That Rare Joy of Owning Music and the Thrill of the Hunt

I haven’t felt like a good music fan lately.

You see, like most music fans out there, I like to buy music in some capacity from my favorite artists and support them. I’ve always said that the best way to do that is to buy directly from the artist through their website or other online shop, but with delays in vinyl pressings causing frustrations and CDs going the way of the dinosaur, that’s become harder in 2021 than ever before.

And yet I try, because there’s just something about actually owning what I love that makes me feel more connected to the music and the act that made it. Hell, I admit country radio did fuel a lot of my early love for the genre, but sitting and listening to records while looking through the liner notes and artwork is what really pushed a passion into an obsession – one I still have over a decade later.

I don’t know; I just don’t get that same feeling when I’m listening online. Don’t get me wrong – without streaming, I wouldn’t be able to operate a music blog in a consistent capacity, and it’s a great tool for discovery and is likely the best tool to use when you’ve already bought the music in some other capacity, if only to show further support. But as an Android user, I admit to being jaded at actually buying releases online ever since Google Play Music shut down earlier this year. Now my music that I spent money on sits over at YouTube Music, and it’s as if I only ever paid for access to it, rather than the music itself to do with as I please.

Which … well, I did. That’s the tricky component of online consumption. The only way to ensure that what you’ve bought stays yours is to buy physical releases. And after reading an inspiring piece over at Diggin’ Up Records about a trip to the record store, I decided to do the same for myself last weekend. Right away I felt rejuvenated. You see, what with the pandemic and all, I got so used to just having music delivered to me in 2020 whenever I did buy it. I didn’t realize how much I desperately missed the thrill of the hunt until I walked in for the first time in what felt like a long time.

I had no list of what I wanted to buy; I just wanted to browse and let the wind take me where it would. The funny thing about physical releases these days is that, even with the bigger names in any genre, you’re not guaranteed to find their releases on vinyl or CD even in your big retailers like Walmart or Target. I found a lone copy of Carly Pearce’s 29: Written in Stone just by accidently flipping through releases in the record store, after realizing those aforementioned places didn’t even have it.

Now, the funny part about all of this is that, when it comes to browsing physical releases, country fans arguably have it best. I don’t know if it’s just because the genre has traditionally catered to an older demographic who might still buy physical products – especially CDs – as well as people like me looking for that blast of nostalgia, but there always seems to be a lot of it displayed wherever I roam. And as someone who, admittedly, isn’t a huge vinyl guy (I have various ways to listen to CDs still, and they’re easier to store and less expensive), I usually have the entire CD section to myself. I get a lot of weird looks, but I’m king of the road, baby.

Anyway, after flipping through every release – and I do mean every, from discounted releases to new ones and everything in between – my main haul consisted of the aforementioned Pearce album, James McMurtry’s excellent The Horses and the Hounds, Ruston Kelly’s Shape and Destroy from last year, Lee Ann Womack’s Greatest Hits (I have all but one of her albums, so why not?), Blackberry Smoke’s You Hear Georgia (a release I hesitated on, given how I don’t think it’s their best … but hell, I was in the moment!), and this random new Drive-By Truckers live album recorded in 2006. A lot, but at nearly $10-$15 each, I actually walked away well within my personal allotted budget. They weren’t what I was looking for; they were just what I found.

You’d think I’d already have all of those, too, but in truth, streaming has given me an odd sense of complacency. There’s still tons of great music being made all the time, but it’s harder to engage with it when you can’t really … live with it, if that makes sense. My trip to the record store reminded me of that unmatched joy of collecting and perusing music releases and going home to play them and browse over liner notes and album artwork (of which Blackberry Smoke easily won in that department, given how their accompanying booklet contained tons of pictures of the recording process. Kind of cool). 

Now, I do see the irony of all of it. I bought those albums because I already knew I liked them from streaming them. I reviewed most of them. In times before, I would have bought them on the strength of liking the artists who made them, and if I didn’t like it or didn’t think it measured up to their best … well, tough. I don’t want to go back to that, but I do think it’s easy for all of us as music listeners to lose sight of what we have or not engage with what we’re hearing simply because it’s immediate. We want it now, and we want it to be the next best thing ever.

Overall, though, it’s a matter of “to each their own.” For me, there’s nothing like the simplest pleasures of capturing childhood magic thought lost. Music is one of the few entities that can do that for us, and it’s why it’s important to cherish it, no matter how you listen to it.

The albums I bought from up above.
My haul. I’m happy.

4 comments

  1. Great read, Zack!

    I find your points about streaming and ownership (or lack thereof) to be very provocative. I’m someone who harbors a strong aversion towards subscription services in general – in my opinion, they’re designed to exploit people’s tendency to overestimate how much they’ll actually use the service during the given subscription period, and most people would, in the long run, spend less money if they could just buy or rent what they wanted to consume directly. However, I have to admit I find them to be an insanely good deal for music. They have virtually everything (at least when it comes to more recent stuff), and things almost never leave outside of extraordinary circumstances. This is a far cry from say, Netflix, which has maybe 10% of the movies you might want to watch and titles rotate out regularly.

    It all seems too good to be true, and I wonder just how sustainable it all is. I’ve been around long enough to understand that everything is temporary. Just because something awesome exists now – whether it’s a product, website, service, whatever – is no guarantee it’ll remain that way in perpetuity. I know everyone speaks of streaming as the “final frontier” of music distribution, but trust me, people said that about local files in the 2000s, and I’m sure they thought the same thing about CDs in the ’90s. We’re really bad at imagining what comes next.

    While I doubt streaming will ever really go away, it’s easy to envision scenarios where it’s not nearly as good of a deal as it is now. Will services splinter the way movie/TV services have, where you have to subscribe to seven or eight different services to access everything you want to listen to? This is already happening to a small extent. As someone who currently subscribes to Amazon Music, I’m constantly encountering songs labeled “Amazon Original” (for example, Carly Pearce has a cover of “Cowboy, Take Me Away”) that presumably aren’t available on other services, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Spotify, Apple Music, etc. have their own equivalents. Could these “exclusives” eventually extend to EPs, albums or even entire artists? At that point it might be more economical for most people to go back to buying all of their music, but will buying music even be an option at that point for a lot of new releases with CDs and traditional downloads being phased out? The fact that ownership is going the way of the dodo is disconcerting, and I’m not thrilled that my access to a lot of music is dependent on a third-party whose actions I can not control and whose long-term intentions I do not know. Maybe I’m entering tinfoil hat territory, but I have definitely sympathize with feeling unease when it comes to subscriptions and wanting to actually own your stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Andy,

      First of all, thanks for such a thoughtful comment! And honestly, you raise a good point regarding the future of streaming. And it reminds me of a recent conversation we had on Twitter – that being the 2000s trend of different stores featuring different deluxe editions of albums and leading to frustrating shopping experiences. As you said, that’s less of an issue now that it’s all about streaming, but Spotify is hardly the only player in town now, and I honestly think you may have predicted the (unfortunate) future of it all.

      Now, if it’s relegated to bonus tracks and covers like the Carly Pearce example, I’m largely fine with that. And even if projects are only initially available on certain services, hopefully they’ll eventually be made available on all of them, say, a month or so after the release. Now, I keep thinking how that model wouldn’t be lucrative for sales if something isn’t accessible, but then I think about it doesn’t really matter when (1.) record sales have dramatically dropped over the last decade and that (2.) record labels are likely to profit regardless; it will be the artist to get screwed. Kind of makes me wonder if that point of contention is why it hasn’t already happened. Honestly, I don’t know what to think, but thanks again for the thoughtful and incisive comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome post, Zack! Glad I could play a part in helping inspire it and great haul too! You hit the nail on the head about ownership of the music in physical form allowing you to form a closer connection with the music. As you said, it sounds so weird to say when we have access to it all in streaming and not to mention the practicality makes no sense. Yet it’s not really about what’s logical, but the emotional more than anything. And there is of course some logical too, as you said services shutting down (I was a big fan of Google Play Music back in the day too!) and as Andy points out in the comments, exclusives and the dangerous possibilities of streaming that could come in the future. And as we discussed before too, streaming just feels so overwhelming with so many releases and I think by buying physical it helps us to slow down and focus more on what we’re listening to, as it’s both a money and time investment. I personally find when you invest in both of those things, you can find greater satisfaction.

    To add on to your great post and Andy’s great comment above, I personally think streaming should have never been a replacement for buying music, but simply a tool in helping buy it. As you said, none of us want to go back to “buying blind.” But we clearly yearn for buying the music we love (the growing vinyl sales, loyal CD fans like you and the unexpected revival of cassettes support this). I don’t know if you guys remember this, but back in the day I remember Walmart and FYE had little listening stations where you could listen to the music. Japan I’ve heard still has these in music stores, as their consumers have never given up physical products for media like the rest of the world. Now I’m not saying to go back to that of course, as the music selection at these stations were usually limited and you certainly didn’t get to hear any indie acts at Walmart or FYE. Also it would be a logistical nightmare. But the point is streaming needs to take this role more so than a replacement for CDs/vinyl records/cassettes. How we get there is a mystery.

    But that leads me to Andy’s point about it being too good to be true and questioning the sustainability of it, in which I fully agree. I don’t think it’s tin foil hat territory at all. My personal prediction of what I think will happen is Spotify will eventually start signing artists like a label to cut out the middle man so to speak, prompting the Big 3 majors to take action. Or the Big 3 will let greed get to them and take action. Either way, I see the Big 3 splintering into three streaming services, pitting their current artists and catalogs against each other, thinking each offers the best music. We’re seeing that play out right now with the major networks/media empires in TV and movies. Even if it stays at it’s current pricing of $9.99/month (which I think will increase eventually), that’s $30/month to hear all music. And that’s not even accounting for all the other labels and indie artists, who will be forced to partner with these labels to be on their services (most likely for peanuts just like it is for Spotify now) or start their own service to compete (a tough task versus big corporations). If this would come to pass, then buying the music absolutely becomes more economical for the consumer. But it’s a lot of what ifs of course. Greed though always seems to be a safe bet when it comes to the music industry.

    Regardless of what happens, the thrill of the hunt will persist and buying music in a physical format will never die. At the end of the day, while casual music listeners may generate the most money and make up the majority of music consumption, it’s the die hard fans who provide that steady support via buying the music, merch and concert tickets that are the backbone of the industry. Both are equally important and in a way allow the other to exist. Streaming though I think clearly favors the casual side and that leaves the other side feeling left unsatisfied, hence why we still buy music.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Josh! Sorry for just now seeing this – had to unfortunately be sporadic with my time on the website lately, but thanks for an excellent comment and your insight. I do love that record store post of yours!

      Yep, a lot of why we love music boils down to our personal idiosyncrasies influenced by upbringing, our experiences, moods and all sorts of things, hence why I’ve always argued there’s no objective way to go about listening to or judging it. And the process is just as emotional, as we’ve all discussed. But yep, you hit the nail on the head with your investment point. Being in there really forced me to ask, “ok, of my options, what do I really want here?” And then I had a blast playing them at home, and it reminded me of how I listened to music as a kid.

      And it’s weird, I know some of it sounds like we’re stuck in the past, and I can’t say I’m immune to nostalgia by any means. But I think you’re also right in saying streaming shouldn’t replace buying. I know exactly what you’re talking about with the listening stations too. I loved those! I don’t think there’s a way back at this point, though. At least not right now. I’m sure there may be some craze or fad years or decades down the road similar to what we’re experiencing with vinyl now, but like with now, it won’t be the dominant form again. Streaming and whatever it evolves into is here to stay.

      With that said, I think you raise interesting theories too, and I do really hope more people come back around to appreciating that thrill and buying something they can own. But regarding your last point, yeah, streaming has absolutely broken down barriers for casual fans to get into more music and listen to more, even if they’re not necessarily discovering more, if that makes sense. I get that people like you, me and Andy are in the minority, and it’s just a tough place to be in right now. I guess I’m a little fearful for what’s ahead but also somewhat interested. Do I see physical media ever completely dying? No, at least not with vinyl. And if nothing else, there’s always that! Haha.

      Liked by 1 person

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