When Minneapolis band Solid Gold first tried to make its music available on iTunes, the popular music-download service rejected the unsigned rockers. Without a label, Solid Gold would have to go through a middle-man agency. But starting today, local, unsigned bands will have a better shot with a music-download service that the Minneapolis music store Electric Fetus is helping launch.

"It's going to be a really great thing for local and unsigned bands -- especially for ones that don't have national radio play or a big fan base," said Solid Gold guitarist Matt Locher.

Promoting unsigned bands is just one of the goals of the Electric Fetus' new download service, called ThinkIndie, to differentiate it from the bigger players, such as iTunes and Amazon. The site also will have higher-quality MP3s, longer audio samples and the expertise of a store that has been in the music business since 1968.

"We're not just a site," said Chris Hall, the Electric Fetus' webmaster. "We have 40 years of record-store experience here. That's what's been missing from the digital stores."

And what's been missing from brick-and-mortar stores such as the Electric Fetus is customers. CD sales have been declining for years. The industry-tracking NPD Group reported in March that downloads accounted for 33 percent of all music purchased in the United States in 2008. Enter ThinkIndie.

"There are a lot of customers who just don't buy CDs anymore," Hall said. "For that customer, who likes our store and likes what we're about, this is a way for them to still do business with us."

How it works

ThinkIndie is the result of a five-year effort by the national Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS). The Electric Fetus has been a driving force in the site's creation, and Hall is on CIMS' digital committee.

The Electric Fetus' customers access ThinkIndie through the store's website www.electricfetus.com. The Electric Fetus has a virtual storefront promoting local bands and showcasing recommendations by staff members, who eventually will have mini-blogs to share their expertise. Other independent music stores around the country also will have ThinkIndie portals for their customers.

The song selection is about 300,000 at start-up, all from independent labels. The cost is $1.11 per track, versus 99 cents on Amazon and much of iTunes, with the price per album $9.99 (same as iTunes). iTunes offers about 10 million tracks, and Amazon has about 7 million. Hall said ThinkIndie is negotiating with major labels to add their catalogs, too, but the indie vibe could be part of the Electric Fetus' online appeal.

"It sounds like with a focus on the indie groups, they've really created a niche market for themselves that could open a great deal of possibilities, especially when it comes to local groups," said Scott Lipscomb, an associate professor of music at the University of Minnesota who specializes in technology.

Local music is the Electric Fetus' specialty, Hall said. "For our store, at least 20 percent of our top 40 sellers are local acts, and a lot of them are unsigned," he said.

As examples, he cited Solid Gold, which has been tapped to open the Rock the Garden concert June 20 at Walker Art Center, and Lucy Michelle & the Velvet Lapelles. Those are the kinds of buzz-worthy acts the Electric Fetus hopes to feature when ThinkIndie has the setup in place for bands to submit their songs for downloading, planned for July.

Locher said Solid Gold did eventually get onto iTunes by going through a digital distributor that takes a cut of sales after iTunes gets its cut. But, he added, "I would much rather see a percentage from our music going to the Fetus than I would some anonymous figures in Seattle. ... Any way we can support record stores and bands in agreements like this is mutually beneficial."

Better sound quality

On the technical side, ThinkIndie's MP3s are at the highest bitrate, 320 kilobits per second, compared with 256kbps for iTunes and Amazon. The higher the bitrate, the higher the sound quality. That appeals to more than just customers.

"A lot of bands want to limit the bitrate on their downloads and songs that they give out for free, so that people are more inclined to buy a physical record," Locher said. "But, to be honest, it's so much easier to sell digitally that I would rather be able to sell our music at the highest quality and easiest mode of transmission possible."

ThinkIndie's MP3s also can be freely copied among listeners' playback devices. And audio samples of tracks are 60 seconds long, instead of the industry-standard 30 seconds.

"That 30-second limit drives me crazy," Lipscomb said. "[One minute] is a real enhancement."

The Electric Fetus wouldn't release its business results, but it said it has made changes in its stores -- with locations in Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Duluth -- to reflect evolving music-buying habits. They include reducing CD inventory, expanding the gift section and adding more vinyl, which is now retro-hip.

It also plans to use ThinkIndie as a way to get people to visit the store -- for example, offering with an album download a free poster that has to be picked up in person. But Hall said offering digital downloads isn't going to save any business. ThinkIndie is about being current and relevant to local customers, he said.

"There are a lot of people who don't like to shop at iTunes or Amazon or the other bigger sites because it's just a faceless company," Hall said. "For every dollar you spend locally, your community gets more out of it."

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542