Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Buying Music (beware - long and somewhat geeky)

I don't buy nearly as much music as I did in college and the few years right after.  It's not that I think there's not good music out there - I just can't spend nearly as high a percentage of my life thinking about it, trying things out, reading about it, etc. as I did then.  Most of the music I bought from 1979-1986 was influenced either by WXYC or by what I heard in local clubs but as XYC moved towards an even more eclectic (and, to me, less interesting) mix and the frequency of my visits to clubs dropped dramatically (particularly after I didn't own one anymore), I lost a lot of input.  I did start picking up the newstand edition of CMJ in the mid- to late-90s for their CD samplers and occasionally did the same with other music mags, but those have mostly gone away as well.

In addition to figuring out the best way to find new stuff that I like, I'm trying to figure out the best way to acquire music.  My primary places to listen are in the car (32GB USB key with mostly rock/pop/Americana), on the back porch (32GB MP3 player with mostly jazz mixed with bluegrass, trad, exotica and some rock instrumentals hooked up to one of those Brookstone outside speakers) or while running/working out (4GB Sansa Clip with uptempo stuff, much from the 80s).  I've also got (almost) all my CDs ripped to a workstation in my home office, all of which is accessible from the home theater PC downstairs in the family room (HTPC is networked using Powerline as wireless was a bit too slow) and I've ripped a good number of my LPs.

For the most part until recently I've continued to purchase CDs - I grew up on albums so I'm conditioned to purchase a group of songs as a package rather than individual tracks (sure I had some 45s but very few after I turned, oh, 12 or so).  I can rip CDs at whatever bit rate I want and other than that brief flurry of DRM nonsense, I can store them in multiple places and play them on a wide variety of devices.  But I'm finally to the point that none of those devices is a CD player, so why bother with those extra steps?

So in the past few weeks I've decided to do some experimenting.  As a control, I did what I've done the past few years and ordered two CDs from Amazon - Jack White's solo disc "Blunderbuss" and the new dB's album.  Then, since after purchasing a Google tablet I had a $25 credit in my Google Wallet, I bought the new The Old Ceremony release as well as an older one I didn't have via Google Play.  At the same time, I bought "The Yes Album" (I've never owned a copy in any format), The Black Keys' "El Camino" (h/t to Jeannette for that one!) and Greg Humphreys' "People You May Know" from Amazon as mp3s.

The CDs arrived in about a week - free shipping but hey, a week.  I use Audiograbber with LAME underneath as a ripper - unfortunately the dB's disk wasn't in the CDDB yet, so while it ripped just fine, I had to hand-enter the track names.  I then usually use MP3Tag to fix the tags the way I like them.  Overall, more hassle than it should have been due to the dB's release not being entered in the CDDB yet.

The Google Play experience was interesting - found both TOC releases I was looking for and purchase to the Google Play cloud was pretty seamless.  Downloading to my PC was less so.  After selecting the tracks for "Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide" I was told that I either needed to download the Google Music Manager or I'd only be able to download the tracks twice from the Web.  I wasn't particularly interested in downloading yet another piece of crap software, so I went ahead and downloaded directly - the mp3 files came as one zip file that I had to then extract to where I wanted it.  Not a big deal but probably more complex than it needed to be.

I'd bought a few individual tracks from Amazon before but I don't recall buying complete releases as mp3 "albums" before.  Again, purchase was no problem and the tracks from the three releases were dumped to the Amazon cloud.  And again, downloading was not as straightforward as it should have been.  I could either grab each file individually or download Amazon's music management software.  I wasn't happy with either choice but I decided to go ahead and pull down the crapware, which loaded the tracks where it wanted to (I don't think it asked me where *I* wanted them) and also automatically loaded them into Windows Media Player, which I detest almost as much as iTunes and do not use.  So I had to go find them and then move them to where I wanted them.

In the case of both Google Play and Amazon, I had to do a little bit of cleanup of the files, primarily using A.F.5 Renamer to add the band name to the beginning each file name (I prefer "artist name - track number - track title") but in neither case was there much to do - cover art and appropriate tagging was already there.

All-in-all, Google Play was probably the best experience.  The mp3s were advertised correctly as being 320kbps (Amazon didn't specify and varied by release - from variable to 192 to 256).  I have a Google Nexus 7 tablet and a Motorola Razr Maxx phone, both of which come with Google Play so I don't have to do anything extra to listen to Google Play tunes on those devices (I know Amazon has an Android app available - haven't tried it yet).  There was an extra step involved in both the Amazon and Google process, but I was able to download the Google Play purchases without installing vendor-specific crapware.  As an added benefit, the free download on Google Play last night was The Dunwells' "I Could Be A King" which is a pretty damn fine tune!

You'll note that I didn't include buying locally as an option.  Since Schoolkids closed a couple of years ago, those options are pretty limited.  While there are a couple of small record shops (my, that's sounding quaint these days) left, their selection isn't great and they're not places I'm likely to walk by when they're open very often.  As much as it pains me, I think I've moved on.

I haven't done any experimenting yet with how large a catalog Google has to draw from, but for the time being it appears that it will be my music source of choice.

Very interested in feedback from others on this!

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