Buying digital music

Since a bit before the turn of the millennium I've been purchasing the music that I listen to, initially in CD format and then online once that became an option. I still buy music even though everyone else seems to have switched to streaming services. I haven't been able to find much online discussion of this practice (threads on r/NoStupidQuestions don't count), so I'm writing this page in an attempt to explain the why and how of it.

Why buy music?

Definitely not to save money. Purchasing a single album often costs $10 USD, which is about the same as a month of access to a streaming service. However, when I buy music, it's mine for the rest of my life (as long as I don't mess up and lose it). It feels good to know that it won't be a recurring monthly cost in perpetuity and that it won't disappear due to licensing negotiations that are outside my control.

Some of the music that I want to listen to isn't available on streaming services, and it's nice to not need to use multiple websites or apps to listen to music. I believe that some streaming services allow users to upload their own music or play local files, but then I'd be dependent on them not losing the files or shutting down with little warning, or I'd need to duplicate my music across all of my devices.

I value having complete control over my music. For example, I can:

  • convert it to different formats if I want
  • play it offline on any device that's capable of decoding MP3 files
  • create my own playlists
  • rate it and then only play songs that I really like
  • tag it and only play instrumental songs
  • keep track of my play history and listen to songs that I haven't heard in a long time

All of these are things that I do right now. And if I think of something new in the future, I can do that too. If I use a streaming service, I'm restricted to what some unaccountable company chooses to allow me to do. If (when) the service shuts down, I may not be able to export my own data (ratings, tags, etc.).

Finally, buying music supports artists. Streaming does not.

Where to buy music

Wikipedia's Comparison of digital music stores article provides a high-level overview of the different options, but my short answer is: Do a search for "[artist name] bandcamp" and buy music from Bandcamp if possible.

Bandcamp is my preferred place to buy music. They take 15% of sales of digital items, dropping to 10% after $5,000 is reached. Starting in March 2020, they also began having monthly "Bandcamp Fridays" during which they waive their cut entirely and give all the money to artists. I find the site's interface to be straightforward, a variety of audio formats are available, and it's easy to download an album as a single ZIP file with high-resolution cover art included in most cases. Bandcamp usually sends email notifications when a new album is released by an artist whom I'm following, but I also wrote a tiny program named watchbrainz that notifies me when releases are added to MusicBrainz.

Bandcamp has a wide enough selection of music that inertia keeps me using it, but I've also had good experiences with Bleep and Boomkat. I think their catalogs skew more toward electronic music. Labels also sometimes sell digital music directly, e.g. Warp Records.

Buying music published by the four major record labels (EMI, Sony BMG, Universal, and Warner) is harder. I haven't been able to find authoritative information online about the cut taken by the major services, but this Quora thread suggests that Apple takes 30% of music sales with an additional 7% going to "integrators", while Amazon takes a full 40%. I assume that the lion's share of the remaining 60% or so is going to go to the record label instead of the artist. The music industry is terrible.

I used to buy albums through Google Play Music, largely because it was easier to work with than the competition: Apple makes it difficult or impossible to download music if you haven't bought into the Mac ecosystem, and Amazon used to require using a ridiculous Amazon MP3 Downloader app to download albums after purchasing them.

However, Google Play Music was shut down in October 2020. Amazon would be the obvious replacement, but I'm disturbed by how they've eliminated all competition in online retail and I don't want to give them money if I can avoid it. (Also, it's really weird how it's frequently cheaper to buy a physical CD and then download the AutoRip MP3s than it is to purchase only the MP3s! Here's some discussion. As far as I can tell, Amazon has a bunch of CDs that they bought, and maybe continue to buy, on the cheap. They can often give you MP3s without paying any licensing fees to the rights holder if they know you own the CD. If you instead buy the MP3s, Amazon needs to pay licensing fees. Intellectual property law is strange!)

I ended up settling on the Tidal store. I think that major-label artists are going to get shafted by the labels no matter what, but by buying from Tidal, I felt like I was at least giving the distribution cut to a smaller Norwegian company instead of Amazon or Apple. However, Square bought a majority stake in Tidal in March 2021, so it turns out that my money is still going to amoral tech oligarchs. Sigh. Qobuz may also be worth looking into as a retailer that's seemingly not connected to a tech giant, but I think their catalog is smaller and I ran into problems with their regional restrictions.

I'm a bit surprised that the four major record labels haven't each set up their own online storefronts similar to what's happened in the video streaming market, but I suspect it's a sign of how non-lucrative music sales are compared to streaming.

So yeah, Tidal. Their selection is fairly large and it's pretty easy to buy albums there. On the downside, the site annoyingly starts a separate download for each track in the album, it seems like you can only download each track a single time (so be careful!), and Tidal doesn't provide cover art.

If I can't find a digital version of an album (usually because it's old or was released in another country), I'll occasionally buy a CD online and rip it, but that's luckily a rare occurrence. And as an absolute last resort for music that's completely unavailable via conventional means, there are always YouTube-to-MP3 converters...

And just to mention it, if you're an audiophile, audio formats may influence your decision-making process as well. After listening to various online A/B comparisons with a decent pair of headphones, I decided that anything beyond a decently-encoded 192 kbps MP3 file is wasted on me. If you have better speakers (and ears), you may feel differently and insist on (much larger) losslessly-encoded FLAC files. As a fascinating digression, you should be aware that Universal Music Group was adding audible watermarks to their digital tracks not long ago. When I took Matt Montag's Audio Watermark Listening Test, I was able to identify the watermarked track in 12 out of 16 samples. The watermarks would probably be even more noticeable to someone with better ears. They've supposedly been mostly phased out as of mid-2020, but it's something else to keep in mind.

How to preserve it

If you're buying music, you need a backup strategy to make sure that you don't lose everything if a hard drive dies or your house burns down. Even if you're using a service that lets you re-download music that you've paid for in the past, it would be tedious to manually click on hundreds or thousands of albums. Backing up your computer is beyond the scope of this page, but I recommend regularly copying your data (in an encrypted state) to one or more external hard drives and also using some sort of online service. Google Cloud Storage gives you 5 GB of free storage and then charges $0.004 (that is, slightly less than half a cent) per GB per month at the "Coldline Storage" level. Amazon S3 doesn't seem to offer anything comparable at the moment, although AWS pricing is so opaque that I can't say that with much certainty.

To fix up the ID3 tags (artist, title, album, etc.) on my music, I use the Picard app, which downloads metadata from MusicBrainz. MusicBrainz is a publicly-maintained database of music information operated by a nonprofit, sort of like a more-structured, less-mismanaged Wikipedia.

How to listen to it

This is where I need to acknowledge my good luck in being able to write software. Over a long period of time, I've put together a system where my music is stored online and streamed via an Android app and a web app that work exactly the way that I want.

All of the music is accessible anywhere I go, and the Android app caches songs locally so they can be played in airplane mode:

Screenshot of my Android app for playing music
My Android app

I can rate and tag songs and then search using a variety of criteria:

Screenshot of my web app for playing music
My web app

I haven't gone to the trouble of getting this software to the point where it would be easy for others to use (it currently requires familiarity with the Linux command line) and open-sourcing it, mostly because I figure that there aren't many people out there with big music collections who haven't already figured out some way to listen to them. Let me know if this sort of thing sounds interesting to you, though.