How I Buy Music, 2011 (Featuring John Wesley Harding)

I’ve been a fan of John Wesley Harding (aka author Wesley Stace) since he was nothing but a snide punk covering Madonna and Depeche Mode songs among his own acerbic tunes 20 years ago, so it’s not terribly surprising that I was interesting in getting The Sound of His Own Voice, his latest, when it came out today. Here’s how I did it: I went to Amazon, bought the MP3 version, and then as soon as I did, I popped up Spotify and started listening to it there.

Why didn’t I bother to download it?

1. Because Amazon will happily store it the cloud for me, where I can download it whenever I feel like getting around to it;

2. Because Spotify (or Rhapsody, to which I also subscribe) lets me play it even quicker than downloading it would, and these days there’s almost nowhere I’m going to be where I can’t stream it, either through wifi or my phone’s unlimited data plan — and if I am going somewhere these things aren’t possible, I’ll probably know about it ahead of time and can prepare accordingly.

3. Also, and I think probably most importantly from a philosophical point of view, the money I paid for the album at this point is not for a physical object or sole possession of electronic files but as an affirmative act to Harding/Stace to say “Hey, thanks for work.” I’ll note that this sort of thing doesn’t work for all forms of consumable media, but for music in 2011? Shit, man. It’s hard not to find everything you could ever possibly want to listen to out there in the aether. Harding’s entire discography pulls up on Spotify in less than a second; i.e., less time than it would take for me to locate the actual files on my computer. Music’s ubiquitous to the point that it’s simply not worth the bother to download and clutter up my hard drive. So, in this case: Money for the effort, not for the object.

(Which is not to say I won’t pay for physical objects associated with musicians; I just punted $100 to Jonathan Coulton for one of his Artificial Heart bundles, for which I understand I get t-shirts, a CD, and also, perhaps, a pony (I’m a little unclear on the details). But the music? Heck, JoCo streams it off his own site.)

And you may say: But what if Amazon goes out of business/stops keeping things in the cloud for you/is hit by a meteor that vaporizes the whole of western Washington state? In the former cases, I’ll have time to download; in the latter case, we’ve got bigger problems, now, don’t we. Today, the cloud works. I’ll keep this album there for now. The money, on the other hand, goes to the artist. Hope he enjoys the cup of coffee I paid for.

(Also: the album in question? Pretty darn good. And if you’re a bundle sort of person, check these out.)

39 Comments on “How I Buy Music, 2011 (Featuring John Wesley Harding)”

  1. Today the cloud works if you’re in that little part of the world where bandwidth is ample, reliable and affordable. For the most part I can’t even get a reliable phone signal in a lot of first world cities. Access via Spotify or Amazon is available to smaller subsets of these places where those bits of music are available; your IP address can move a few kilometres across a meatspace border and you lose access to much of your beloved music. Right now I’m also in in a powerful first world, densely populated country where the broadband speed is so slow I cannot watch Youtube videos live – I have to either pre-cache the entire video or download them first. Streaming services are like AM radio on a stormy afternoon.

    So yes the cloud works but only in the same sense as a Trabant works in relation to the competition.

    PS I highly recommend Stace’s novel “Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer” – one of my favourites from last year.

  2. “Today the cloud works if you’re in that little part of the world where bandwidth is ample, reliable and affordable.”

    Apparently that’s all the parts of the world I frequent. It may not work for everyone.

    And a second vote for Jessold, which I also enjoyed.

  3. Assuming Spotify has to pay for the music the stream (which I can’t imagine they get away without paying for it) then you have no reason to feel guilty streaming it on Spotify. If you pay for the premium Spotify then you have even less reason.

    I understand your reason for not wanting the files… but why pay twice?

  4. Rocketboy:

    Spotify does indeed pay for the streaming rights, but the amount Harding/Stace (or any artist) receives from that is appallingly miniscule, both for any individual stream (of course) and in aggregate. So when I want to support an artist, I buy the actual album. Particularly these days, it’s a much larger cash infusion directly to the artist.

    Indeed, my rule of thumb regarding streaming services is that if I stream any new album three times, I go and buy it. Any album I stream three times I am very likely to listen to rather more than that in the long run.

  5. I rarely buy music. A lot of my music listening comes from being in the car and for that I have local radio (ye gods, I KNOW!) and Slacker Radio for the long trips. I’m a Top 40 idiot most of the time.
    But when I love an artist, I love them good. I want my physical CDs, because I want them autographed. I want the vinyl if the label was crazy enough to produce it. I want my concert tickets and my merch. I want my Flipcam recordings because I can rip the audio off them and have my own private “bootlegs” of concerts I went to. And I want more concert tickets, because live music is still the best ever. And the artist usually sees a lot of money from that. I’m not alone, I know a lot of folks my age (late twenties-early thirties) who think the same way.
    I’m still not personally paying for downloads or cloud anything. I don’t know, it may be from coming of age with Napster, or maybe I just know how much the labels and companies benefit where the artists don’t. I looked at Spotify, heck I even have an account, but their ads are even more annoying than Pandora’s. Cannot deal. Not sure what my hangup is, but there you have it.

  6. I don’t buy digitally distributed music except from the artist directly.
    The labels don’t add anything of worth to that and I refuse to support their policy of adhesion contracts whenever possible.
    So Sony, EMI, Disney, whatever company there is, curl up and die. Some money greeding managers may join the 99% but some more artists will be able to make a living off their performance, providing me with a true experience and becoming proud and maybe even better in the process.

  7. I believe the current Blackberry outage shows one can’t take reliable internet connection for granted. I can’t even use my own private wi-fi with my BB. All I’ve been seeing for the past two days is BB-users complaining furiously because they don’t know what to do without a constant internet connection. Similarly, over the summer, our home ADSL went out for six hours all of a sudden and my mother spent the entire afternoon complaining about not being able to use Facebook. If you depend too much on the internet, you’ll be screwed whenever a glitch occurs.
    So I guess I’ll remain an offline sort of person. :)

  8. Carter:

    Eh. I have two forms of Internet connectivity and it’s rare that both of them are out at the same time, or out for more than a few hours at most.

  9. carter: I live in Houston, which was hit pretty hard by Hurricane Ike a few years ago (where’s all that rain now when we need it so badly?). It’s not until you lose power for over two weeks that you realize how heavily dependent you are (well, I am, anyway) on it in everyday life. We could only read until it got dark/our flashlights died. We couldn’t watch TV. We couldn’t get internet. Phone service was crappy. I’m used to spending hours in here (my office) either working on a new craft project, watching TV or doing something online, and I couldn’t do any of that for two solid weeks. Call me a wimp, but I thought I was gonna die. Although, it did give me a much greater understanding of just how crappy TV/radio (local radio, anyway, for a city this size Houston radio is *awful*) have become in recent years. Even after we got power back, we don’t watch nearly as much TV as we used to (she said, as she sat watching NCIS: LA).

  10. So. You are Level Four, eh? This may come to haunt you when the nemeses are doled out. We shall see. Oh yes, we shall see!

  11. @John

    I understand your intent… but then shouldn’t you just send a check directly to the artist?


    Interesting graphic and it illustrates my point that if one is truly concerned with compensating the artist then why not just send a check directly to the artist. Also, maybe I’m too much of a cynic but it’s kind of hard to feel sorry for the amount of money and artist makes when hey are making what they agreed to in their contract. It boggles my mind that people still clamor (American Idol, Sing Off, etc) for recording contracts when it’s well know that they won’t see most of the money that’s made from sales of their albums.

  12. Rocketboy001:

    Right, because “just sending a check” — i.e., writing the check, noting the amount in my check register, finding the correct address for Harding/Stace to accept this money, and physically mailing said check is so much easier than buying the album with one click via Amazon.

    Also, I expect that “just sending a check” to Mr. Stace is exactly as useful as “just sending a check” to me would be, which is to say, not really at all. Not only is a sale not registered — and actual sales numbers still mean something for artists’ careers, both in music and books — In both our cases, the final product that goes to the consumer is not a solo endeavor. Lots of hands are involved (in my case editors, designers, artists, publicists, marketers and distributors, and I imagine in Mr. Stace’s case producers, musicians, engineers, designers, artists, publicists, marketeers and distributors). Each of these needs to be compensated for their work as well. Unless you plan on “just writing a check” to each of them as well, may I suggest it might be easier simply to buy the album through accepted retail channels, and let the well-established payment back end work its magic so those people are thus adequately compensated.

  13. ah, but I live in the Midwest, where the wide open spaces, easy parking, and cheaper living is contrasted with the lack of streaming data. I live in a very large metro area for around here, and I can’t stream data once I get more than a few miles out of town. oh, yeah, and terrible weather that takes out your electricity fairly frequently, compared to the coasts. plus add in my general distrust of letting big companies hold any of the things I want access to again. so I still buy physical copies, or even *gasp* burn my own from the downloads. And back up all my files. I just don’t trust that the “cloud” will be there when I want to access it.

  14. Call me old school, but I really like my packaging. It’s gonna suck when it’s gone. I guess I’ll manage…somehow.

  15. Jennifer: That’s tough! I wouldn’t know what to do without electricity, either, not even being able to read sounds awful.

  16. @John

    I get that it does not work to “just sent a check” and that’s my point. You said that you buy the album to support the artist because you feel that the artist does not make enough from just the streaming royalties. If your goal is to get the artist as much money as possible… well it was a flippant suggestion anyway.

    All I’m saying that if an artist’s music is available through streaming services then it stands to reason that at some point they agreed to have it made available through that service and that they are ok with the amount of money they make from it. If they were not, then it stands to reason that they’d of not agreed to let their music be available through such services.

    Your altruism is admirable. I get it, but I don’t think that one should feel guilty if they only use a streaming service that the artist chose to make their music available on.

  17. Not much to contribute on the streaming front but…that Starbucks song references a bar that I lived 4 blocks from in Brooklyn for like 8 years (“…there’s a stadium where we used to drink at Freddies…”). I met my wife there. A tear comes to the eye.

  18. I buy for the same reasons Scalzi does.
    But I am moving toward the cloud for a different reason. When I download music it inevitably has momentary blank spots. It drives me wild and I haven’t found a way to correct that problem and so the cloud has been a much less aggravating alternative.
    My biggest problem with it now is that most of my music is on my drive. And I suspect uploading it will cause me to have even more blank moments in the music.

  19. Rocketboy001:

    “I don’t think that one should feel guilty if they only use a streaming service that the artist chose to make their music available on.”

    Inasmuch as neither I nor anyone else has suggested that one should feel guilty about using streaming services, I’m not sure what your point is here, other than to build a strawman for the sole point of building a strawman.

    That said, it’s not in fact self-evident that if an artist allows their work to be streamed, it means that they are “okay” with the financial compensation, any more than such a thing would be evident when an artist allows their work to be broadcast on the radio (and for good reason in that case, since unless they are also the songwriters, musicians don’t get compensated for radio play, at least here in the US). There may be other compensations that mitigate the lack of adequate, direct financial compensation, but that’s a different argument than the artist being “okay” with the financial compensation.

    Beyond that, even if the artist were okay with the tiny amount of money to be gleaned out of streaming play, it doesn’t change the fact that the amount of compensation they receive for it fucking sucks in any objective sense. Which is why I, a person of means and also someone who hopes to be compensated adequately for his own creative output, go out of my way to actually buy music and send more money to the artist.

    It’s also why, if you actually like a musical artist and want them to continue making music, I suggest you buy the music too, above and beyond paying in the small fraction of a penny your streaming their music nets them.

  20. Rocketboy001: The only place I found “guilt” mentioned on this page was your comments. If what Scalzi does makes you feel guilty, I think that’s your problem, not Scalzi’s.

  21. @John

    It’s not a strawman. In the post you said that you bought the Amazon album because you want to compensate the artist. I asked “why?” since the artist gets compensated via the streaming service anyway and you answered because what the artist makes via the stream is “appallingly miniscule”.

    The implication I’m getting is that we should feel bad for the artist and make additional contributions to their bottom line.

    Maybe you make less if I buy the digital version of one of your books. Maybe I’m the kind of person that doesn’t care about having a physical copy. Should I feel obligated to buy the physical copy anyway because you make more from sales of physical copies than digital?

    I get what your saying an doing by buying the album. You like the artist, you want to send them a few extra bucks, that cool.

    What I’m speaking against is the idea that one should feel obligated to do it (buy the album) because the artist makes less through one distribution method vs. another.

    And if the artists compensation “fucking sucks” isn’t that, at least in part, their fault?

  22. Rocketboy001:

    “The implication I’m getting is that we should feel bad for the artist and make additional contributions to their bottom line.”

    I’m not responsible for your implication, however. I don’t actually care one way or another how you feel about the artist, and if you think that what I personally find to be the ridiculous pittance that gets tossed to an artist for streaming their work constitutes full and adequate compensation on your part, that’s your karma.

    Personally, I don’t see streaming as a replacement for sales, in no small part because legally speaking, streaming doesn’t constitute a sale. I see streaming as a replacement for radio — and not entirely coincidentally, radio is more or less the compensation model that streaming replicates. As such, I don’t see buying an album that I know I like and will listen to frequently when I can stream it an “additional contribution” to an artist, any more than it’s an “additional contribution” when I buy music I can hear on the radio (including the satellite radio I pay for, just like I pay for my streaming services).

    This is, incidentally, why your comparison of digital and physical print sales is not relevant here (sorry). My compensation model for digital sales is tied rather closely to the compensation model for print, and roughly speaking I get paid pretty much the same whether you buy the physical book or buy it for your e-book reader. Likewise, if you buy digital music (rather than stream it), the compensation model for the artist is rather closer to what they get when you buy physical media.

    Again, if you think that paying for streaming covers you in terms of what you owe an artist for the work you enjoy, I’m not going to argue with you about it. However, it doesn’t mean I won’t suggest to you that if you think there might be a direct relationship between an artist creating the music you love to hear and the artist being able to eat, you might consider supporting said artist in some way other than just streaming their work, because in the real world that adds almost nothing to their bottom line. One easy, simple way to support said artist: buy their fucking album.

  23. @John

    “However, it doesn’t mean I won’t suggest to you that if you think there might be a direct relationship between an artist creating the music you love to hear and the artist being able to eat, you might consider supporting said artist in some way other than just streaming their work, which in the real world adds almost nothing to their bottom line.”

    You say that while telling me there is no implication of guilt?

    In any case the crux of what I’m trying to say is that if an artist does not make any money from streaming then why would they make it available via streaming? I know that it’s the record companies that make it available and not the artist directly… but presuming the artist is an adult, are they at least not partially responsible for what they get paid for various distribution methods?

    If an artist is selling their album for $1 that’s what their selling it for. If they are making it available on a streaming service for $10/month negating the need for a physical copy then that’s their business decision. It’s no more my responsibility to make sure they get to eat then it is my responsibility to make sure my mechanic, or plumber eats.

    “Personally, I don’t see streaming as a replacement for sales”

    Funny, I watched a video of a talk you did at Google – where you said that e-books would never take off.

    Personally, I think that people are becoming more and more comfortable with not having physical copies. Were already starting to see the shift in movies and TV. I think the same will happen for music. Streaming, in one way or the other is, I think, the future for all media.

  24. rocketboy001:

    The only “implication” if you like is not that you should feel guilty for not buying the item outright, but that if no-one does ,then their favorite artist may say to hell with this and go and run a Subway or something.

    Personally I would prefer that the creative people whose work I enjoy remain creative, but I don’t expect them to do the starving in a garret thing – romantic, but impractical when you have a mortgage and kids.

    Possibly you take the view that there will always be a new favorite artist along to enjoy and therefore don’t give a shit – fair enough.

    However the sense of entiltement, that whatever you want to be entertained by should be either cheap, or better yet free, comes strongly through all your comments.
    You appear to care nothing for the artist, (any artist?), beyond whatever passing pleasure you derive from experiencing their work, and that I find somewhat……….sad.

  25. Rocketboy001:

    “You say that while telling me there is no implication of guilt?”

    Yet again, I’m not responsible for your implications. I do note you appear to be really concerned about being made to feel guilty. This is your problem, however, and not mine.

    To repeat what I said before, in slightly blunter terms, Rocketboy001: I don’t actually give a shit what you do. If you don’t want to pay for music outside what you pay for your streaming, that’s your choice to make.

    However, I do not believe that an artist’s income derived from streaming is adequate, which is why I have my rule that if I listen to an album three times on a streaming service, I go and buy the album. I have the means and I have the ability, and buying the work itself in a retail setting conveys benefit to the artist (and those who work with him/her) beyond the directly financial. So I buy the fucking album.

    “In any case the crux of what I’m trying to say is that if an artist does not make any money from streaming then why would they make it available via streaming?”

    Why does the artist make music available via the radio, for which — again, unless they are the songwriter — they are explicitly not offered any compensation whatsoever? If you look up the answer, then you have the answer regarding streaming as well, as, yet again, the compensation model there is modeled on the idea that streaming is most similar to radio.

    Since I doubt you will look it up (it’s a hassle), I’ll tell you: The reason why musicians make nothing from radio play of their work is that there was the argument that musicians had other revenue streams — for example, sales of their work — and radio exposure would serve to stimulate those other revenue streams.

    Streaming allows musicians a chance to generate some income, which is nice considering the near century they’ve not been paid by radio. But in the real world, the amount derived is very little — which makes sense, because the compensation model for streaming is tied to the idea that it is like radio, and similarly to that medium the majority of an artist’s income would be made elsewhere — for example, sales of their work. The reason I don’t see streaming (and streaming income) as a replacement for sales (and sales income) is not because I’m making a prediction on technology but because it’s rather explicitly not modeled to be so — it’s modeled to be an ancillary income stream for musicians, not a primary income stream.

    No one is required to care about any of this, any more than they were required to care about how musicians were compensated for radio (or MTV, for that matter, which also paid nothing to artists for their video, so you may also ask why artists made their videos available). But if your argument leads you to the conclusion that because artists have any sort of compensation from streaming that streaming is therefore meant to replace sales, well, at the very least that’s a conclusion that would no doubt surprise those who formulated what streaming royalties should be.

    So, once again, while you are entirely free to believe that what you pay to stream music is sufficient compensation for musicians, in point of fact what musicians receive from streaming is almost nothing. So if you want to actually support your favorite musicians and their creative output, and their career as a working, active musician, you may wish to consider buying the fucking album, which gives the artist rather substantially more money, more directly, than streaming does.

    This is not an argument about guilt or obligation or morality. It’s an argument about practical, real world economics and how they apply to the musicians whose work you enjoy, and from whom you would like to see more work.

  26. Strangely enough, I bought some new music today, too. Only in my case, it was a couple of cheap compilations (well, cheap by comparison – one was about $30 for 2 discs, the second was about $39 for 3) purchased from a petrol station near the bus stop at uni. My main reason for buying them? Well, I don’t know of any music streaming services here in Australia, I don’t listen to the radio much any more (only really used to listen when I was in the car, and these days I have my Zen, so I don’t even bother there), and I have a bit of trouble getting to music stores these days. Each of the compilations had a few songs I don’t think I have in my existing collection (although I’m getting so many double-ups these days I’m almost tempted to code up a storage database from scratch – dump all the songs in there loose, or sorted by artist or something, make the individual album playlists into pointers to collections of songs, and just leave it all at that!). Now I’m just ripping them and adding them to my collection and trying to get Windows Media Player to behave itself when faced with an album which isn’t in its collective memory. (*sigh*)

    I should point out I do most of my listening to music on the Zen, during my commutes to and from university, so the system works so far. I’ll synch the two of them every so often – I think the last time was earlier this year.

  27. This sounds sensible enough; I personally like to download the files; I like to have them for my iPod and for CDs for the car. (I’m not on a constant link-in with technology. I only use the internet on my laptop; my phone is not Smart, I have no interest in an iPad.) Also, Spotify doesn’t operate in my country.

  28. (Completely off topic here… 8-)
    John, thanks for highlighting the song on your blog. I don’t get out nearly enough to find such treasure on my own.

    As I see it, you’ve paid Harding/Stace at least three times – or will have, when a like-minded reader orders their own physical copy. Which I plan to do but probably would not have done without someone going out of their way to share with the less-clued. So: Thank you muchly!

    – Chris, still awaiting a funny song about a Starbucks inside another Starbucks…

  29. What quality are the spotify streams? I wouldn’t say I’m a serious hifi geek but have a decent enough stereo that I can hear deficiencies in lower quality mp3s (hihats…)

    I guess I’d always buy a physical CD that I can rip to whatever format I want or flacs etc. Wouldn’t want to listen to nothing but streamed audio (of the quality I’m used to).

  30. I started buying music off of Amazon a few months ago. In addition to storing your music on the cloud, they also have a cloud player to stream your music right off the cloud. I’m finding this very handy — even using it to stream music through my home theater PC. And rather than downloading songs, I’ve started uploading my existing music to the cloud.

  31. Having had a Zune for a year (mostly because I’m a PC guy) I was mostly filling it up with music from a: my collection of CDs, b: downloads from Amazon, c: digitizing my old vinyl; I have a lot of old vinyl.

    I finally started using the Zune service music and regretted not doing so sooner; what kicked me over the edge was that since my free unlimited Spotify grace period was about to end I figured that I should see what I was missing. No service is going to cover everything so your choices are going to depend on what hardware you’ve committed yourself to to date.

    Some friends were poor-mouthing Zune and what it boils down to (I think) is that they wanted to listen to obscure independent rock from the ’70’s through the ’90’s, but I think all the services are weak in that regard; they’re appealing to the young’uns, not the aging hipsters and punks on the verge of geezerdom (I need to raise my hand here).

    I will note that Amazon cloud accounts and Zune don’t seem to play well together; Amazon downloads have worked fine though.

  32. While I nod my head in agreement with everything John says here, I seem to have some sort of mental barrier specifically with regards to music in moving to digital delivery/storage. Lords, I’ve tried. I’ve been trying for perhaps 10 years now- I just can’t seem to make they leap. I still buy ~95% of my music on CD. I carry a case of CDs in my car, despite its ability to import and read mp3s. I have a drawer full of mp3 players I never use. I have gigabytes of music on my drive ripped from CD, and they’re just taking up space- if I want to listen to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” I invariably go to the racks.

    In other areas of technology/digital media I am an early and enthusiastic adopter. I had TiVo when no one else had heard of it. I eschew printed books for my Kindle- that was hard but it took less than a year to go from “I gotta have the hardcover to keep on the bookcase” to “I’ll never have to hold those heavy-ass things up while I read in bed again.”

    Just not music, which should be the easiest of all! Can anyone explain this to me/help me get over it? Please?

  33. It seems to me that there is a problem with a model that regards streaming service like radio when the streaming service allow you to random access select a work and play it whenever you want. Radio can work for an artist because it gives him exposure which boosts income from other sources.

    If streaming replaces physical purchase and downloads with the current compensation model then artists will either have to sell concert tickets or be supported by a Florentine Duke. The alternative is to do it as a hobby which will reduce the amount of energy he can dedicate to music.

    Jerry Pournelle’s blog works on the distributed Florentine Duke model. He has sponsors and premium sponsors who get goodies.

  34. Keith @10/12 1:33pm – you could do what I did – rip all of your CDs to your computer, and then keep them in the basement in boxes. You’ll still have the safety blanket of the physical items, but the convenience of the digital files (and BACK THEM UP periodically!).

    The first time I saw JWH live in concert was in a tiny club in Boston called the Paradise. He had two opening acts – Mare Winningham (what? She was actually good!) and the freaking Barenaked Ladies (I know, right?). This was back in ummmmmm – 1991 or 1992, (JFC, that was 20 years ago. AUGH!). Needless to say, I remember it being a great show, even as gloriously drunk as I’m sure I was.

  35. @John Scalzi: I read your tweet ” Hotel I’m at has very limited Internet. Amazing how you can blow through 30MB like (snap) that. Don’t expect much from me today.” Shows how fragile access to the Cloud can be. For someone travelling to the US from another country, the experience is much the same.

    In my household we have me using Spotify free, limited by what is available in France, and a holder of a Swedish Spotify premium account, who often cannot access the music that I can. There’s still a lot of music that I cannot even buy as a download depending on what part of the world I’m in because of the way that artists and labels deliberately fracture markets.

    My internet/phone provider regularly calls me to market their streaming TV services over 3G. The fact that the calls keep dropping out due to poor basic voice coverage completely fails to clue them into my disinterest in paying for streaming video.