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The abandoned Virgin Megastore in San Francisco’s Union Square is a sign of the times. Across the street, the Apple Store is bustling as consumers snatch up Iphones, Ipods and other devices to aid their digital music fix. Virgin's vacant windows bear advertisements for other living stores around Union Square.
If Boots Hughston needs further evidence of the decline of the CD, all he has to do is look around the Mission District warehouse that’s home to his record label, 2B1 Multimedia. Boxes of new CDs fill the shelves and sit in piles on the floor. A plastic picnic table is covered in CDs from artists like Yellowman, Kool Keith and Eek A Mouse.
Hughston shipped these same CDs out months and years ago. But on a recent day, a UPS truck pulled up with a big surprise.
"We’ve received 400,000, 500,000 CDs back from all the distributors," Hughston said with look around his warehouse.
Stores like Virgin have joined Tower Records in the musical afterworld. Small record shops like the Streetlight Records in Noe Valley have tossed in their chips too. Best Buy doesn’t carry many of the fringe artists that make-up Hughston’s roster – so back home they’ve come.
"I miss the tactile feel of the CD and reading the liner notes." said Hughston. "But nowadays, they just want to download individual songs."
Although Hughston still misses the days of vinyl, he isn’t one to skip a ride on the musical bandwagon. Last month his company sold 25-thousand songs as individual downloads, compared to just 2,000 CDs.
"A lot of CDs aren’t even being made now," said veteran music writer Ben Fong-Torres. "Because they know they will have the same fate in another warehouse somewhere."
Fong-Torres said times are especially hard for young musicians trying to break into the music industry, because the big box stores don’t make space for many fringe artists.
Fong-Torres paused and took a long look around Hughston’s warehouse.
"It’s kind of sad," he said. "I would hate to see an artist walk in here and see boxes of their stuff unsold."
But Hughston isn’t sitting around weeping over his returned CDs. He’s still shipping them out. Only now he sends them to libraries, schools and nonprofits – all for free.
"Selling 400,000 CDs would take us 10 years," Hughston said. "So why not just give them away?"
A minivan pulled into the loading dock of the San Francisco Library. A stout man with the rock moniker Squid B. Vicious began unloading boxes of the 2B1 CDs onto the dock. A library representative sifted through the boxes piled into the back of the van.
"I’ll take two boxes of the Summer of Love," she said. "Just one box of the Lucian."
And with that, the van pulled away, hauling away nearly as many boxes as it brought.