Digital 'I Do'

If you've ever gotten wild on the dance floor at a Boston wedding, there's a chance Andy was manning the microphone. Like any topnotch DJ, Andy's got a complete music library, enough sound equipment to get a party started and enough experience to know just when to unleash "YMCA." But those skills will cost you: he charges $140 an hour. He used to justify those costs by pointing out that he spent $150 a week on CDs just to keep his song list current. But recently he's begun downloading songs over the Internet. Now when a bride and groom want their first dance accompanied by an obscure tune, Andy (who won't give his last name for fear of being sued by the recording industry) no longer has to drop $15 for an entire CD he'll likely never play again. "MP3s have saved me thousands and thousands of dollars," he says. So has he cut his prices? Of course not.

It's as if American Airlines went to bed one night and woke up to find Boeing 747s were available free of charge, or if General Motors no longer had to pay for steel. Thanks to digitization and the Web, a host of outfits are finding their cost structures turned upside down. And it's not just big businesses. For a look at how new technologies can transform the economics of even the smallest mom-and-pop shops, consider the firms that create that most traditional of days: a perfect wedding. From DJs to photographers to invitation printers, digital technologies are bringing both benefits--and penalties. It's also forcing some professionals to rethink just what their business is.

Let's start with the music men. Though the Recording Industry Association of America may be too busy suing grade-schoolers to have noticed, many professional DJs are downloading tons of free music, too, eliminating their biggest cost of doing business. The flip side is that as peer-to-peer services like Kazaa have given anyone with a PC access to a huge music library, the primary barrier to entry to the DJ industry has fallen. Why hire a pro if Uncle Joe has 8,000 songs on his iPod? To fight that thinking, Peter Merry, president of the American Disc Jockey Association, plays up a DJ's skill at running disco lights and smoke machines and choreographing the reception. "We are more than music because we know how to direct the whole event," says Merry.

If the disc spinners succeed in getting Grandma to shake her groove thing, you'll want great photos to remember the occasion, right? Enter the wedding photographers, many of whom are going digital. Seattle's Gail Wodzin used to snap 400 to 500 pictures at a typical wedding; buying and processing that film cost $1.50 per shot. Today she uses a digital camera, eliminating those costs and allowing her to shoot 1,000 pictures at a typical affair. So with no film costs, her profits have soared, right? Not exactly. She's still recouping the $15,000 she's spent on digital cameras, computers and software.

And she sees no end in sight. "It gets obsolete so quickly," she says. She's invested hundreds of hours in learning to operate the new equipment and editing software. And now she spends long hours uploading and editing shots herself, instead of handing off that work to the processing lab. She's kept her prices steady, but the new investments and extra time mean she's only marginally more profitable.

Technology also increases the risks that she'll be ripped off. Most film-based wedding photographers give couples proofs, then make money on prints. But conniving newlyweds can buy a $100 scanner to digitally capture images from proofs and produce their own low-cost prints, eliminating the photographer's key profit center.

To limit that risk, some photographers aren't allowing couples to take proofs out of the studio, or are putting images on encrypted CDs. Others have changed their pricing--charging, say, $500 an hour to shoot a wedding digitally, then giving the couple a CD of images to print as they please. And as prices for high-quality digital cameras have dropped and amateurs have begun shooting better snapshots, more couples are relying on friends to fill their photo albums. Molly Madden and Dan Amon saved $2,000 for their Delaware wedding last spring by asking three digitally equipped friends to take photos; they saved an additional $1,200 by letting a friend with an MP3-filled laptop act as their DJ. They took the savings and rented three beachfront houses for wedding guests.

Madden and Amon also cut costs by going do-it-yourself on another wedding staple: invitations. The average couple spends up to $5 per invitee on professionally printed wedding invites. But as home printers have risen in quality, some couples are cutting out the stationery stores to create their own invitations, giving rise to a new kind of business. Masterpiece Studios of Mankato, Minn., sells a print-'em-yourself kit of 25 invitations, including response cards and thank-you notes, for $29.99. Farther up the market, Helen Driscoll, founder of Invite site.com, sells fancy kits complete with ribbons, textured paper and pressed roses. Traditional printers shouldn't be too worried, though. "After brides find out how much time and toner it takes to print your own, this trend will most likely change," says Jean Andersen, president of Blue-Sheet Marketing Co., who's been in the wedding business more than 30 years.

Technology has aided in other areas of preparing for the big event. Online registries help guests select and buy the correct gift, and on-line travel sites are a boon tohoneymoon planning, as well as helping out-of-town guests save money. Nontraditional couples can even get hitched in a Las Vegaschapel that offers Webcam broadcasts. Marriage may be as old as creation. But the fact that it can get so fully wired is a reminder that the union of business and technology also cannot be rent asunder.