How to Buy an Album in 2014

If you’ll permit me the briefest interlude of conservatism: it used to be so much easier.

Buying new album releases, I mean. Which isn’t just a regressive statement; it’s a totally counterintuitive one. I could literally buy or, for that matter, listen to for free, almost any album that I would personally have any interest in owning or hearing (this probably isn’t true for a small population of music obsessives, and may not even be one hundred percent true for me, but I can’t think of any true rarities that I’m jonesing to hear and definitely cannot). But certain aspects of buying albums pre-internet that had a certain clarity.

First: the idea that one would buy any album at all, let alone new album releases the day they come out. If you are a person under forty, you almost certainly read the above sentences and either (a.) thought, who even buys albums anymore; (b.) thought, I can’t remember the last time I bought an album; or (c.) are not wholly uninterested in buying albums but can picture someone you know who would read those same sentences and say (a.) or (b.).

A few words about (a.) and (b.): I’m sorry, but generally those are annoying things to say or think, unless you have truly maintained minimal interest in music for your entire life, in which case, hey, I get it, I don’t care about video games. But rolling your eyes at buying albums does not automatically make you au courant. Or if it does, you could be more au courant by having opinions about music itself, not how it is consumed or made.

Because who-even-buys-albums-anymore doesn’t really reflect how music continues to be made. It is, in fact, truly laughable how many bands and artists have insisted over the past decade that they didn’t really know if they’d go on releasing albums anymore, they’d probably start doing musics in shorter bursts, lots of one-off singles or series of EPs or through apps or something, and then either (a.) did not do this and/or (b.) did not do anything at all. Whether this is a failure of imagination on the part of these artists to fully embrace the paradigm shift they vowed to embrace or something else, I cannot say. But I can certainly speculate and say: if you make music, albums kinda make sense. Singles are great — trust me, I’ve heard the album that has Avri Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” on it and the best thing about it is that it has “Girlfriend” on it — but an all-singles diet is tough to maintain unless you have way more faith in the singles-producing skills of many musicians than I do. Also on a more practical level: singles still cost money to produce, so going into the studio (even if it’s a home studio set-up) just to come out with one to four songs does not seem like an amazing use of time. I mean, I love short stories and I write short stories and I understand working on one short story at a time as its own discreet thing, but I wouldn’t go off on a writing retreat for a few months and come back and say hey! Everyone! I wrote one short story! And expect anyone to care. Even if it was “Sea Oak.”

The other half of (a.) and (b.) is, of course, the notion of buying music at all. There was a while where the reason not to do this was filesharing. I actually don’t particularly approve of the conscription of the RIAA into the legal world that resulted in filesharing becoming “illegal downloading.” I don’t really have a problem with filesharing in theory. I mean, now that MP3s are a main thing that people buy, it more closely resembles giving away free copies of something that is for sale. But I think the record industry’s gotta take the blame there, for insisting that CDs were The Thing for as long as they did. For the first bunch of years of filesharing, it didn’t feel like shoplifting CDs (no matter how much the RIAA insisted it was the exact same thing) because you were just getting electronic copies of albums that weren’t generally for sale in that form. This always struck me as a high-tech (and obviously easier to replicate) version of a cassette dub (which of course the RIAA also tried to pass off as an industry-killing menace back in the day!).

home-taping

The entitlement filesharing created, though: that’s kind of a bitch. And when you combine a misguided RIAA and a misguided sense of entitlement, you get Spotify, the thing where you can listen to almost whatever music you want, and at least someone gets paid for it, who cares if it’s not really the people who actually made said music. In some ways, Spotify feels almost more entitled than filesharing, because at this point you’re pretty much forced to admit that if you download all of your music from torrents, you are doing something that’s nominally illegal, whereas Spotify (which I totally use sometimes, albeit more to either listen to stuff I own but don’t have with me at work, or to hear what something sounds like that I’m considering buying) is also helpful for people who feel entitled to not even feel like they’re doing something wrong. Officially, Spotify isn’t wrong at all! Unofficially, it’s the same thing as filesharing, except you don’t get to keep anything, and a few dozen EXTREMELY rich people plus the CEO of Spotify get a little bit richer. Paying Spotify for all of your music is like paying the parking garage next to the supermarket for all of your groceries.

Anyway, that’s one reason buying albums was once simpler: it was something generally accepted that people did, and (for most of the nineties) in the particular format of compact disc. Now there are way more ways to buy music, if you want to do this. And, as sometimes happens, the options bring both convenience and confusion.

For example: Jenny Lewis has a new album coming out tomorrow called The Voyager. I want this album right away, and in the 1997 version of this scenario (in which, I admit, the part of the Jenny Lewis album would probably be played by Lisa Loeb), I would make sure I went to the nearest record store that would be most likely to sell it and also least likely to sell it for $18, hopefully more like $14, and buy it, on this Tuesday, the day that new albums come out.

Technically speaking, I could probably still do this, although if I wanted the album first thing in the morning — say, on my way to work — it would have to be Best Buy, rather than a proper record store. For a lot of artists, this would add a further would-Best-Buy-or-whoever-carry-even-this-title asterisk, but J-Lew is on a major label so that’s probably set. But the way I listen to the most music these days is, of course, my iPod, and my work computer won’t let me install iTunes, and being able to listen to an album for an hour or two at work (if I’m not too busy) off of my work computer’s CD-ROM drive does not seem like a great reason to patronize Best Buy. So let’s go through the other ways I could buy Jenny Lewis’s The Voyager on the Tuesday it comes out.

p-recs

ACTUAL RECORD STORES

I work in Manhattan, one of the busiest and most populous urban centers in all the land. Though my office is very close to a Best Buy, the only major record store downtown that keeps up with new releases (that I’m aware of) is Other Music, that venerable and kind of overpriced institution. As much as I would like to be the sort of person willing to walk a half a mile out of my way to pay $15 for a CD instead of $9, I am pretty much not that person. And a word here about what indie record stores sometimes expect from you: on the day the Dismemberment Plan’s most recent album came out, I hadn’t pre-ordered it and figured the big chains wouldn’t have it, so I went around to legit record stores looking for a copy. Other Music had a delayed shipment and it wasn’t in. Kim’s Video, which just went out of business again, had copies… for $23. That’s expensive even for Kim’s; I wonder if they were under the impression that they were carrying a Japanese import of the album or something? I lost my nerve to ask them this and went home empty-handed.

So Other Music and Kim’s are great institutions, but they’re not really mine, and anyway, the current record-store capital of New York is actually North Brooklyn, where I happen to live. Rough Trade NYC, which must be the largest record store in Brooklyn in terms of sheer square-footage, just opened, and it is a wonderful throwback to the days where record stores were big and plentifully stocked centers for music culture. It also helpfully throws back to the nineties style of pricing, where CDs are seriously like $17 unless they are specifically priced much lower by their distributors. Vinyl is less marked up from what you’d pay elsewhere, but still not inexpensive.

North Brooklyn also has several smaller shops, including Permanent Records, which I consider my local record store, and love. I go there at least once a month and buy something more often than not. But it’s not on my way to work, not open until later in the day, not on my way home from work, and not the kind of place that can afford to stock tons of copies of every new release, in every format, every Tuesday. A new Jenny Lewis album would probably make the cut, but practically speaking I would not be listening to it as soon as it’s out.

That’s something I’m placing a premium on, and it’s admittedly pretty silly, not least because I have actually listened to The Voyager several times already. I am, in fact, listening to it as I write this: it was featured on NPR’s First Listen, as many albums I tend to wildly anticipate are; draw your own conclusions about my totally square tastes. Even albums not featured on the front page of the Middlebrow Showcase Times will often be on Spotify that morning. Based on when I used to wake up and/or would be able to find a proper copy of a desired album, that is very much equivalent to when I’d be first listening to a new album I really wanted to hear. Maybe actually earlier.

But times have changed! If I’m truly dealing with a paradigm shift here, I should be able to do better than listening to an ad-supported version of The Voyager in between work meetings. If once I had to settle for finding the CD as soon as I could and putting it in my walkman or stereo as soon as possible, it seems to follow that I should be able to commence listening to The Voyager on a loop, without ads, from the moment I step out the door on Tuesday morning. This leaves Actual Record Stores more the domain of: used vinyl; used CDs; and new albums I might impulse-buy but haven’t been waiting to hear for a year or more. It’s too bad, because it’s probably the most purely enjoyable experience of any of these, including waking up at eight in the morning (or staying up until midnight!) and downloading the album. That immediacy is wonderful, but all of the eye-rolling over supposedly antiquated formats can’t rewire my brain’s appreciation of record stores, or even record store simulations.

Just One of the Guys

FROM THE ARTIST AND/OR LABEL

I am a huge sucker for pre-orders of albums that include other things, even if they are other things I do not need at all. For example, if you pre-order The Voyager through Jenny Lewis’s website, you can choose between digital, CD, or vinyl LP, and you can add on a t-shirt and/or tote bag. I understand that $36 for a CD, an okay t-shirt, and a nice tote bag is not all that amazing, as deals go, but I was ready to do that because I collect band t-shirts, I admire the simplicity of forking over that money straight to the artist/label, and I kind of like throwing a little extra money to an artist I really love. To that end, I don’t even, theoretically, mind buying an album twice.

Before I sound like a full-on crazy person, let me take a sidebar to explain. Format is another aspect of music-buying decisions (though see a through c again for the question of “who buys music that’s not a download anymore??”), and it’s a real bitch if you have a lot of music already. I have a lot of CDs that I don’t feel comfortable digitizing — or rather, am gradually digitizing but don’t feel comfortable then crossing my fingers that the small box holding all of my music stays safe forever. I also recognize that CDs will probably not be manufactured widely in the future (though their halt in production, like a lot of physical media, will not be as quick as it’s assumed by the “everyone streams everything” vocal minority), and have a record player. So while I generally consider myself format-agnostic, as all of them have advantages and drawbacks, I’ve tried to come up with a basic system for figuring out what format I prefer.

Generally speaking, if I have a lot of CDs already by a particular artist I really like, I’ll continue to buy the CD. (If you’re looking specifically for justification of CD nostalgia, that thing that sounds like a flimsy plastic substitute for something to feel nostalgic over, I highly recommend this Steve Hyden piece that my buddy Derrick brought to my attention a few weeks ago.) If it’s an artist I’ve come to really like through downloads or only maybe just one CD, I’ll probably move over to buying them on vinyl, which is more aesthetically pleasing (and also something I don’t mind paying $20 or so for). And if it’s an artist I don’t know as well yet, I’ll probably go with whatever’s cheapest — which is often but not always download-only. I also fill in a lot of gaps with used music, which I’ll continue to do until everyone else has gotten rid of all their CDs. God bless, incidentally, people who both still acquire CDs and then quickly divest themselves of them. I’m sure many of them are promo copies or something, but I appreciate that I can find a used copy of the Hamilton Leithauser solo album just a couple months after it came out, even in 2014.

Anyway, for a few select artists, I’ll get both physical versions. I ordered vinyl copies of the most recent They Might Be Giants and Hold Steady albums directly from the bands because they were nicer packages, and also bought $8 CD versions to keep my shelves a consistent. Similarly, the upcoming Bishop Allen album is being offered in a cream-vinyl-plus-CD-plus-poster option that I could not resist. Here’s my general rationale: if I see a movie I really love, I might well go see it a second time, and I might eventually buy it on Blu-ray. So that’s at least fourteen bucks and maybe as much as thirty or forty — not for many movies, granted, but some. I listen to most albums way more times than I rewatch most movies, because that’s generally how music works. And there are some albums I love and bought for eight dollars or even five dollars. That artist-dollars-per-enjoyment-ratio can get super weird: I appreciate the good deal, but I also recognize the economic disparity of paying eight bucks for something I might listen to for literally the rest of my life. Of course, I didn’t know if I loved Teeth Dreams or Nanobots sight unseen, but consider that a back payment on the literally hundreds and hundreds of hours of enjoyment I’ve gotten from the Hold Steady and They Might Be Giants over the years. This also ties into my willingness to maybe-overpay for pre-order packages, even though the idea of buying a CD for $17 from Rough Trade still half-fills me with revulsion. I’m happy to say, hey, They Might Be Giants, your music makes me so goddamned irrationally happy: take the amount of money I might spend on a not-even-THAT-nice dinner with my life.

As it turns out, this is all somewhat moot for The Voyager, because shipping for that pre-order package comes to an extra $7, which means after tax we may getting close to the $50 mark. Despite my love for Jenny Lewis, this seems like a lot to pay a CD, an okay t-shirt and a nice tote bag (for $50, I may require stickers, a t-shirt I think is awesome, early release of the album, and/or a signature from the artist). Even when there aren’t crazy shipping charges involved, though, buying from a record label is not always as easy as it should be. The main reason: total crapshoots over when you’ll actually receive said album. Some labels will ship out your album in time for release date, which sometimes means you’ll get it early; some will even advertise that if you buy the album from them, they’ll send it ahead of release date, or send you a download link a week early.

Other labels, though, will underestimate the shipping time (unless you pay even more), or don’t even try, and ship out the package on the release date, rather than for it. With Jenny Lewis, if you order the package with the CD (or the download, of course), the label will send you a download link on the release date, which is pretty cool. But the vinyl LP comes with its own download access card in the package, so they (from the sound of it) won’t send you a separate day-of download link if you order the LP (even though it’s the format that more directly requires it). These inconsistencies across different labels, along with the vagaries of label business and the dreaded USPS, make ordering something without an automatic download link pretty sketchy business.

ITUNES

This is probably the most popular option, and it makes sense: I just open up iTunes, find the album, download it, and boom: I can listen to it on the way to work. But iTunes doesn’t really sit right with me; somehow, the outrage associated with a retailer like Walmart or Target making up a crazy percentage of music retail (as they did in the past and even now continue to do just by default) manages to bypass iTunes. Of course, unlike the depressing and increasingly homogenized music shelves of big-box stores (this dates me, but I remember when Best Buy had relatively good selection! Can you imagine?), iTunes can offer pretty much any album (and, with that selection, the vague illusion of meritocracy). But iTunes is still a gigantic company that makes a ton of money at the expense of smaller companies by being in the position to offer something a little cheaper and easier. As a consumer, I get it; as a music fan, it’s a little grotesque.

iTunes is also big on “pre-orders” but usually all you get for it is an advance download of the album’s first single. Sometimes artists give bonus tracks or videos to an exclusive iTunes version, which is a whole other stupid thing. In fact, every time an artist leads their Facebook or Twitter or whatever pitch with pre-ordering the album on iTunes, I am immediately suspicious of them. If you can’t bother to lure away your fans with either a more expensive but nicer package from you or your label; or with a less expensive and more direct payment via your Bandcamp page or whatever, I don’t think you’re trying hard enough. I think it’s pretty clear from all of this that I try way too hard with this music-buying stuff, and as such I cannot generally abide the laziness of iTunes, though I will make the occasional exception.

AMAZON

For what I’m looking for in day-of-release purchases, newly conferred Evil Corporation Amazon pretty much has what I want: if I buy a vinyl LP or a CD from them, often it will attempt to ship for release date and give me an auto-rip that I can download that morning before the mail has even come. And it usually doesn’t cost much, especially for CDs which are sometimes, weirdly, just as cheap or cheaper than their downloads.

But: not everything they sell has the auto-rip function, and also I understand that I use Amazon for way too much. I think the best way to use Amazon (especially as a Prime member! Sorry, indie-cred folks!) is to diversify. I buy books on Amazon, but not every book; I buy albums on Amazon, but not every album; I buy miscellaneous weird household items on Amazon, but my local Rite Aid also owns a part of my soul. When I buy movies, I do pretty much buy them exclusively on Amazon (if we’re including Amazon’s used sellers), but I think the brick-and-mortar ship has sailed and then sunk on that one. So I landed on Amazon for my Jenny Lewis buying needs (although if you’re shamelessly thrifty and want a physical object, Best Buy is selling is for nine bucks). I feel a little guilty for involving such a big company in my love of music, which is supposed to be so personal — but then again, despite her indie roots, Jenny’s long-time label is Warner Brothers. She got a big company involved from the jump, and her royalty arrangement is probably kinda fucked anyway.

IN CONCLUSION (finally)

These are all of the options and hypotheticals for an album that a lot of stores of all forms will probably carry and promote, often in multiple formats. And none of these options are all that terrible. Some of them are so future-is-now that they would have blown my seventeen-year-old mind. But my seventeen-year-old mind would also not have dedicated much thought over the business of how to acquire Be Here Now, which was nearly the exact same way I acquired Brighten the Corners or Factory Showroom (well, actually, I bought Factory Showroom on cassette. In 1996. And I still have it. So maybe that explains some things about my psychology that I should have admitted upfront). This more complicated thought process, terrifyingly, plays out at least once a month for me. Even the simplest version of this that, according to at least some people you know, pretty much everyone in the world does — downloading what little music you want to buy from iTunes or Amazon — involves giving most of whatever money you use to buy music to a couple of gigantic companies. Beyond that, though, I think you form a different relationship with music when you actually have to think about how you acquire it, the same way I think you have a different relationship with an album you buy on vinyl or CD versus the one you download immediately and maybe just shuffle into all of the other songs on your iPod. That doesn’t necessarily make one relationship better than another, but trying to apply the same standard to everything is the beginning of treating art like sponges or detergent.

On some level, I would love it if the options for every album I want to buy were more or less the same, so I could apply some kind of possibly-arbitrary taxonomy to those decisions and speed them up a little. But maybe those ridiculous decisions are part and parcel with the option explosion that has decimated the mall music store (or where-ever you used to buy your CDs). Rather than replacing old habits with what Everyone Does Now, maybe those habits can adapt and mutate. Maybe now the world is your record store.

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.