Murfie Shows Promise as an Online CD Market—With Some Catches

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

Back in the old days, when music was imprisoned on CDs, you might be able to pick up a few extra bucks by hauling your discs to the local music store and trying to sell back the albums that you didn’t listen to anymore. It was kind of like a low-stakes pawn shop: they didn’t offer much, and you were vaguely embarrassed by all of the utter crap that the counter guy didn’t want either.

As CD stores have disappeared and digital music has taken hold, this little ritual has gone by the wayside for most people. But plenty of us still have stacks of physical CDs that we might want to sell, or at least get converted to digital files without having to sit around for hours of mind-numbing drudge work.

That’s where Madison, WI-based tech startup Murfie comes into the picture. The company, which is an alum of TechStars Boston and has raised at least $3.1 million in private financing, will ship your CD collection to its headquarters, rip all of the dics to digital files stored on its servers, and keep the physical discs on hand, allowing you to offer them for sale or trade to other people. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a Dave Matthews fan.

I tried the service out recently, and found some good features along with some frustrations. I think Murfie could be most useful for people who have a ton of CDs that need to be (finally) converted to digital versions. At smaller volumes, it makes less sense solely as a CD-ripping service, and that was definitely the category I fell into.

But there are already enough used albums that fit my taste in Murfie’s collection of more than 400,000 discs to make the marketplace feature attractive, no matter how many CDs you want to upload—even before sending in my discs, I bought a copy of “Lord Willin’” by Clipse, and the quality was perfect.

Overall, you have to realize that Murfie is a very small, pretty new company, which means it’s still ironing out some kinks. And, like all startup services, there’s the possibility that the company could disappear, get acquired and shut down, or radically change its service—call it an early adopter’s tax.

There are plenty of other companies that offer streaming music services these days, including some of the biggest names in consumer technology. Apple’s iTunes Match, which I already pay for, charges $25 per year to give you on-the-go streaming access to all of your music, even on mobile devices. That’s the main way I listen to music now.

Pandora lets you listen to music in a radio-like playlist, while Spotify offers on-demand access to streaming music—both of these have free and paid tiers of service.

Since it seems like digital and streaming music is an irreversible trend—with some high-end users still opting for the richer quality of vinyl—I have to wonder what Murfie hopes to do in the long run. Eventually, you’d think, we will just run out of people who still need their CDs converted to digital versions. But perhaps that’s still a ways out.

I signed up for Murfie in early December, and the process was pretty standard for online services. One thing that upset me right out of the gate, however, was the company’s insistence on getting me locked into an annual membership. Startups often have a tendency to push the envelope on this kind of behavior, since they’re typically in a day-to-day fight just to keep existing. But this desperation is not cool when it starts forcing you into decisions you’re not ready to make. I’d rather try out the service for a year and decide whether I want to renew.

Murfie’s basic offer is that it will rip all of your CDs to digital versions, accessible to listen, download, sell, or trade online, for $1 per disc. In reality, it’s a bit more tricky. When I went to sign up, I only wanted to send in 10 albums, but the minimum order was 25.

OK, I figured, that’s fair—this company is doing some labor for me and paying for the shipping, too, so I rifled through my old stacks and found 15 more discs. But once I signed up for the Murfie service, I found the problem with this minimum purchase.

Since $25 is the price for one year of the company’s “Gold” subscription service—which also gives you a $1 discount on purchases and fee-free trades—you’re automatically signed up to the annual plan. And it auto-renews after the first year is over. And there’s no way to turn off the auto-renew on the Murfie website.

This is not a good online marketing practice, to say the least. I emailed Murfie support to ask whether I could opt out of the recurring subscription, and the service representative confirmed that “right now we can opt out of auto-renew for you here via support, so you’ll have to contact us whenever you want that done instead of doing it yourself.”

(If you don’t subscribe to one of the annual services, Murfie charges $12 per year to store up to 1,000 CDs—a pretty cheap price. And they actually do store them, since you can have the discs shipped back. The other way to avoid a yearly storage fee is to perform 12 transactions of some kind on the CD store.)

The problem with Murfie’s annual subscription program didn’t end there. Several weeks after contacting the representative, I checked back into my profile on the website, and found that it was still listing me as an auto-renewing member. I sent another support e-mail and got ahold of someone on the site’s chat function, and they promised to get the problem ironed out.

One big novelty with Murfie’s service is the shipping process. Since it’s focused on physical CDs, they’ve got to get from your house to company headquarters in Wisconsin somehow. The startup has tackled this by sending a nifty little shipping kit, which consists of an unassembled cardboard box that is folded flat and wrapped with brown paper. You put the box together, fasten it in place with the enclosed strips of tape, and crumple up the paper wrapping to use as packing material.

To send the package back to Murfie, you have to take the assembled box to a UPS retail store (or find a driver and hand it over). The shipping is pre-paid, but be warned: the box I got wouldn’t fit into the standard UPS drop-box that sits in my office building’s mailroom, which meant I had to tote the package around with me on the subway until I got to a physical UPS store.

By this point, with all the walking around from my home to the office and back to the store, I’d probably expended three times the effort that I would have by simply sliding the 25 discs into my laptop on a random weekend. But, again, this was just for 25 CDs. If I had a really big collection, it’d still be a time-saver, and the used-music online store still beckoned—to me, that was the real promise.

About a week later, I got an e-mail confirming that my package had arrived at Murfie headquarters in Madison (it might have made the trip from Boston even faster, but this was during the height of the Christmas shipping rush). Less than a week after that, Murfie said my CDs had been uploaded to the site.

I logged back into the Murfie site to check out my newly digitized music. The first order of business was to decide whether I wanted to sell any of the discs, which I did. You can put your CDs up for sale by simply clicking a box next to each title, and the site helpfully gives you an idea of the current market for each album. If it’s already being sold by others on Murfie, the price range is listed; if you’re the first one to sell that title, it says so. That was the case on a few of my more obscure albums, which prompted me to name a higher price. Also be aware that you won’t pocket all of the cash, since Murfie takes a 30 percent cut of sales.

As you might expect, there are copyright concerns in this process. If you decide you want to download the digital version of your CD from Murfie, you won’t be able to go back and sell the CD to someone else. This is one area where the real-world version of selling a disc would be more convenient, since there’s nobody at the corner music store making sure you haven’t already saved the ripped version to your hard drive before reselling the physical disc. Murfie is pretty clear about this process, though—if you choose “download” on the Web page, the warning is clear.

This wasn’t a fatal problem for my Murfie account. I wanted to keep some of my albums, but several others hadn’t been listened to for years, and if I could get a few bucks for them I’d be happy (nobody had sent me cash as of publication time). For the ones I wanted to keep, finally getting them digitized meant listening again for the first time in too long. And there are some great deals to be found in the used-CD bin on Murfie’s website.

As a music player application, Murfie could use some work. The player itself is hard to find on the website: you have to click on the button next to an album that says “Delivery Options,” which takes you to a page that lets you download the digital file, get the CD shipped back, or launch the music player.

The player is pretty simple in design, and I don’t mean that in a bad way—especially when we’re talking about a genre dominated by the neverending frustration that is iTunes, which never seems to get easier to use no matter how many times Apple updates it.

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 11.56.46 AM

The Murfie.com Web player.

 

There are some occasional bugs with the player itself. It’s kind of confusing to figure out how to get individual songs to play once you’ve opened an album, and skipping backwards to the beginning of the song isn’t possible by hitting the back-arrow button. But I could see those getting fixed as Murfie improves. The smartphone app player had some of the same bugs, but generally worked well over both Wi-Fi and LTE connections on my iPhone 5.

The sound quality was really good, and although I haven’t listened to every single one of the tracks I uploaded all the way through, I didn’t find any that had skips or blank spots. I actually expected there might be some problems because a couple of the CDs were old and relatively scratched-up from the old days of knocking around in my car during college.

If this startup gets its process smoothed out—especially its dodgy auto-renew annual subscriptions—I’d definitely recommend it to friends. As it stands, I’d say Murfie is good for early adopters who know what to watch out for. And if you’re one of those people with a nagging tower of CDs stashed in a dark corner of the house, $1 per disc is certainly worth the time you’d save over hours of manual file ripping.

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One response to “Murfie Shows Promise as an Online CD Market—With Some Catches”

  1. Daniel Brown says:

    I use Murfie and I’ve been very impressed. I sent in my whole collection and it’s freed up a significant amount of space in my house while making my music much more accessible. They’ve been very responsive to the few inquiries I’ve sent, and I’ve bought some albums for great prices, especially considering that even a $0.01 album on Amazon is going to cost another $3.99 in shipping.

    Using Murfie solely as a CD ripping service is handy, but it doesn’t cover some of the best parts of the Murfie service. For instance, the album trading feature, or the fact that you can send in all your CDs and listen to them on Murfie’s nice streaming app on your Android phone (or other device) while never giving up the ability to sell your discs.