If You Rocked the Casbah - Meet Music Zoo

It's a gorgeous spring day and I'm on the phone with Wes Cowie, a start-up co-founder who's speaking to me from the outdoor cafe of his favorite local coffee shop where he does most of his thinking and some of his business.

Cowie and business partner Jamie Koppersmith have embarked on a new venture: To make a business out of CD ripping. The duo has started D.C.-based Music Zoo, which helps music lovers port their CDs and LPs to digital files.

Cowie, 25, has an affinity for music, but describes himself as a Luddite who prefers listening to vinyl. He went to Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio with plans to get a degree in trumpet performance, but switched gears and scored one in musicology instead.

After a couple of jobs in Cleveland that "didn't work out," Cowie found himself working for a similar to busines to the one he started, D.C.-based Riptopia. However, Riptopia moved to California, leaving behind a fairly open market and two former employees.

Cowie acknowledges that the CD-ripping business "isn't huge, especially in today's economy where it's not a necessity when people are worried about the price of gas and food."

But the firm has found a real market, especially among the over-35/under-65 set who have large CD collections and busy lives.

"The real core target group are people...who did a lot of music collecting in the late '80s/early '90s," said Cowie. "You know, 1990 was the year the music industry said the CD was the medium of choice for audio."

He noted for his industry that age is a critical factor.

"Anyone under the age of 30 gives me a quizzical look and says 'People buy that service? I can do that myself even if it is a pain in the butt, but who buys CDs anymore?'"

The company's fees range from 89 cents per CD for the most basic service to $1.69 per CD for the premium treatment. Fees for digitizing vinyl are higher because it's a more complex process. Customers also can send Music Zoo a hard drive or purchase one from the company for additional back-up. The company, which usually takes about a week to digitize a music collection, uses pre-paid UPS shipping labels for its customers, but hand-delivery and pick up in the D.C. metro area is also available.

The firm will take anyone's collection via the mail, but Cowie said that because most people are very attached to their music collections, "there's a strong leverage to be made in the local sense for pick up delivery and drop off" by Music Zoo staff.

"Although sometimes people think of us as a high-tech kind of firm, I like to think of it as a service - like a dry cleaner who will come out to your home and pick up your laundry," said Cowie, who also calls himself a bit of an oenophile and sells wine as a side business.

He is currently editing a collection for a big Grateful Dead fan who wants his recordings digitized. Last week, Cowie was dealing with a collection that was almost entirely harpsichord music. Cowie works out of his home in the Shaw neighborhood of D.C. while most of the equipment is in Koppersmith's house in Tenleytown.

So what does everybody have in their music collections? Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton, said Cowie, who adds "it's fun when you get an oddball."

The firm also has worked with a few audio/visual installers, who like to offer their clients a CD-ripping option as an "add-on" or job finishing service.

Cowie is also approaching personal concierges who aid busy professionals by doing tasks like setting up and updating their clients' iPods. He's also courting some record companies and radio stations that are interested in preserving and archiving their CD collections.

The company is approaching profitability after seed capital of about $25,000 from outside investors.

"For me it's quite an adventure, although among my friends I'm always the oddball. Everyone else has a corporate law-type job or is involved in government, and I'm the kooky entrepreneur who works on his own time," said Cowie. "I may not have an MBA but I'm sure learning a lot about business."

By Sharon McLoone |  June 2, 2008; 2:15 PM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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