I love music. All kinds of music. My varied collection includes soft rock, hard rock, country, classical, kids music, disney soundtracks, latin, easy listening, religious, showtunes, alternative, pop, top 40, classic rock, and on and on. While I certainly don't have the "most" eclectic tastes around, I will gladly give any genre of music a chance and have found winners (and losers) all around. I have a moderately large collection of music purchased over the years and continue to buy music a few times a year (not nearly as often as I used to).
I enjoy and applaud technological advancements in music creation and distribution. But I've recently hit a conundrum.
As a kid, we only had one record store in town (and yes, they did sell records, though most of their product was Cassettes by then) and they were hideously overpriced. Add to that the fact that I was just a ~10 year old kid with minimal income opportunities and I figured I'd need to look at other venues.
So I discovered "record clubs." The older readers may remember these…in the back of a magazine or in a newspaper or tucked among the junk mail you'd find a sheet of paper showing off 50-100 albums. Your job was to pick anywhere from 4-10 (depending on the club) that you wanted for "free" (sometimes totally free, other times "just 1 penny" and other times pay for shipping and handling). They'd send you those albums (originally I got these on Cassette Tapes…then eventually moved to CDs) and you agreed to purchase some number of albums from them in the next 1-3 years.
I budgeted my money (cutting back on other less vital expenses like Garbage Pail Kids cards, toys, trips to the arcade and other fun stuff) to make sure I could by a couple of albums each year to fulfill my membership requirement…then I canceled, waited a few months and signed up again. Within a year, my music collection had exploded and I was on my way. I had dozens and dozens of tapes. I found that there were some times that I liked every song on the tape, but that was the exception. Most of the time I liked the single I'd heard on the radio (which had prompted the purchase) and maybe 3-4 other songs, but the rest of the tape I only listened to once and then skipped over after that.
Since I was getting the music pretty cheap (all things considered, I probably ended up averaging ~$20 for 6-8 albums) I didn't worry too much about it…but I did devote some money to buying blank cassettes and always keeping one in my tape recorder so I could quickly record songs off the radio rather than buying a full album blind.
As time went on, the blank cassette method took over for the record clubs and, while I still did record clubs from time to time, I mostly began recording songs from the radio or "dubbing" tape-to-tape recordings borrowed from friends and family. The mix tape was born. I held onto the original cassettes (in case of catastrophic eating of tape) but went ahead and transferred the songs I liked onto a few single tapes and tucked away the yawners. My collection continued to grow through radio recordings and borrowing from friends…I still purchased but now instead of 10-20/yr, I probably only purchased 4-5 tapes a year.
And then came the CD. I was a fairly early adopter…not first year, but probably a second year Christmas wish was for a CD player. I was bummed to find the cost of CDs ~30% more than tapes. But they were the new thing and they did sound good…plus it was cool not having to "rewind" or "fast forward" to find the song I wanted. I wired together my CD player and my tape deck to allow for continuing to create my own tapes. But as CDs became more and more prolific, I realized CDs were the way to go…so I hopped back into the Record Clubs and before long I had dozens of CDs. I was now into my teens so I had a "real" job and could afford to purchase albums at retail price (I still tried to avoid the overpriced record store in my hometown but sometimes the convenience won out).
Anyway, over the 20+ years of building my music collection, I've transitioned "mostly" away from cassettes (I still have a few dozen tapes tucked away that I haven't had time or inkling to transfer to CD) and have a few hundred CDs. Music stores began selling USED music and created a trade-in program. Most of the time the trade in value isn't great, but it allows me to get some new "use" out of those stinker albums that only have 1 or 2 good songs. I'd transfer my favorite songs to tape, trade in the disk and pick up something new (or new to me). I still purchased many albums blind but was able to extend the value thanks to trade-ins.
Naturally, the world continues to change and a decade or so back, MP3s became "the thing" for music. I admit to spending some time on Napster but I didn't have a CD burner or an MP3 player at the time so most of my newly acquired tunes from the early MP3 days vanished when various computer hard drives/systems died. Eventually I did get a CD burner but I still didn't have an MP3 player, so most of my music stayed on the computer…although I did create some backup disks with a bunch of MP3s and even burned a few "mix tapes" to CD.
I now have an iPod (actually a couple of iPods in the house plus a little Sony MP3 player) and I have (finally) "ripped" all of my CDs into digital format. I've even converted a number of favorite cassettes to digital. I haven't gotten around to transferring my records (yes, I have ~50 records) to digital format yet, but that's an eventual goal.
So that's my basic history of music collecting/buying…and now we arrive at my conundrum. I still frequent music stores that offer trade-ins and used music purchases…but if I'm buying new, I usually hit up the big box stores like Target, Walmart or Costco. I've generally stayed away from digital purchases for a couple of reasons: 1) I enjoy the album art and having a tangible element to my purchase. 2) I'm worried about losing my digital purchase due to computer failure (which has happened before).
I'm not as worried about the album art and tangible content anymore since I find that I seldom look at them anymore. And I'm less worried about the second issue because I have pretty robust backup in place on my computer and many/most of the digital outlets (amazon, itunes, etc) will let you re-download purchases.
Up until this year, I've only digitally purchased a few random songs here and there…songs I've heard on the radio or at a friends house or whatever. But this year, I had a pretty big credit balance on my iTunes account so I bought 2 full albums from a couple of artists that I generally enjoy. The price of the albums was comparable to what I might have found at a big box store…I probably saved $1/album by going digital. And one of the albums included an "enhanced digital book" that let me look at the album art/insert digitally.
Over the next few days, I listened to both of the albums. Both generally kept with the same style and presence of the artist…but neither album was what I'd call "great." There were a couple of songs that I moderately liked, but none that I'd add to a 'favorites' playlist. Even more sadly, as I listened, I found myself "not liking" the first album much at all. While it stayed mostly true to the artist's general style, she has taken a few steps in a direction that I'm not really keen on…and it made me sad.
My conundrum now is that I've purchased these digitally and completely lost out on any value extension. Had I paid the extra $1 to buy the physical copy at Target, I could take it down to the music store and trade it in and pick up something else. Yes I would lose a couple of bucks and it's possible that I wouldn't like everything on whatever new disk I got…but I'd get to continue the process and stretch my dollar. Instead, I'm out $8 and have no recourse but to just not listen anymore.
I suppose I could've or should've done more due-dilligence on my own and tried to find a place online where I could've listened to the entire album before purchasing blind. But since these were both new releases, it's possible I might not have been able to find the entire album online. I did listen to the "previews" in iTunes prior to buying, but those 15 second clips only really portrayed that it was the same style…they didn't show the turn towards the explicit (which is what turned me off).
OK…so that's my conundrum and my soap box. Over the years, I've loved buying music and finding a gem of a song buried in some deep cut of an album…something you'd never find unless you picked up the whole album. I've run across some stinkers but have been able to trade them in or otherwise extend the value. With the digital age, I can get "better deals" online but there's no way to extend the value on something that I purchase and decide I don't like. I can't "trade in" a digital purchase. Sure, I can go around just buying singles I've heard on the radio, but that doesn't expand my musical horizons or knowledge of an artist. Furthermore, if I feel like there's a chance I'll like a number of the songs on the album, it's usually cheaper to buy the whole album than to buy one song at a time after I've heard them…but I don't usually hear them all at once or haven't heard them all by the time I feel like buying.
I guess part of the answer may be to be a more active participant on music websites…listen to streaming media that helps mitigate purchasing garbage and leads me towards the singles I want. I've streamed from Pandora radio and hang out at a few artist websites from time to time, but I'm not sure of the best way to adequately find new music and to vet out an entire purchase prior to buying it.
Is there anyplace that gives a "listen before you buy" model? Something that in a 'kindle-esque' mode lets you "check out" an album and listen to it for a while and then buy it if you like it? I'd prefer the "check out" mode because I'd rather listen on my iPod than have to sit at my computer and play via a browser.
What do you guys do when you buy music? Do you still buy physical copies primarily? If you've gone digital, how do you reconcile buying garbage from time to time…or do you only buy songs you know you like? And if you buy entire albums digitally, how do you know you'll like the whole thing? Or do you just risk it and hope for the best?
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