Editorial: Rediscovering CDs in the Age of Music Downloads
The method by which I collect music has changed considerably over the years. At a very young age, I recorded my favorite radio stations to blank cassettes, then dubbed the songs I wanted to mix tapes. When I started to earn some money, I would buy cassettes, then CDs. Then of course came Napster and, so as not to incriminate myself, let’s just say I found that service “very interesting” during my cash-strapped college days.
Once the novelty of Napster wore off a bit, I returned to purchasing CDs and built up quite a collection. The iTunes Music Store had debuted by this point but, while I used iTunes to manage my music, I rarely purchased tracks from the iTunes Store because I found the 128 kbps encoding quality to be noticeably poor. When Apple introduced “iTunes Plus,” the company’s DRM-free 256 kbps alternative, in 2007, I gave iTunes another look and ended up shifting the majority of my music purchases to the company for several years.
In many cases, used albums from Amazon Can be had for less than $5 each, including shipping.
But as time went on and I slowly upgraded my audio equipment, I eventually desired a return to a higher quality audio source. iTunes Plus tracks sounded fine, to be sure, but there were still certain albums where I could distinguish between the compressed AAC file and the original audio CD. So I re-ripped my existing CD collection with Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) and decided to begin purchasing CDs again.
Not everything needed to be purchased on CD and ripped losslessly, of course. Music I listen to only on occasion could remain encoded at iTunes Plus bitrates. Also, some of the new “Mastered for iTunes” content sounded pretty good. But for my favorite albums, along with some older albums I still hadn’t acquired, I determined that purchasing CDs was the best course of action.
So, I logged in to my Amazon account and, over the course of several months, purchased many of my favorite albums that heretofore only existed as lossy digital tracks. Nearly all of these albums, along with new albums I discovered during this period, could be purchased used. I decided to take the chance with a used CD purchase and started picking up many titles. As I examined my budget at the end of the month, I discovered that I had saved quite a bit of money!
In many cases, used albums from Amazon could be had for less than $5 each, including shipping. That price got me the full album, the option to rip the tracks losslessly to iTunes, and an inherent physical media backup of the music, all for roughly half of what iTunes normally charges for an album.
While I suppose that I knew about this all along, it wasn’t until I put this process into practice that it really sunk in. In fact, even for brand new albums, the Amazon (or other physical media store) price is rarely more than the iTunes price, and is often significantly less.
Some examples: the excellent 2004 album “Hot Fuss” by The Killers is currently $9.99 on iTunes. The same album as a used physical CD is $4.00 including shipping on Amazon. A more recent release, “Random Access Memories” by Daft Punk, is $11.99 on iTunes but only $9.97 from Amazon. Here, the price difference is less, but you get so much more, including lossless quality and free physical backup.
Over the past few months, I’ve been unable to find any title I was interested in that cost more to buy in physical form compared to digital on iTunes. The same goes for other music platforms, including Amazon’s own MP3 Store. But there are still benefits to buying from iTunes, however.
First, and possibly most important, the music purchased via iTunes is delivered instantly. Second, it comes “pre-ripped” so to speak; the purchaser doesn’t have to take the time to rip it, enter the correct metadata, assign album art, and so on. Third, buying from iTunes gives money to the artist (and publisher). Purchasing a used CD doesn’t, an important consideration if you’re interested in supporting your favorite bands, especially independents. Fourth, purchasing digitally allows the buyer to pick up individual tracks (at least in most cases, as publishers sometimes label tracks as “album only”) and not the whole album. Finally, many new computers don’t include optical drives, making digital purchases the easiest way to acquire content.
At the end of the day, however, I found that most of the benefits provided by iTunes could be easily outweighed. Only on the rarest of occasions do I need to obtain a particular album or track right now. I can usually wait two or three days to get the CD in the mail. Ripping a CD is fairly quick and easy. The significant savings from buying most used CDs make it a better deal than buying just two or three tracks from a digital album. As for money, I want to support my favorite bands, but with the cost savings I could buy the used CD, mail the band $5 directly (which is more than they likely make on a retail CD purchase), and still come out at or below the iTunes cost. Finally, external optical drives are readily available and cheap. Even if you buy one only for music CD ripping, you’ll make up the cost in savings with just three or four albums compared to iTunes purchases.
Add the lossless quality and the physical backup to the list above and, for me, the choice is easy. Perhaps if iTunes eventually switches to lossless quality (a strong possibility) or works with publishers to significantly lower prices (get your skis ready for the winter vacation in Hell), iTunes and other online stores will become the best place to acquire music. Until then, however, buying and ripping used (or even new) CDs is the way to go.