The Cheapest Way to Listen to Music, Uninterrupted

A Changing Music Industry

Back in the early 90’s, I gave up the pencil-rewind cassette playing Walkman and purchased its successor – the Sony Discman. Dang, that thing was cool. All I needed was something to actually listen to. I had heard about the amazing 12 CDs for $0.01 (or was it $1?) mail-order offer from BMG Music, from a friend who had taken advantage of this jaw-dropping deal previously. Twelve weeks later, I had Stone Temple Pilots (Core), Dr. Dre (The Chronic), Meatloaf (Bat Out of Hell II), and <gulp> The Bodyguard soundtrack in my mailbox. My musical tastes were… eclectic, to say the least.

Over the next decade, I proudly grew my musical catalog to over 100 CDs. Then college and a T3 ethernet connection, paired with Napster, entered in to my life. I “sampled” a few songs. Discovering new and re-discovering old songs individually at the click of a button, without having to run out to the store and buy entire albums, was fabulous. However, the catalog was hit or miss, littered with junk and viruses, and the audio quality if you were lucky enough to find the song you were looking for, was absolutely horrendous. The music industry, led by Metallica (yeah, that Metallica), quickly squashed Napster over copyright concerns, but times were a changin’.

Pandora also started becoming popular, but your ability to select and stream your favorites was pretty limited. Still, a great tool for music discovery. iTunes exploded in popularity, but the music was drm-protected and you were limited to the confining Apple ecosystem.

cheapest music

A few years and another 100 CDs later (at this point, I am up to about $3,000 in CD expenses), digital music started to turn the corner. Amazon and WalMart led the push in to drm-free mp3 downloads. There was cost involved, but the audio quality was indistinguishable from CDs. It was a great way to cut the costs of owning music in that you could just purchase your favorites versus album filler material.

Years later, Grooveshark, LaLa (before Apple bought and killed it), and Spotify came along, and the rest was history. As long as you had an internet connection and could stomach a few ads, you could build playlists from millions of your favorite songs and listen to them for free.

That brings us to today.

We’re Now Fully in the Streaming Music Model

As music consumers, we have more choices than ever, but we are clearly still at a point where you do not have 100% “on-demand” control of what you listen to (uninterrupted), without purchasing the music or paying a subscription fee. If you are like most people and your preferred device to listen to music is via a mobile device, this can be particularly inhibiting. There are premium on-demand subscription services that will allow you to select from and play all of your favorites, high quality, ad-free, and device agnostic:

Notice a trend in pricing? An industry standard has clearly been set. And it isn’t exactly cheap.

Going Back in Time to the Music Ownership Model

If you mostly want to listen to your favorite songs and playlists and have already spent hundreds or thousands of dollars building a catalog of them, adopting this new membership model can be horribly inefficient from a pricing standpoint.

So here’s what I have done:

1. Consolidate: I’ve ripped and uploaded all of my CD library plus individual mp3 downloads (mostly from Amazon digital) to YouTube Music. The audio quality is outstanding at 320kbps, and you can store up to 100,000 songs, for free. Once your catalog has been uploaded, you can download or stream the songs of your choice to any Android device or play them on a web browser.

2. Discovery: I use Spotify and Pandora (but mostly Spotify) to discover new music and re-discover old music that I love and had forgotten about, using their radio features and Spotify’s browsing capabilities. I don’t care if I run in to an ad here or there, so I use the free versions.

3. Purchase: For great songs – you know, the ones that you skip others to get to in your playlist – I purchase. Since I’ve already built up a catalog of favorites, over the years, I already had most of them. When I started this strategy two years ago, I spent about $100 to beef up my collection. And this past year, it dropped to around $20. Maybe this is a sign of me getting old and cranky, but truly great new songs are seemingly far and few these days. If I like a new song that I’ve discovered, I’ll add it to my Spotify playlist. If that song stands the test of time, I’ll purchase the mp3 from Amazon (usually $0.99) and add it to my YouTube Music account.

For the old stuff I want to purchase, I’ve done it in one of two ways:

  1. if it’s an artist that has a deep catalog I love, I’ll purchase a greatest hits album, used, on EBay or Amazon for $1-5. This gets me 10-15 songs for just $0.10 – $0.20 a piece. Much cheaper than buying individual mp3’s
  2. if it’s a 1-3 hit wonder, I’ll just purchase those songs individually on Amazon

Here’s what it comes down to:

  1. my back catalog of favorites, I already own.
  2. my forward catalog of true favorites numbers far less than 120 per year (equivalent to a $120 annual subscription to one of the premium music services)

The Benefits of Ditching Paid Music Streaming

Every year, I’m saving money.

There are additional bonuses to this strategy as well:

  • I own all of my music and nobody can take it away from me. The premium subscription services do not have 100% coverage and content partnerships come and go. I am not a prisoner to business dealings.
  • I am immune to further price increases. $10.99 is the starting point, but what will each of these services cost 10, 20, 50 years from now? Buying and owning the music now protects me from certain price increases. It’s an inflation hedge!
  • There is rapid consolidation within this industry. If I own the music files, yeah, I’ll be a little bummed if a service is bought out or otherwise shuts down, but at least I won’t have to re-build my library from scratch.
  • Massive amounts of data saved that would go to streaming songs. Music apps might be the biggest data hog there is and housing songs on your mobile device is one of the best ways to cut your mobile data use.

The one downside to my strategy is that I don’t get to discover new music, while on the go, unless I flip on a radio (yes, radio stations do still exist). But I can live with that, particularly since I sit at a desk all day, giving me plenty of time to discover.

I can also see generations now growing up with 100% digital streaming and no CD catalog. For these folks, it might actually make a lot of sense to just dish out the cash for a premium service. However, the economics could still work out for mp3 acquisition, with some planning.

Back to a Hipster Past?

<side-story tangent> A few months ago, I’m waiting at the bus stop when a young guy, probably about 19 years old, walks up and stands next to me. He then proceeds to pull out what looked like a brand new Sony Walkman, pop in a fresh pair of AA batteries and look it over in amazement while pressing the various forward, rewind, and play buttons. From there, he pulls out a 1980’s Lee Iacocca book on tape, STILL IN THE WRAPPER, opens it up, and pops it in to the Walkman. The whole time, I’m mesmerized. My first thought was, “Is this a dream, and in it, I’ve overlaid the year 1984 on to my commute?”. My second thought was, “Am I in a prank show?”. My third thought was, “Is it actually possible that hipsters now look at Walkman and cassette tapes as hip?”. To this day, I still have no answer. Kids, do yourself a favor and never EVER touch a cassette player. You are not missing anything.

Anyhow, I thought I’d share how I have kept my music listening costs down and how others think about this and the strategies used. Would love to hear the cheapest way you have found to listen to your favorite music, uninterrupted. Fill those comments up!

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