Purchasing Music in 2015

I always thought I spent a decent amount on music. I also “steal” a lot of music, though that word laughably misses the mark when describing downloading or streaming music online. A couple times a year I mull over whether or not I am fairly supporting the bands I like, and how I could do it better if I feel I’m slacking.

Come to think of it, I’m not even sure how to classify my music spending. I know I spend more than quite a few people, and far less than others. Specific, right? I guess I can look back at just the past couple years: in 2014 I purchased maybe eight albums, and in 2015 only four so far (if I include one or two I received as gifts from my wife).

Of course, there are also the live shows, and in the past few years I’ve probably been to at least as many, if not more, than total albums purchased. But then you get into the analysis of paying for one show and the money being split among multiple bands, or not knowing how much of your festival ticket goes to the one act you went to see, and it’s really hard to know who is benefiting where. So this post is just about buying those good ol’ albums or records. These terms conjure up vinyl, but…

I grew up on CDs, and they are probably still my favorite physical format. I spent a lot (what felt like a lot to me) on compact discs throughout high school and college, some used but most of them new. Because we rarely had record stores in Iowa it was either Hastings or ordering online. If I knew I liked a band, it was easy to buy a CD from their website or the record label’s website and promote some decent cash flow for the bands.

The silver discs of yore.

Then the digital wave carried us all away. These were fine times for the common listener. Downloadable tunes helped broaden my perspective and let me try out bands a friend would recommend, at almost no cost. I eventually got an iPod (another physical favorite, though more of a device than a format) and quickly filled it with all the stuff I actually owned, plus a boatload of stuff that I just grabbed from the ether. MP3s: life in abundance.

Throughout the years, I more or less kept my buying habits intact. I continued to buy CDs from time to time—well past their cultural relevance—mostly to cling to the album art experience. Despite being an iTunes devotee for quite a while, I only recently dabbled in purchasing music there because of a feeling that if I wasn’t getting anything physical then it wasn’t worth the purchase (or that all the money was going straight to Apple’s pockets). Due to moving between eight or so different residences over the course of a decade, I also put off trying out records for a long time. When I did get a turntable it was a little portable Crosley that broke, and then got repaired, then broke again (scratching several records in the process). I’m not willing to put much more money down that path. I like records in concept but they just don’t work for me in real life.

My current dilemma: knowing that I will listen to a lot of albums regardless of which ones I pay for, which one should I buy next, and in which format? I’m guessing a lot of listeners have these exact thoughts.

The format question might be the easier of the two. Digital is a somewhat safe bet, though you have to decide if you want to be locked into an iTunes version, and my iPod is busted. Maybe I’ll try out a few more CDs just for reliability. I paid for Spotify for a couple years and it was pretty great, but the artists get pennies. I still use the free version on my phone sometimes. And without a great radio station like The Current down here, those are about the only listening options I have at the moment. (Also, I’ve fallen into a YouTube streaming routine, the weirdness of which has basically spurred this post.)

A bigger question is which album. But that’s not quite right either. I know the few bands I love, and the larger pool of bands I like a lot. So of course it will be one of those.

The real question must be, how many can I afford within the next year or five? Here’s the thing about downloading music without paying for it: you realize there are a lot of good releases out there. Not quite an infinite amount when you consider that most people have specific tastes, but surely enough to supply several decades worth of listening.

So I’d like to throw out a defense of the modern listener: we’re not paying for all your stuff, musicians. We know that. We can’t pay for it all. There are too many of you making too much stuff that is too good. A wonderful cycle keeps us exploring and awaiting new releases alongside discovering old catalogues. It would simply be an impossible task if we had to purchase every record we’ve ever enjoyed. We’d be stuck again in our own little genre worlds, incapable of branching out.

To attempt another angle: the very capability of downloading, file sharing, burning—all of it—is what has allowed us to find your band. Hey, that opener was good, what does their stuff sound like again? I’ll download a couple of their releases and take a listen. Fast forward two years, that opener is in town on a new tour and I’m buying a ticket to see them live. I couldn’t or wouldn’t spend $20 on their release a couple years ago, but I’m ready and willing to support them now, at least to some degree.

The only solution is a vague one: pick a strategy that lets you sleep at night. And it’s not just your conscience to consider. As with any artistic medium, we have to support the artists or it all dissipates. They make awesome stuff only when they have a structure within which to do so and also feed themselves and, often, their families. One time a friend pointed out to me that I probably make more money than my favorite songwriter does. That’s something that would have seemed outlandish when I listened in awe to bands as a teenager. Let’s go over that again: I have a more stable financial situation (just think of health insurance alone) than a good number of the musicians I love. This is crazy, but very likely true.

Here are some ways we could triangulate what music to buy and when:

  • Preorder albums. A band I follow is honest about trying to keep their existence alive, so they encourage their fans to be on top of preorders and first-week sales. Apparently this is a major gauge for a record label. It can decide tour sizes and range. This means that if you hope to see your favorite band live, buying their stuff right when they release it is an excellent thing to do.
  • Go to shows. This is an easy one. Well, it can be expensive, but what I mean is that it’s what a lot of people love to do anyway. Touring is one of the last viable options for a band to stay alive. And then, if you’re at the show, maybe you’ll be tempted to buy an album for yourself or a friend.
  • Pick some arbitrary numeric pattern that fits your budget. Say you are listening to a lot of great music and you think you could support one band every couple months on average. Then: over the course of the calendar year, buy six albums and even though you won’t be able to support all the bands you like, you’ll at least have supported some.
  • Look back and buy for the past year. This is to say, maybe come December you have a new release that topped your annual chart. You dig it even though you didn’t buy it at first, because you didn’t know you’d get into it so much (but thanks, downloading!). Well, there’s the one to add to your collection.
  • Spread the love. Buy something from a band you think really deserves it. Maybe it’s one you’ve never supported before but always enjoyed, and it’s time to pay them back for years of service. Or…
  • Concentrate your efforts. Buy all the albums from the bands you REALLY love. Sure, we’d like to save all the animals at the shelter, but instead of getting overwhelmed with the quantity it does more good to just pick one that you can care for immensely. Then you know that at least one soul is better off for having you around. If you have pet bands, treat them well and be the fan who owns everything they produce.
  • Be cognizant of where you buy it. A safe bet is the band or record label’s website. At least you know these are sanctioned spaces and you won’t have to research whether it will get the appropriate number of dimes into a band’s pocket. (I’ll let someone else argue for supporting local record stores. It’s a worthy cause but opens up whole new considerations of the music market that I don’t have experience with.)
  • Buy some music. Any music. Pause the $10/month streaming service and spend $15 on a single release. Even if you haven’t paid for music in years, just go out and buy something. Whatever you like. Trust your instincts. This is really the only important concept here. Buy something.

This has been cathartic and partially eases my guilt for not being able to support everything I like. I’ll try to follow my own advice, though I’m sure there will be dry spells due to limited funds. It’s tough out there for the musically inclined, but it’s a listener’s market because of sheer quantity. We just gotta put a few more dollars toward those whose tunes have made us move.

How are you listening these days?

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