, carrying a gray 5-inch by 8-inch hard drive that he plugged into the back of my computer. Within 20 minutes the installation was done, and I was scrolling through my entire music collection on my TV screen in the living room.

My new system has been in operation for a week, and I've learned a few important things (apart from the fact that I actually own a reggae album titled "Zungguzungguguzungguzeng" by someone who calls himself Yellowman). TiVo will access a music collection only alphabetically and by the first word. This takes getting used to -- Liz Phair is nestled in between Living Colour and Louis Prima instead of sleeping with the Phish.

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