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About Utah: Music dying, but illegality is thriving

And we sang dirges in the dark

The day the music died — Don McLean, "American Pie"

The music will die this Saturday at Starbound Records on 3500 South in West Valley City. A going-out-of-business sale has been under way for about a month now, with prices slashed on everything in stock, which, at Starbound, is no small inventory. For the past 23 years, ever since Matt Limburg decided to switch from playing records as a radio DJ to selling them, Starbound has been the place to find everything from Mitch Miller to Tim McGraw to Metallica. People from around the country have flocked to the independent Utah treasure trove, finding collectibles unfindable anywhere else.

But even great niches don't last forever, and while Starbound, through the years, has successfully waded its way from vinyl to eight-tracks to cassettes to CDs and DVDs, it can't adapt to the latest big change in the music business.

"We can't compete with free," says Limburg.

"People think we're closing because of the Big Box stores and the Internet," he explains. "But this is not the case. What we can't compete with are the thousands who illegally burn CDs or copy music and then either give it away or sell it.

"I'm not talking about someone buying a CD and then making a copy for his kids," Matt adds, although technically that's illegal, too.

But that's not what's toppling the music industry as he's known it.

It's the people who download and burn copyrighted music and distribute it widely.

These people come in various forms. On one end of the gamut there's the bootleg entrepreneur who knowingly acquires a hot new CD — possibly from Matt's store — and immediately makes hundreds of copies and sells them in his neighborhood, among his friends and on the Internet. On the other end, there's the company executive who decides to make "music mixes" a fringe benefit for employees. "Businesses encourage everybody to bring their CD collections to work for swap-and-burn parties," says Matt, "They see it as another company benefit. The only thing they ask is for them to do it on their lunch hour or after work. We hear about it all the time. They probably don't even stop to think that what they're doing is illegal."

It's the same story at school, where kids regularly buy and sell copied music, often oblivious to the illegality involved.

But ignorant or calculated, it all affects the legitimate bottom line.

"We used to get a hot new release and we'd sell 200 in the first three days," Matt says. "Now, we're lucky if we sell 10 in a week."

The retail music industry is in free fall. "Everybody's struggling," says Matt. "Record reps, store owners, musicians, everybody. To try and hang on, some stores are selling computers and games. We joked about opening a butcher shop in the back. Make it Starbound Records & Meats."

But operating at a loss for the past three years is no joke; nor is looking at industry statistics that show that the top-selling music of 2004 sold the same number of units as the top-sellers of 1965.

"The industry has regressed 30 years in the last three," says Matt.

"I am not seeking publicity to try to save my store," he stresses. "We've made our decision (to quit), and we're moving on. It's been a great 23 years. But I think it's important to help people understand a problem that has invaded our society and directly hurts hundreds if not thousands of record stores across the world. Rampant abuse of copyright is destroying the music industry as we know it."


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.