Downloads vs. record stores – the digital and the personal

Waterloo Records

The Digital

Sometimes I’m not sure where I stand on this digital revolution business. When I told my brother I was about to go on a CD run yesterday, he asked me why I still bothered. “You can download it cheaper and get it right away. Then you don’t have to drive anywhere.” True enough. I do buy mp3s online and it is cheap and convenient. I love the fact that high quality digital downloads are an option now on both Amazon.com – which gives access to more mainstream artists, and CDBaby.com – which lets me get my indie music fix. I can get instant gratification and don’t even have to get out of my chair.

(I’m avoiding the iTunes store for now because everybody else is doing it and that always annoys me, plus I hate Apple and don’t want to give them my money. But yeah, they’re definitely an option for digital downloads and they kind of got the ball rolling for paid digital downloads. Might as well mention it.)

In fact, you can get an awful lot of music on the Internet for free if you want, we all know that. The RIAA might bust you and sue you for  everything you’ve got, but they probably won’t. I downloaded my share of songs off peer to peer and torrent networks, till I realized I now have several stacks of easily-scratched CD-Rs, most of which will never see the light of day. I won’t remember what most of it was and it’s doubtful I’ll bother to slot them into my computer and find out. Pointless and not especially fun anymore.

Also, as much as I hate the RIAA for its tactics, I can’t really stick up for music piracy anymore the way I used to.  I know that many “pirates” do spend money on music. And back when I was still trying to download the whole Internet, I was constantly buying CDs. But I have talked to people who feel entitled, who don’t think they have to pay for anything and couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the artists. If the artist they “like” goes out of business, there’s still plenty of other music to steal. I find that terribly depressing. Downloading wasn’t about never having to pay. For me it was always about variety and choice. I don’t really give a crap if Universal or EMI or BMG, et. al., get paid, but I do want to pay the artists  I love. Many, maybe even most of the artists I’ve been enjoying lately are either on independent labels or self-releasing their music anyway. Indie artists operating on shoestrings. Your favorite indie band might be as good as the Rolling Stones, but they’re not making the Rolling Stones’ kind of money. Even though I’m so broke I can’t even pay attention, I want to make sure they get paid so they can keep making music. When I can afford to pay, I want to do it.

I like the download options on Amazon and CDBaby because I can get that quick fix AND support the artist. The files are high quality and DRM-free, so I can put them on my mp3 player (which is not an iPod!) and play them on the road. I bought Sarah Jarosz’ album that way off Amazon and got “e-albums” by Mat D & the Profane Saints  and Micropixie from CDBaby.

I also thought the old T61 (before they ruined it) was on the right track with their purchase features. Getting cover art on your page based on purchasing music, having your name change color, getting points and hearts from buying music back when the game was fun and we still thought it mattered… It set a good example, fed that gaming addiction and appealed to our vanity. Also the fact that you bought credits in blocks made you feel a bit like you weren’t spending real money even though you were. It used human nature for the musicians’ benefit. If someone who knew what the hell they were doing could take some of those concepts and run with them it might do a lot of good.

The Personal

I am not someone who clings to the old ways just because “we always did it that way.” If I was, I would still only listen to what they now call classic rock, cussing the whippersnappers and that noise they call music. Obviously, I’ve embraced the new. There’s still a lot of great music being made, and I think the new ways of distribution have a lot of promise. Convenience and instant gratification are very attractive.

However, there are some really neat things I’m afraid we might lose as we travel down that road. While on some level, searching in person for the physical copy of an album is inconvenient, it is also something I have enjoyed a great deal over the years. When I was a kid, I spent my lawn-mowing money on 8-track tapes of albums by bands like Van Halen, Boston, Cheap Trick. Later on I graduated to cassette tapes and vinyl records, and finally to the compact disk. I combed through record stores, ordered out of catalogs. To save money, I’ve bought used CDs from record stores and pawn shops. I’ve hit up thrift stores and garage sales. I used to go through the cut-out racks. All in all, not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

The chain stores were terrible of course. A lot of them have since gone out of business and good riddance, but for the last 10 years or so, I’ve had access to Waterloo Records in Austin, a store that does everything right. I think if there had been more stores like it, the mp3 wouldn’t have kicked so much Internet ass. There’s a huge selection of new CDs, a wall full of employee picks – and those guys know their stuff. They’ve also got quite a few used CDs. And there’s a huge World Music section. You can find all your favorites and tons of stuff you never heard of that might turn out to be your favorites. They have listening stations featuring music the store thinks are going to be hot, or at least should be. Anything else, you can still listen to on one of several stereos. There’s always something good playing over the speakers. The employees can always answer questions or recommend a band. Several are in fact musicians.

They also have a little stage and have hosted some great in-store concerts. I saw Sonic Youth do a great one where they mainly clowned around and acted silly. I enjoyed it better than the actual concert later that night, to be honest. I also enjoy checking out the used CD store down the street, Cheapo Disks. It’s a chain, but it’s run like a local store. I’ve found some great bargains there over the years.

Plenty of times I have thought about driving down to Waterloo Records and decided, nah, I’m too tired to fight the traffic. But anytime I go, I enjoy myself, and I love that “aha!” moment when I finally see that album I’ve been trying to find for years, rubbing shoulders with other music lovers in a store that is also run by people who love music… I will really miss that if it goes away.

But before you get all nostalgic and start crying about the end of an awesome record store (or envy me because you live someplace besides Austin and are stuck shopping at some sucky chain store), check it out: Waterloo Records has also expanded into the Internet and also offers digital downloads. I have yet to give it a test drive, but you can bet I will. If their digital store is as good as the brick and mortar version, there’s no telling how much dough they’ll end up getting out of me.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Downloads vs. record stores – the digital and the personal

  1. woodjean

    Really like this post. I bet Waterloo will too. 😉 But, I agree there’s just something about being in a place where there are others who love music and people who know what you mean when you ask for something. I also love Cheapo Disc. Both these places have gotten lots of my money over the years!

  2. Thanks. I hope it doesn’t come across like an ad for the place cuz it’s not intended that way. It’s about the ideal physical music-buying experience anywhere. It’s just that I can’t think of too many physical stores that I’ve enjoyed as much. I have always heard great things about Amoeba Records in California, but I can’t vouch for it. Maybe one day I’ll get to see for myself. I remember living in places where the best you had were stores like Musicland and Hastings. I shopped there anyway, but it was so frustrating. CDs were clamped in these little plastic things with locks. They were overpriced and you weren’t allowed to listen first to see if you liked all the songs. Nothing but the most mainstream artists. Employees “just worked there” and knew nothing about music. It wasn’t fun at all. They soooo didn’t get it.

    • marcog

      Very interesting post!
      I live in Munich, Germany. Here there are no good music stores (but maybe I know too little), and the ones that still sell cds are reducing their stock.
      Actually, for me now the best way to search for music is the internet (the former 61 for instance). But having a coool store like the one you have in Austin would be cool, but it’s abit too far from here.

      • Maybe the ThinkIndie digital music cooperative that Waterloo Records is a part of would be an option for you. Not sure how it works internationally (or at all, really), but it looks interesting. I’ll let you know how I like it once I’ve tried it.

  3. I do a little bit of downloading, but generally I prefer a physical format. For albums on CDR, I even print cover art and song/personnel info so it’s at least a facsimile of a “real” album. I have been recording a lot of vinyl onto CDR lately and thus actually listening to the music instead of it just sitting on the shelf.

    I find it hard to believe that keeping all my music on a hard-drive or in an MP3 player can surpass or even match the convenience of simply popping a disc into one of the CD players I have in the car and in several rooms in my home. In hard-drives and MP3 players, there’s the matter of making a playlist for every album and sorting the songs properly. Every time you want to play the album, you need to search for it on the device. I almost never use headphones, so if were carrying an MP3 player around I’d need to hook it to speakers in whatever room I was in or in the car. (I do know what a “dock” is but is it really practical to have several of those around the house and in the car?)

    When I listen to music on a disc, I like to have the jewel case at my side with the song/personnel info right there for me to glance at as I listen. An MP3 player or hard-drive just wouldn’t be the same.

    I know people are saying “The album is dead, it’s all about individual songs now”. Well that isn’t true with *my* music, progressive rock and jazz. For those two genres, and classical/opera, the album is still king and probably always will be. Are these genres and their fans so inconsequential that the music business can afford to ignore them? I guess we’ll find out.

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