Music pricing: physical product vs. downloads

Today I was putting away a batch of CDs that I had recently ripped to my iMac, and picking out some others to upload (Apple Lossless-style, of course), when I noticed my Leonard Cohen CDs sitting there, neglected.

The only CD by Cohen that I’ve ripped so far is Cohen Live, which is one that has not, to the best of my knowledge, been remastered. I also have the original CD versions of Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Songs of Love and Hate, and The Future. The first four of these were remastered in 2007, and I have yet to pick them up. However, I’ve been waiting to load any more Cohen into iTunes until I do buy them, because the difference in quality should be remarkable.

Anyone familiar with Cohen’s first several albums knows that the music does not suffer from high levels of compression. His voice often sounds naked and imperfect, even when he’s singing through a mountain of reverb (Songs of Love and Hate). When he’s almost whispering, he’s difficult to hear, and when he shouts, it’s right there in your ear. Whereas the dynamics in much of todays music are artificial creations, many albums from that time period, particularly by singer-songwriters, have a sonic honesty and purity that is compelling to someone like myself.

With that in mind, I am very interested in hearing these albums in their remastered forms.

Currently, I don’t have a lot of cash to throw at re-buying these albums. I suppose that I could, and I likely wouldn’t suffer. However, while I have relatively strong personal beliefs about paying for music**, I have always had a difficult time throwing my money at music for myself. I think this is because I know that it’s very easy for me to fill a shopping basket with music in five minutes… so I control my addiction by stifling my shopping habits (for the good of my wallet).

You could say, “Dude! you know you want them, because you already have the originals, and you obviously like him, so buy them!” And you’d be correct. I’m just a little neurotic and over-analytical when it comes to music purchases though, so thanks for understanding!

Moving along… knowing that Cohen’s first few CDs retail at $7.99 (regular price) on Amazon.com, I checked out the prices of the albums on iTunes. I was unsurprised (but still irritated) by the fact that the iTunes prices were a dollar or two more than the physical product.

I’ve talked before about how I’m loading music onto this computer in the Apple Lossless format, since I have the hard drive space. I’ve downloaded several songs from iTunes in situations where I only like one tune from an album, but for the most part everything else is at the highest fidelity possible.

There’s a catch to all of that: I have a nice chunk of a balance from an iTunes gift card that I got for Christmas, and so I considered just snagging the Cohen remasters on iTunes if they were priced right. That way, there’d be no out-of-pocket expense, and I could enjoy some Leonard Cohen again, likely without having to crank the volume just to hear the music whenever one of his songs came on.

So now I have this little conundrum: suck it up and buy the physical albums at a lower price with cash, or suck it up and “pay” more for the albums on iTunes, even though it will cost me nothing out of pocket at the moment.

I’m leaning toward the first option. Here’s why: this computer will be obsolete in five years, and I’ll probably buy another at that time. Unless I keep this computer on a network and continue to stream music from it on other computers in the house, those albums won’t be easily transferrable if I don’t have physical copies. As music isn’t a disposable commodity to me, I won’t be happy about having to re-download them or purchase physical copies later on. So I’ll probably just buy the CDs.

(I guess I figured out the solution by myself.)

However, I am still disappointed about the apparent blindness that Apple, along with other companies that offer downloadable music, seems to have with regard to market pricing. (Amazon lists the Songs of Leonard Cohen CD at $7.99, but the MP3 album is listed at $9.99 right below it.) In my opinion, the convenience of buying “catalog” does not outweigh the values of physical product: its reusability, collectibility, and other intangibles that come with owning your own copy.

* * * * *

Conclusions? I’m neither old-school nor hip. I guess I’m a little bit of both. I like to hold a record, cassette (yes, cassette), or CD in my hand, but I also like the convenience of downloadable music from time to time (I just downloaded Eddie Vedder’s new song from the upcoming Eat Pray Love soundtrack yesterday). I just feel that downloadable music should be priced appropriately. I applaud the fact that new albums are often $9.99 (or less when they’re on sale), which beats the physical price more times than not. I also like the “99 cent-per-song” model that is prevalent. However, pricing a download higher than the list price of the physical equivalent is short-sighted.

**I believe artists should be paid for their product. Therefore, I almost never buy used music, and I never download it “illegally,” although I respect the fact that people can make their own decisions about it, so I don’t preach what I practice.

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