Rent-a-record: bargain for public, or ripoff of industry?

The music industry is spinning over records for rent. Some shops are renting out records, and consumers then record them on home stereo systems. It's one way to get around the high cost of albums, but record companies have raised ethical and legal questions about the practice.

Stephen Boulanger, owner of Rena's Rent-a-Record in Providence, R.I., says the inferior quality of prerecorded cassettes make rental albums especially appealing. A customer can make his own tape ''which will last 10 times as long, is of much better musical quality, and half the price'' of a commercial cassette , he says.

Bob Altshuler of Columbia Records says: ''Taping, even for home use, can have a very dramatic, damaging effect.'' He argues that rentals deprive the artist, publisher, and record company of their investment.

But Mr. Boulanger is not going to leave his business. ''We're getting people back in record stores who normally stay away,'' he says. Any album in his store is for sale or rent. The daily rental fee of $2.50 per album is put toward the purchase price of a record should the customer want to keep it. If one or two albums are rented, they are due the next day. But if four or five are rented, they may be kept a couple of days. A 99-cent rental special is featured weekly.

By renting a record a music fan can stock up for a party or decide if the whole album is as appealing as the one cut he or she may have heard. ''Who wants to spend $7 or $8 to find out that the rest of the album is a lemon?'' Boulanger asks. But he readily acknowledges that most rentals are done for the purpose of home taping, and he makes no apologies. Home taping is here to stay, he says, because ''with an album you can only play it at home. But a cassette goes with you to the beach, in your car, on a bike.

''I tend to think we're doing the recording industry a favor,'' he says. Stores buy more stock to replace worn rental records and listeners tend to be more adventurous in their choices, Boulanger claims.

''If we weren't renting records, four kids would get together and buy one album and tape off it,'' he says. As album prices rise, he adds, people are reluctant to try new artists. ''They'll stay with the tried and true heavy movers,'' he says, adding that renters are willing to give new sounds a hearing.

But the recording industry doesn't see the business practice as such a favor. Stanley Gortikov, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, says ''to tape is like shoplifting'' and that rentals exacerbate the diminution of creativity which could ''ruin an industry.''

Mr. Gortikov says that 84 percent of the albums released don't sell enough to break even and the music most likely to be taped is in the 16 percent that carries the rest of the industry.

Mr. Altshuler of Columbia Records predicts rental records will not catch on in the United States because customers may tend to treat carelessly records which they don't own. Stephen Boulanger says that this may be a problem with record collections of public libraries but his records are kept in pristine condition through a ''you scratch it, you own it'' policy on rentals.

Within the last year rental records have boomed in Japan, but Altshuler says, ''I don't think renting is going to become a widespread practice because there is a lot of work involved and enormous bookkeeping.''

Not so, says a record retailer whose own experiment with rentals didn't succeed but who thinks the innovation is very promising. ''It could work just as well as a book library,'' says Ben Karol, who rented records from one of his four New York stores for a few weeks last summer and stopped when demand was one-fifth what he had anticipated.

When albums started listing at $10.95, he set up a rental system similar to the procedure for renting a car. A customer with a legitimate charge card signed a voucher that was given back only when the album was returned.

''If somebody promotes it properly'' rental records could work, Mr. Karol says. ''I really think it's going to catch on and I don't see anything wrong with it,'' he says. ''It would help the recording industry. Books in libraries haven't hurt publishing. Word-of-mouth and getting records into the hands of people are the best advertisements.''

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