• What I learned buying music (and am passing on as tips and tricks)

    Gen 21 2012, 15:16


    I have a lot of music. Banker's boxes full of CDs worth of music... and I listen to almost all of it, as often as I can rotate them through the various playlists.

    If the house burned down and I had to replace them, I would probably approach it differently and give up some artists to expand on others.

    From the very large stack of albums I now have, I have discovered these basic truths.

    1) What the recording industry considers to be the "best of" is not necessarily the best of.
    2) Some greatest hits are not as great as they (the recording industry) may think and the real greatest hits are considerably lower on their list.
    3) Sites such as last.fm are a great way to base your own judgement on the real popularity and quality of an artists songs.
    4) Sometimes, buying a greatest hits compilation is the only way to allow an artist's music to grow on you, and you'll end up buying their entire discography after a while, only to be stuck getting rid of their compilation CD.
    5) Some music is considered a one-hit-wonder, particularly by you, from an obscure artist (and that's OK), but how do you know that it is? and how do you react? Some music specifically like this is best bought if possible as an individual song from iTunes or wherever else you can buy the single song.
    6) At some point, you may realize that buying the artists entire discography is the way to go.

    Some examples

    I'll describe briefly my experience with a handful of artists' music and what I found out about them.

    1) Led Zeppelin
    As far as I'm concerned (and I will be willing to allow dissenting opinions), they were probably one of the most talented bands ever to record music. I could recognize some of their songs at the time because they were the most popular and most promoted. The first CD of theirs I bought was their "earlier days" compilation, then I followed that with their "latter days" compilation (early and latter days). I soon discovered the wide range of styles they played and how they managed to make it sound exciting. What was at the time new to me on their compilation CDs were quite nice to listen to and I wanted more. I then bought their second box set. After listening to their second box set for a while, I realized I wanted their entire discography. I had already spent too much and couldn't afford to throw that out and buy their entire discography all over again. Luckily, their first box set covered everything that box set 2 didn't and after a fashion, gave me their entire discography. While I may have been lucky enough to get their entire studio discography in two box sets, I would have instead preferred to jump straight to their studio albums at the time, if I had known then how to buy their music more intelligently.

    2) The Doors
    To me, the Doors were some strange band that made a few interesting songs but were just a bit too psychedelic for me. Nonetheless, I bought the very best of the doors and proceeded to listen attentively to it. What sounded strange at the start eventually grew on me and I discovered a talent behind the music that over time made me want more. I did end up finding used copies of their six Jim Morrison era studio albums.

    3) Deep Purple
    All I ever knew of Deep purple was "smoke on the water".... Like so many over-inflated songs, I found out the real talent of this band was in some of their lesser known or popular albums. I am reasonably content for now to stick with the compilation and with the few studio albums I have, but this is another band I would get their entire discography if I had to replace the collection.

    Discovering music

    Many people can recall (with a bit of help) specific songs they heard on the radio many years ago that they would enjoy listening to again if they went out and got a copy. The main question is, is it just that one song from the band they like, or is it just the tip of the band's iceberg? How do you know what else of theirs you might like?

    To help me answer that question, I now turn to last.fm. If I look up the artist's profile and view their top tracks (all songs that are played by them) for the past six months, I can see two basic types of shapes. The first shape is a fairly straight line from the most played to the least played. The second shape is the iconic "one hit wonder" shape and usually looks like the top one way off to the right and the rest of them are hardly played at all. Most usually fall somewhere between those extremes and curve somewhat, but the shape can tell you a great deal about what to expect from that artist.

    If you find the song you like is of the one-hit-wonder type, it's still a good idea to preview the other top songs and determine how much you personally like the others. I have discovered a number of songs that I personally like, even when the graph is one-hit-wonder shaped.

    Figuring out what and how to buy it

    If you sample the top 20 or 30 (or 50) and rate them as like/don't like, with a bit of practice, you can reasonably determine which of the three types of buying they fall into. 1) the individual songs, 2) the greatest hits or 3) specific studio albums

    1) The individual songs are fairly no no-brainer decisions.... You sampled the artists most played and you just can't stand any of them except for one or two of their songs (and those specific songs are the ones you want to get). There are sites out there like iTunes that sell individual songs and in those cases, if you can get the single, that's the best way to go for these.
    2) Greatest hits are a bit trickier. Some artists put out many greatest hits or compilations, often with overlapping songs (April Wine for example) and you end up regretting buying one, only to discover later that you would have preferred a different one with a slightly different set of greatest hits.
    3) If you can sample the artist's entire discography and you conclude that you could see yourself owning their entire set one day, this would be the best choice, since you can buy their albums one at a time until you have their entire set (I did that for Pink Floyd's and The Beatles studio discography).

    Sometimes, you may think that an artist's greatest hits is the best way to go, but the next question is which one, or which way to find out the best album to get?

    Again, I have turned to last.fm for that. Back to the artist's profile, you turn your attention, not to the top tracks but to the top albums. By this point, you should already have a list of which of the artist's songs you want or would like to get, so the next step is to determine which of their albums best covers those songs for the least amount of money. By looking at the most played albums, you can get an idea of which albums are the most popular with the listening public. In many cases, you can cover most (and if you are lucky, all) of the songs of theirs you want to get on the top one or two albums.

    When you are left with a handful of songs not covered by their greatest hits, the best thing to do is to treat the rest as the individual songs described above and search for sites that sell the individual songs.


    I always prefer to buy the CDs (let's face it, if you keep the CDs in a warm dry place, they should last a good part of your lifetime.... a good static discharge or lightning strike can wipe out your collection if your only copy is on your computer) and once I have CD in hand, format shift to my ipod.

    Here in town, we have a CD store that appears to have made a fairly profitable business selling as many used CDs as new ones. They guarantee the used CDs and if that's the case, buying used is far cheaper than buying new if you can get your hands on the used copy.

    Buying online can be a problem if you are very picky about the quality and you end up with a low bit rate copy, so there is some caution there.

    Final thoughts

    Let's face it... you can either go pirate a bad copy of a song on the internet and take your chances, or you can buy a legitimate copy.

    For those who decide it's worth it to buy, forking out money is not a decision that you want to make on a whim and you want to only spend where and when you can.

    Hopefully by looking at which of the songs are listened to the most by an artist you might like, will give you a good basis for the specific songs you actually want to buy.

    If you can manage to sample those songs and determine which ones you do want and can narrow down the list of albums that would best suit you, that money you are parting with would be best put to use.

    Hopefully my own music buying experience and tips will help you decide what to buy next and may you go forth and enjoy your style of music.
  • A quick synopsis of my musical experience

    Gen 14 2012, 16:45

    After having trained myself for many, many years now to appreciate music, I have broken down music to many components. Over the course of the next while, I plan to write a series of journal entries that describe in greater detail many aspects of music, some of which I have listed here.

    I am hoping to write a series of journal entries related to music (even how to discover and buy music) that will be useful to others. If that means exposing my insanity to to the whole world, than so be it.

    It should be no surprise to those who know me, that I like music. That I like music a lot and that I like many styles of music. While I am perfectly capable of enjoying a song, I have also trained myself to analyze the song and to determine why it is that I like it. I have also trained myself to do the same for those songs I do not like.

    As I listen to a song (mainly new ones), I break it down into one of two categories. Is it one that is well constructed or does it sound like screeching monkeys on a piano could do better?

    Having begun to take piano lessons, I am beginning to understand the theory of and can start to formulate reasonable answers as to why I find some songs aesthetically pleasing and why I think others are completely wrong.

    The answer for me is actually quite simple. What I consider to be good music and thus music that is very likely to stand the test of time deals with melody, harmony and cadence that flows naturally. I find certain artists or songs lack that quality, and so it sounds worse to me than a monkey on a piano.

    All other aspects of music simply reinforce the above and it comes down to arrangement and to personal preference.

    I have listened to certain techno/house music and could appreciate the aesthetic quality of the music. While it would be something I would not shy away from, I would not have any desire to listen to it. It is not my preference. As it is not my preference, I tend to be a bit more judgmental, but I have personal disinterests for certain styles out of a sense that it violates certain personal constraints like a lack of variability.

    My favourite genre is classic/psychedelic rock, but I am just as willing to listen to classical or country. I am slightly more lenient toward bad music in those genres as certain well defined qualities offset certain other qualities not so well defined, but my lenience is not that much. For example, while I find some songs by Rolling Stones to be well constructed, it's enough to offset my personal cringing at Mick Jagger not being able to sing at the correct pitch, so I do still like those songs by Rolling Stones. If they had not been able to come up with a good sounding melody/harmony for that song, I'd instantly reject it.

    Apart from melody, harmony and cadence, other aspects of music I analyze are tempo/rhythm, interplay of instruments, phrasing, repetition, chord progression, and many other factors that would take me several days to write down.

    When the dust settles, I have a list of music I like and a list of music I would rather never hear again, and a lot of music I couldn't be bothered with either way. Each one is graded by many factors, and a few are as follows:

    musical construction -- how well is it written, mainly the melody, harmony and cadence? .... This one is the most important to me.
    complexity -- how complex is the music?
    repeatability -- is it likely to get tiring to listen to it?
    personal preference to listen to it -- techno is an example of not really interested.

    There are other factors as well, but I would prefer to save those for later.