Mysteries can be wonderful. Surprises are even better. But not when you've spent $16 on a compact disc only to discover that the one song you heard on the radio is the only good thing on it.
"At shoe stores, you're allowed to try on shoes, at car dealerships, you're allowed to test-drive cars, why can't you preview CDs before you buy them?" asks Wayne Greene.
It's a rhetorical question, but only because Mr. Greene is in town to introduce local record store habitues to a new machine that allows you to do just that.
The soul of the new machine is a data base of about 30,000 CDs, each of which has had five, 30-second selections excerpted. Named i.station -- because its rectangular base topped with a spherical part resembles the letter "i" -- the ATM-like machines have been trickling into record stores across the country since last year. The Waxie Maxie's at Marley Station Mall in Glen Burnie became the first store in the area with an i.station last month.
Its creator, Josh Kaplan, got the idea for the machine several years ago after visiting a record store in Europe that had listening posts for customers to preview records before buying them. (Some U.S. stores recently have begun offering variants of listening booths as well, which had been common in the '50s.)
"I thought this was a great service, but what if you could take this concept and offer tens of thousands of records?" says Mr. Kaplan, who is president of the San Francisco-based company, intouch, that makes and distributes i.stations.
With his background in computers, he developed an interactive, multimedia system that compresses and stores music on a CD-ROM.
Everything's done with bar codes: You sign up for a free, credit card-sized "i.card" that is affixed with a bar code. When passed over a scanner much like ones at the supermarket check-out, the card activates any i.machine. (There are currently about 75 in operation across the country.)
Once online, and with attached earphones in place, you can either type in a selection, check out new releases in a certain category -- including progressive, rap, heavy metal, country and classical -- or listen to the current Billboard chart-toppers. Or, you can take a CD from the store's shelves, scan its bar code and hear selections from it -- all without breaking the shrink wrap.
Some samples feature an accompanying video or a previously published review to watch or read on the screen while the song plays. After listening to a sample, you're asked to rate it in five categories from excellent (an on-screen thumbs-up and aural applause into your headphones) to poor (thumbs-down and a yawn). The machine also will direct you to other works by the same artist, or similar ones in the same genre.
"If you pull up Eric Clapton, for example, you also get all of Cream as well as Derek and the Dominos," Mr. Greene says.
While the i.cards are free, there is a price: To get one, you have to provide your personal income, age, sex, education level and musical tastes, and every time you use it, your picks are recorded. All of which could be pretty darn interesting to certain people.
But Mr. Kaplan says the company will only sell that information to music companies, so any junk mail you receive would be about music that you've already exhibited a preference for. You might get advance notice of an artist's new album, complete with a bar code that you can scan on the i.station for a sample, or news of a concert tour or even a discount coupon for your next purchase, he says.
At the Glen Burnie store, the i.station seemed particularly popular with teen-agers making their after-school, mall rounds. With sophisticated graphics and amusing icons -- a floating baby represents new releases, for example, -- it's like a Nintendo game, but with much better music. It's also fairly dummy-
proof -- you get directions from both a voice through your earphones and on-screen graphics.
"I got my card a month ago," says Aubrey Contrino, 16, who bought a "Naughty by Nature" CD after previewing it on the i.station. "It's very neat. Very modern."
Her friend and Old Mill High School classmate Jenn Mitzel, also 16, came along recently to get her own card, and used it to listen to one of her current favorite groups, Smashing Pumpkins. "It was wild," she says.
Classical music aficionados haven't been ignored and, in fact, might find the i.station just as useful. If you call up a particular recording of, say, Bach's Goldberg Variations, you'll also get a listing of other artists' versions of the same piece that you can sample for comparison.
intouch has found, on the average, that for every three samples previewed on the machine, one purchase results. The machine also keeps potential customers in the store longer, which increases the chance that they'll end up buying something, Mr. Greene says.
Greg McCurtin, manager of the Waxie Maxie's in Glen Burnie, says the i.station has already boosted sales at the store.
"I think," he says says, "this is the future of record retailing."