March 25, 2010

Why I still go to record stores for CDs rather than to iTunes for mp3s

This week's EconTalk podcast is a great inside look at how the recorded music industry has operated from the early '70s through the present. Thankfully they didn't talk too much about piracy, which allowed them lots of time to focus on other things that the average listener probably hadn't already heard and thought about. (For a series of free articles on the negative impact that file-sharing has had on the music industry, look for the relevant titles in Stan Liebowitz's SSRN entry.) Most of the conversation is about the changes that accompanied the move from hard copies of music carried in brick-and-mortar stores to digital copies sold (or given away or stolen) online.

I was a freshman in college when Napster became popular, and lord knows I pirated lots of mp3s back then -- mostly shit, thinking back on it, but some of it good enough to burn onto CD. Last summer I bought a cheap mp3 player just to see if I really needed one -- after all, I'd gotten along fine without a portable CD player and only rarely used my Walkman as a kid. Nope, no use for it whatsoever. When I'm at home, in the library, or anywhere that has computer access, I can play CDs or mp3s on a computer. My car has a CD player, so I can always burn mp3s onto CDs and play them when I'm driving.

When else would I want to listen to music? While walking to and from my car? No; too short of a trip. While walking to and from campus or around the neighborhood -- it sounded plausible, so I tried it, but no. Being out and about while isolating yourself aurally makes no sense. It's as stupid as a person spending most of their time futzing around with their cell phone when they're in a gathering of friends.

That's just an argument against the portability benefit that digital music has. It also explains why I don't have a portable CD player. But here are five other reasons why hard copies bought from brick-and-mortar stores are better than digital copies obtained online:

1. You're out of the house and being social. Record stores never feel like other retailers, where you go there to stock up on necessities, you want to get this chore down as soon and as infrequently as possible, and you could care less about anyone else in the store. Record stores are a hangout. You're going there to collect the things that make life worth living, you want to linger there for as long as your schedule permits, and you feel like part of a larger community of music fans who are shopping alongside you or manning the cash register.

Online music stores could be a hangout, but for one person only, eliminating the social aspect of buying music. Plus you lose everything else in the physical environment that makes record stores such fun places to hang out -- holding things with your hands, running your eyes over the albums' artwork or liner notes, listening to whatever the staff is playing as a way of discovering groups you didn't know about, and so on.

2. There's a secondary market for hard copies but not digital copies. I mostly buy used CDs because all good popular music has already been made; arguably 1990 was the last year with many must-listen albums. Even the handful of recent good albums can still be bought used. Plus new and used CDs are basically indistinguishable to everyone, unlike used vs. new cars.

So you pay maybe $5 for the CD, and if at some point you want to trade it in, you'll get back $1 -- pretty good considering by that time you've gotten all you want out of it, and relative to the purchase price. Take a bunch of them that you don't listen to much anymore, and you can get several new albums that'll sustain you for a long time. None of this is possible with digital music.

3. You focus on better music when you buy entire CDs than when you cherry-pick single songs. Lots of people complain about an album that has 12 songs but only one good song. If that's an accurate assessment, then that band sucks and you should listen to someone who has enough talent to write at least two good songs in a year. Groups today are much more focused on singles, as they were in the '50s and '60s, but again the really good stuff comes from a period that was album-oriented. And there's simply too many of those albums for the average person to ever buy them all.

Also, they cover all major genres, so you'll never have to worry that you're missing out. For punk rock, you've got Rocket to Russia and Dookie. For (dance-)pop, you've got Thriller and Madonna's self-titled album. For glam / hard rock, you've got Electric Warrior and Slippery When Wet. For independent, you've got Psychocandy and Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. And on and on. All of those are packed with good-to-great songs, and you don't get that anymore in the single-driven age.

It's true that you can buy the entire album digitally, but most people do not. The online digital store encourages you to focus on isolated songs, rather than bundled albums.

4. You don't have to waste time and effort deciding which songs to listen to and in what order. Let's say you have 100 mp3s on you iPod. That's about 5 hours of music, so obviously you aren't going to listen to every one of them during a particular use of your iPod. The longest that a typical use might last is about 1 hour -- your commute, working out in the gym, etc. -- which means that you'll have to decide which 20 out of 100 songs to include for any given use of your iPod. Furthermore, you'll have to decide which order they'll be played in (even if the choice is random).

Unless you're a musical genius, you cannot hope for the resulting hour of songs to hang together in a pleasing gestalt way, especially when you're making these decisions on-the-fly during your commute, work-out, etc. Think of how mediocre it would sound if you sliced up 10 symphonies into 10 standalone pieces each, threw all 100 pieces into an iPod, and then could only choose 10 from this stew to listen to while driving to school or work. Pop music may not suffer as much because albums aren't as planned-out as symphonies, but it's still in that direction.

With hard copies, they've done all of that hard work for you -- the songs that will be played are those on the album, in the order they're listed on the back. The band members themselves, together with recording professionals, have thought very long and hard about which songs to put on an album and in what order. Therefore, the resulting hour of music is much more satisfying on a holistic level, above how enjoyable each song is on its own. I think using the right pace to set the mood and set up contrasts is the hardest thing for a normal person to do on their own.

Again you can just buy the album digitally and put it into your iPod in the intended order, but most people do not do this because digital music encourages focusing too much on the trees and not the forest. You still have tough choices to make with hard copies, but it's "which album or two to bring?" rather than "which song to hear next?" repeated 20 times in a row.

5. You're not inconvenienced by having to wait for the store to get in what you want. Again, there is so much great stuff out there that it's impossible for them to not have at least one album worth listening to. They might not have a particular album in a given week, but then you buy the ones they do have that week, or have them transfer it from a sister store or order it for you. So there is no real advantage to being able to get a particular song or album digitally online right now vs. later.

How do we know? Ask people what their favorite album or song is, and they usually can't make up their minds -- there are fifty or a thousand of them, although they're better than the other million songs they didn't think of. The same is true for the list of albums or songs they'd like to own but don't yet. There's a block of higher-priority stuff, but it's a really big block. People can't rank within this block; it's an undifferentiated wish list. Only if the record store didn't have anything from this wish list would you think of getting it online. I thought of doing just that recently because the CD is hard to find (Everything by Tones on Tail). Fortunately a sister store had it in, and after waiting a few days for the transfer, I got it for $8 instead of the $15 or more that it goes for -- used! -- on Amazon or Ebay.

Even if the store or a sister store didn't have it in, and you wanted to get it online, the record store has specialized knowledge of where to go for which albums to get you the best deal. This comes from specialization and competition between record stores for sales. I don't want to waste time and effort wading through Amazon or Ebay's endless lists of the same items to find the best combination of price, quality, and delivery time. Let the record store worry about that. Only if it's really expensive to get in hard copy does the digital copy become more attractive.

No one needs a song or album right this second, unless they're buying it to satisfy an impulse shopping desire. But of course clicking on the song at iTunes and reading the "download complete" box is not impulse shopping any more than is calling in a pizza for delivery. You have to be standing in front of the thing, perhaps holding it in your hands, and walking away with something tangible in order for it to feel like an indulgent impulse buy.

This probably reflects our hunter-gatherer past -- you come upon an apparently deserted honeycomb or a fresh lamb carcass that two predators seem to have killed themselves in a fight over. You'd like to take it, but what if the bees find out, and what if that one predator isn't actually dead? Hmmm, it seems like no one's looking, so what the hell, let's take it and run! If you can't run away with it tucked under your arm or slung over your shoulder, it's not an impulse buy.

There are other reasons why I still buy CDs from (used) record stores, but these are the most important, especially the ones about focusing on the entire group of songs you're going to listen to during a stretch. Digital copies have shifted people's thinking even more toward the frustrating and counter-productive focus on singles rather than albums or even greatest hits collections (again which ones and in what order?).


  1. Being able to carry 1000 songs around on a credit-card sized device is an advantage, especially if you travel a lot. But CDs have better sound quality, so I often play them in the car.

  2. i simply see it differently. portability is very important to me. if i'm in a subway on a long commute, i don't need to lug around a cd player. i have my iphone and some earbuds.

    if i'm out jogging, an iphone strapped to my arm seems like it would be much less noticeable than a cd player prone to skipping strapped to my shorts/waist. a stereo bluetooth headset makes things even more convenient b/c i don't have to deal with wires flying about.

    i also listen to podcasts which are too ephemeral to burn. weekly podcasts from the economist, npr, freakonomics, sporting events etc are all on the list. music isn't the only thing worth listening to on digital media.

    i don't argue that tyranny of choice might be a problem or that a music set might not gel together very well. but the costs are worth it to me. i do burn music to cd when i expect to listen to it often. but cds are not capable of replacing all the uses of mp3s.

  3. Being able to listen to portable music would be useful on a long trip or commute like a subway, plane ride, or your parents' car (when you're a minor) where you don't control the music being played. Since these events happen infrequently for most people, I don't see any reason to switch, personally.

    As an added twist to the art of album mixing, I was a late adopter of CD's so the point where the producers chose to switch from the A- to B- side of the cassette tape had an effect on the musical experience as well.


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