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How To Buy Music When You Don't Have To

by Alex Tripp

The first music that I remember buying for myself was a cassingle of Montel Jordan - This Is How We Do It at a Kmart when I was 9 years old. I'm currently 34 and a lot has changed since then, but I've been buying more than ever these past few years. And it doesn't make sense, because I'm not trying to be a collector. I just want to listen to music without all of the heavy boxes on moving day.

On a purely self-centered level, you could say there's no real need to pay for specific music. The majority of my experience could be replicated without the part where I spend money. I could at least have saved a lot of money with paid streaming, but the legitimized piracy of adblock on YouTube and the fully committed piracy of private torrent sites and legacy p2p software would be able to handle almost everything for free. I have used all of those over this time, but I'm still buying music. I don't even have the tangible representations of the money I've spent, I'm buying digital files and receiving nothing to separate the music from the incorporeal virtual space where all the other possible music exists.

Why am I doing this? An easy answer would be that it's done out of a feeling of moral obligation/fear of being shamed, along with the habits I developed before I had the internet. I wouldn't say any of that is wrong, but there's a lot more that goes into deciding to buy music when you don't have to. Wagging fingers and pining for the good old days will not be enough to reverse the current trends in the devaluation of what musicians do. The first step is to look at how time spent with music as a whole affects the value of the individual pieces.

I have a spreadsheet to keep track of when I listen to music, going back to the start of 2016, and I've got information on when the music is new to me, whether I've bought it, how many days passed until I listened to it again, and when the music was originally released. I only track full releases, so it's not going to show a complete picture of my listening habits, because sometimes I listen to songs or have something stuck in my head, and it would be very difficult to manually track all of that. The vast majority of my listening is full releases, so the picture is still relatively complete. I know that lots of people don't listen to music this way and prefer to listen to songs, so it may seem like what I'm about to get into will have nothing to do with you, but I can break down my listening habits into divisions that everyone deals with. New vs. old, purchased vs. not, and so on. It doesn't matter what format you like, so long as you're listening to music, the time you spend can be separated into binaries like these. And they can shape how an individual piece of music develops value to the listener.

This isn't meant to be instructive on how people should listen to music, since there are many valid outcomes. This is just how I do it. But maybe by considering how your habits would look under these parameters, you might find something you want to change.

First, let's look at how many times I listen to a release in each month, and how many of those are brand new to me.

There's a fair amount of range here with the total listens of each month, but what I can say for sure a proportion of that time is always going to go to new experiences. On average, I'm discovering more than one new release every day, although in practice it's more like I'll discover a bunch of music over a few days and then stick with what I know for a day or two. The consistency of the red area and the dominance of the blue area show that a significant part of my engagement with music is a focus on new experiences, but also that the majority of my time is spent with something that I've heard at least once before.

This next graph shows the percentage of times each month that I went with something that was new to me in the year I heard it, and the percentage for artists who are similarly new. Each point represents my activity in one month, but it is counting all new discoveries over the course of a year, so you'll see big shifts at the end of each year, since it's counting every new title and artist I've heard since January for the December percentages, followed only by the new encounters in January.

There's a lot to explain here, and since this is starting at age 30, there's a whole lot of history leading up to this point that you can't see. But at the start of the surveillance, in January of 2016, around 40% of my listens were for releases I hadn't heard before that month, and 33% of the listens were for artists that were similarly new. But then I get to the point in August where 75% of the releases and 50% of the artists I'm hearing had not been heard before that year. And then for the following years you have some variation, but you can see they're mostly similar in depicting a cycle of accumulated newness.

This is also apparent with the Stickiness graphs. For all of the releases and artists I hear, they get labeled with the date of first listen, and then each time I hear them in the future, that adds a point for their respective time period. So if I listen to something in August of 2019, but I first heard it in 2017, that gives a point to the 2017 category in the month of August 2019. These charts show how much the music I've heard in the past sticks with me.

My time is dominated by things that are new to me, but there's still a foundation of music that I've heard before. You can see that the music I heard in 2016 becomes a part of that foundation in 2017, the blue area shrinks down but still maintains a presence as time passes, and then it all repeats in the next year. The different appearance of the titles and artists charts, with new titles appearing at a higher rate than with albums, shows that I am continuing to keep up with artists I get introduced to, and that some of this newness has a direct connection to music I was already listening to.

The volatility of this process isn't entirely clear from these graphs, so here's a look at how much of this music actually sticks around from one year to the next. This next chart has a few different categories. First you'll see 2016-2017, and the number of titles that I listened to in 2016 but not in 2017, which are classified as lost and colored blue. And then the gained count in red, that's the number of releases that I listened to in 2017 that I hadn't heard in 2016. And then there's the stable count in green, the number of releases that I heard in 2016 and 2017. Then this repeats for the subsequent years, covering 2017-2018, and 2018-2019. And then finally this all repeats for artists on a separate chart.

If you look at the percentage of titles and artists that don't make it from one year to the next, you'll see that the majority of what makes up one year doesn't show up in the next.

What all of this means is that I don't really have much music that I could say I frequently listen to for an extended period of time. There's only 65 releases and 147 artists that appeared in every year, and many of them only showed up once or twice in at least one of the years. In general, I'll hear a lot of music, focus on a small portion of it through repeat listens, and then let the subjects of focus recede into the background, while still checking in with them from time to time. Some of these artists that disappear for one year will end up reappearing the next year, because of how my Consumption Envelope works. This next chart shows the days between listens for each time I listened to Konrad Sprenger - Stack Music, an album I fell in love with immediately and is a good example of what that process looks like.

So that area of black at the start, that represents the 8 listens I gave the album in the first 10 days after I heard it. It all sort of blends together at this scale, but that represents the period of extreme focus that I gave to the music right away. I then moved into a level of focus that was not quite as extreme, going between 4 and 11 days between listens up until around 2 months after release. After this part, the music drifts away and makes room for a new object of focus. Sometimes it only needs 50 days to come back, and then at the most extreme, I went 350 days without hearing it. Something like this could easily end up being absent from a year, even though it is very significant to me.

This is a much different consumption envelope, for Guerilla Toss - Eraser Stargazer. This is one I had a much different reaction to, some friends of mine were very enthusiastic about it, but I just could not get a handle on it the first time I heard it, so I didn't even come back for a 2nd try for another 100 days. And I still didn't get it, and then took another 100 days for the 3rd try. But in that time, I heard more from my friends who saw something amazing in it, and there was an EP where Giant Claw remixed some of the album, and that all gave me a new perspective on the music. So then at the end of September, 7 months after I first heard the album, I started listening to it frequently, but also erratically, eventually getting into the most frequent part of this process at the end of November. But then the drifting process happens again, it keeps popping up with some regularity until March of the next year, over a year since the first listen, and then starts to show up much less frequently. I actually haven't listened to it in over a year now, not since the end of 2018, but I haven't forgotten about it.

A lot of the discussion around music's personal value involves the idea of regular listening, where you must return to the music with a certain level of frequency for it to be truly meaningful, and if it does not maintain a constant enough presence in your life then that proves you just didn't like it enough. Just how frequent does this regular listening have to be? Nobody ever says, even though that's the important part. Halley's Comet appears regularly, it just takes a long time. The frequency question is crucial here, because if your past requires frequent reassertion in the present and future, then that limits the amount of time available for new experiences.

You can have music become significant and still let it drift away for a while, it doesn't need to be a constant presence. All of these charts show how I make room for the new experiences, while still allowing for specific music to become personally significant. But there's plenty of other valid ways to do it.

Let's break things down into a 4 point spectrum, like those political compasses people are always posting online.

No matter what relationship you have with music, a moment of your time can be positioned somewhere on this spectrum. Though I guess if you're spending absolutely no time with music, the x-axis positioning is not applicable. But otherwise, you're going to have some sort of division between time spent without music and time spent with it, and time spent with new music versus time spent with music you've heard before. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with any position on this spectrum, but all of them are capable of leaving you unsatisfied if they're not where you actually want to be. Let's say you spend all of the time you have for music on listening to playlists of songs from artists you've never heard before, never once looking backwards at what you've already gone through. If that makes you happy, there has never been a time in history where it was easier to do that, so go for it. Or maybe you don't have much time at all for music, and exclusively listen to stuff you've heard before. Music is just one part of life, and if that's the best way to get it to fit alongside the other parts, that's still a wonderful thing. And of course, it should be noted that life circumstances change, the position you fall into will change over time, so any judgment on the merit of a single position doesn't make much sense when we will never be wholly defined by it. The reason why the position is important is the impact it has on the perceived value of buying an individual piece of music.

There's all sorts of people out there who want you to listen to something. Some of them have the best of intentions, like when a friend wants to show you the part of them that loves something. Some of them just want your money. But what they all have in common is a need for your time. If you want to be a good participant in the musical discourse, one with open ears and a readiness to dig into the wide variety of available sounds, you'll have to devote a lot of your time to the new experiences being offered. There's so much, it's likely that you won't have the time for most of it. So every informed decision that you make comes with an awareness that you are destroying alternate versions of yourself, the yous who listen to the music that you no longer have the time for. The fear of missing out on what these other versions of yourself would have experienced can lead people to curate the curators, decide that some of these experiences were never for you, and that there is no possible version of yourself to destroy here. "I'm not missing out on [latest subject of hype] because that is for [broad identity type that I do not affiliate with]". Even after all of that destruction and erasure from existence, you're still not going to have enough money to buy all of the remaining possibilities without significant wealth. All of this social behavior depends on a world where people can access this music without paying for it.

There's a cliché that comes up in discussions of music superfandom in the pre-internet era, where people will say that they would sacrifice the money required for essential things like food or bills so that they could buy more music. It's really great that people don't have to do that anymore, and I don't think there should be any nostalgia for being impoverished by love. There's a middle ground that can be reached between supporting the music that enriches your life, without pulling from the other things that are important, like food. But it can be difficult in the current environment. It doesn't really make sense for most people to buy an individual piece of music. For example, it would make so much more practical sense for me to just spend the $120 per year on streaming based on what I described about how I listen, since I don't have anywhere near enough money to purchase all of the things that matter to me, and it's such a short window of an individual thing "mattering". With the consumption envelopes from earlier, they are on the higher end of listens relative to everything else I've heard in the past few years, but the periods where I'm frequently listening don't take long to end. How important is it for me to have the certainty that I can listen to it whenever I want, when that certainty is already provided by a computer with an internet connection?

I was struggling financially for a while, but I started to get into a somewhat comfortable position as my 20's closed out, and so I re-embraced buying music as my adult hobby, though the overall amount I am able to spend pales in comparison to some of those other hobbies people have. I spend around 10 times the cost of streaming in a year, and at the end of it there's still so much more that I want to buy, and an upcoming year that will have all sorts of new activity worth supporting. I could just pay for streaming and pirate anything that's unavailable, and the only thing that would change for me is that I would have more money. Even if I paid for streaming and then purchased the music that was unavailable on streaming, I'd still probably come out ahead of where I am now. But let's look at what I've actually been doing. Here are two charts showing how many releases from 2016-2019 that I paid for, set against the number of releases I did not purchase. The second chart shows how many times I've listened to each of those categories.

So that's wild, right? Most of these years, I bought around 100 different titles, and out of all of the times I listened to something from a current year, the vast majority of my listens went to the purchased titles. I don't think many people could say that most of their listens to contemporary music were for titles they purchased individually. This isn't a perfect representation of my purchasing in the year, because I don't only buy music from the current year, some of these purchases of things released in 2016 happened in the later years, but I think the general impression is accurate.

So what happened in 2019? You can see that I heard so many more releases and bought so many less when compared with the other 3 years. This is because I started using the paid streaming services in that year, something I was completely avoiding in the previous years. For the first 6 months of the year, I was using a paid subscription service, and then for the final 2 and a half months I used a free trial of another service, which has now concluded. I don't intend on going back.

Some wonderful life changes at the start of 2019 had left me with less money than usual, so streaming was a way to spend less money, where the cost of streaming in addition to the individual music I felt was essential would work out to some savings. With that in mind, these lower purchasing results are pretty unsurprising. Part of the reason came from the data I saw on how many days it took me to come back to something. I can break it down by month, and divide it between what percentage of my repeats were at a High Density (less than 15 days between listens), Mid Density (15-150 days between listens), and Low Density (greater than 150 days between listens).

The first couple of months look a bit extreme, because not enough time had passed to recognize the higher number of days between listens, but eventually this settles into the high and medium density rates bouncing between the 25% and 50% marks, but staying relatively close to each other for the most part. Eventually the low density rate establishes itself and steadies around 15-20%. But then I get into streaming in 2019, and my high density rate shoots up consistently above or close to 50%, and then mid density rate sticks to around 25%, close to where the low density rate is hanging out now. This persists for the entire 6 months that I'm paying for streaming. Part of this is because I was specifically using Google Play Music, and overly relying on their "Recently Played" section to pick out something to listen to. This section will show the most recent 100 releases that you've played a song from. Instead of the gradual drift outside of view that I described earlier, I had a hard cutoff point where music became significantly less visible. This led to many of the releases that would have eventually reached 10 listens under my previous approach to disappear from my listening after 5 listens. I was able to hear a lot more music than I typically would, but it was at the expense of gaining a deeper appreciation for what I was hearing. I did not like this development, and sought to end it once I noticed what was happening by cancelling my subscription.

I don't think this is entirely the fault of the streaming medium. When I went back in with a free trial, I had a better idea of what not to do, and I was able to maintain my usual habits while taking advantage of easy access to a large library of music. Though I was using Apple Music, and they cap their recently played section at a significantly lower number, it's not like I could've even chosen to make the same mistake. This isn't an argument that you must absolutely cancel your streaming memberships and only buy music or else you will personally suffer. But the interfaces of the streaming services are going to do things that push you even further into the territory where streaming is more valuable than purchasing. They are acting in their self-interest and you should look out for it. But they aren't the only ones generating value for streaming while devaluing purchases in the process.

As I mentioned earlier, engaging with any discourse around music means you're going to hear about a lot of different things. There is a pervasive attitude that everyone has streaming, it's taken as a given, and the countless recommendations are accompanied with links to streaming platforms. "Look, we know you have streaming, and now you don't even have to take the effort to move your fingers across your keyboard to the specific keys required to type in a name and hit enter, you have no excuse!" It's sort of like in Breaking Bad when they talk about how making really good meth is difficult, but achieving the top levels of purity gets exponentially more difficult. Advancements in technology have all greatly increased the accessibility of music, from physical media to radio to the internet, and the amount of work that went into them is staggering. But these last few percentage points, bringing this to the level where you have no excuse to have not heard everything that's under discussion in the social environments focused on music, that all comes from the acceptance of streaming by the people talking about music.

There are more insidious ways that streaming has integrated into the landscape and assisted the perversion of communication approaches that made sense previously, before mass communication made the same gains in accessibility that were made in music. I don't think there is enough appreciation for how saying something to no one in particular is distinct from direct communication, how it is the creation of supplemental culture, meta-entertainment that becomes a part of the subject. What we've done with it both relies on and exacerbates the effects of streaming.

You know how people take on a self-consciously controversial tone of "that's right, I said it" to go against the grain and say the music that people talk about isn't actually any good, creating supplemental culture for the people who are going through the miserable experience of living in a world where people derive some enjoyment from anything they don't like, giving them a space to say "Thank you! We're not alone, that's what all this is about." That sounds nice, but doesn't this end up in a place where the only way to not feel alone with media is to stake out some position on something with a pre-existing popularity, where it doesn't really matter what we're saying so long as we're talking about it, further reinforcing the popularity, like a blob that feeds on engagement? I swear, it's like none of you ever played role playing games and encountered enemies who got hit points boosted from attacks that worked before.

Since these statements are often being made through mass-communication methods distributed to everyone/no one in particular, if one becomes widely visible enough, you're going to be creating a space for a counter-argument, you are the new grain to go against. If your exhaustion with how your exhaustion with the Monster Mash leads you to create some viral tweet about how it's overrated, and people who have never experienced that exhaustion and love the Monster Mash see it, then they feel like the underdog now. The people who disagree are compelled to repeat the process that started all this, and remind the other people that they are not alone in going through the miserable experience of knowing that there is a person out there who doesn't love the Monster Mash. In the end, everyone's just talking more about the popular shit instead of all of the other novelty Halloween songs we could be discussing. And with streaming's on-demand availability, all the people out there who have never heard the Monster Mash can easily give it a listen, and not feel so alone from being left out of the conversation.

YouTube played a major role in bringing things to this point. They made pirated material widely accessible by allowing it to be laundered through a safe corporate interface. Do you think all those user uploads were from legally purchased copies? I would be surprised if less than 75% of them came from pirated copies. And even though YouTube allowing adblock is responsible for the significantly lower payouts of ad revenue, they don't get anywhere near as much flack as Spotify. Here's a giant corporation benefiting from music being turned into a product they offer, and nobody really gives a shit because having immediate access to all of this music is more important than the musicians being fairly compensated. I'm as guilty as anyone else. There's a site called Plug.dj, you can get a private room going in there and invite some friends, everyone takes turns playing different YouTube videos. I've had some of my best experiences with music on that site, listening to songs that my friends picked and playing songs they remind me of, all of us making sense of music together. I'm so glad YouTube exists, it is amazing how you can quickly connect a friend to music you care about, or be connected by a friend to music that changes your life. It opened up a lot of music that was previously behind barriers of privilege that were falsely believed to be merit based. But it's also fucked up.

Accepting the way YouTube has laundered piracy through its scale is not my only less-than-saintly act.

I pirated so much music when I was in college and all the money that I had available was going to turn into an incredible amount of debt as soon as I left. I still bought the occasional release, but it was a much tinier fraction of my listening than anything I've seen in recent years. I don't think I would love music as much as I do if I hadn't spent so much time doing things that are at least immoral, or oftentimes outright illegal. Developing that love was necessary to bring me to the point where I buy a lot of music.

It took me a while, but I got into a relatively comfortable position economically over the past few years. I got to the point where I was able to pay for my essentials and debts, and still support an adult hobby that can cost over 1,000 dollars per year. I think it's important to keep in mind that this can be a lot of money for people, a lot of people can't spend 1,000 dollars just because they want to. There's an economic privilege at play here that allows me to buy all of this music. People shouldn't be made to feel bad because they can't afford it, because on top of the cruelty of that, it's foolish to ignore their potential to eventually become people who can afford it.

It would be hypocritical for me to say that anyone who is using unfair practices like paid streaming are doing something terrible, because I used much less fair practices to develop my love of music. But it's still a problem to have musicians giving so much to producing music and receiving so little in return. There's always going to be unfairness here as long as money is involved, but I think the path to the most fairness is through enabling fans of music to develop their love without being heavily limited by their financial situation. But will the young people who have grown up with the incredible degree of access to music that streaming provides become people who buy music when they can afford it?

My current behavior as a music buyer has been shaped by my history. At the start, I would go to a supermarket or bookstore with my family sometimes, and every once in a while we'd get to look through the music section, because those places used to have tapes and CD's, and I started to build a collection of albums with songs I knew from the radio, soundtracks for movies like Batman Forever and Angus, and the work of Weird Al Yankovic. I would get some kind of connection from the radio or some kind of media property, but things wouldn't really get started until I had it for myself. Sometime after beating Diddy Kong Racing while listening to Chumbawamba - Tubthumper on repeat, I got angrier and found a home in the increasingly popular nu-metal music of the time. Through this, I was able to focus my anger at Total Request Live for not saying Korn or Limp Bizkit had the number one video. Watching MTV led me to the promotional blips Radiohead had made for Kid A, aired on one magical Saturday alongside the cartoon that has the characters from the Paranoid Android video. These commercial length animations with intriguing sounds led me to walk down to Fred Meyer on the day of release and pick up a copy of Kid A. And even though that was happening in the year 2000, during the big transition point in music accessibility via the internet with the appearance of Napster, it was a very slow transition for that to actually be a part of my musical experience, but this was the point where it really kicked in.

I was already used to using the internet to talk about music, since I had joined the message board for the local rock radio station at age 13 to help a friend have someone in his corner when the adults were mean to him. So when I found out about Radiohead I did some digging, and I saw on some website with a tiled image background that Kid A was taking influence from Aphex Twin, Autechre, and other artists on Warp Records. I only had AOL dial-up at home, and there was noise on the line so we couldn't even get the standard 56k modem speeds. It was 33.6k. Fortunately, a friend of mine had cable internet, and the whole friend group would use Napster and Audiogalaxy on his computer to start getting a clue on all of our varied interests, which for me mostly meant the whole Warp Records roster and their affiliated influences and responses. There was still significant amounts of waiting in this process, all sorts of music that I wanted to hear but couldn't. But around this time, I started working at a laser tag place after school. I had money, and it was in an actual bank account with my name on it! I was basically an adult, except for how I didn't have actual responsibilities. So I would use a lot of that cash and pick up music that I was too impatient to download, in addition to the music I downloaded and fell in love with, eventually getting to the point where I'd be going to stores that only sold music and did not also have vegetables and toilet paper.

I know what you're thinking. "Hey Alex, did you make a really cool mixtape to play during the laser tag games?" You're goddamn right I did. Heads up to any laser tag stadium DJ's out there, if your games go for 11 minutes you should just play Autechre - Second Peng in its entirety because it is the perfect laser tag song.

Eventually I started to go deep into mail order services, either directly from labels or from distributors like Forced Exposure or Mimaroglu Music Sales. At the same time, I was getting deeper into piracy. When Prefuse 73 - Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives leaked on Napster, the filename included a link to a different p2p file sharing software, one that is still active and used for music piracy today. I got it running on my home computer, and found a community of people who were essentially beta testing this software, all drawn in by some link on a Warp Records leak, using the software's chatroom to discuss this shared interest in the type of music they would put out. I was still on the slow modem, it took me so many days to download all 2 CD's of DrukQs. But I was able to connect with a lot of people and learn about music that was adjacent to my interests via their assorted passions. In this space, the majority of what was happening in music didn't matter, and I was encouraged to build experience within a specific context. So many of the individual pieces of music I heard were given additional significance through their connections to other music. At the same time, this music was being appreciated in a much more chaotic fashion through the experiences I shared with the immediate friend group, which led me to encounter all sorts of music I wouldn't have sought out while also giving me the opportunity to share what I cared about in a relatively intimate context, with significance built from what we were doing together and the reactions we shared.

I don't think this is some sort of ideal experience that everyone should strive to replicate with exact precision, there are problems with all of this that I think are better addressed by the current way of doing things. The genre classification given to the area of music I focused on was IDM, Intelligent Dance Music. My theory is that the desire to give a distinct classification for this music comes from the way it would use drums as carriers of pitch as well as delineations of rhythm. This quality exists with the pitched drum hits in the techno-derived first wave of the music, and also in the overlap tones generated from the specific speed of the fast repetitions of drum hits in the jungle-derived second wave. And so of course people compared this to a straw man mental image of "umph tss umph tss" dance music, and they decided that the melodic expressiveness that was present in this music meant that the difference was intelligence. This is some absolute white supremacist horseshit, and ignores that this quality exists in the music that came out of black culture that does not get the intelligent distinction, and also that plenty of the music that did not use this technique has many other ways of showcasing brilliance. I don't think I really appreciated this until after the collapse of the community I was in. I feel like it is more difficult to make this mistake now, since the creation of the monoculture isn't so overwhelmingly in the hands of white men. Though it is also still far too easy for the mistake to happen, and more work has to be done on this front. I don't think any changes I propose should be at a detriment to that work.

This was by no means the only problem. Women tended to be severely underrepresented in the list of celebrated musicians, and the few that did make it were treated poorly, as representatives for their gender's version of a type of music. "Here's the best female musicians in this field, divorced of all of their context besides their gender, oh you don't like them as much as the men? I guess female artists just aren't as good, right?! But now we've given you your diversity homework so that you can say you gave it your best shot and aren't a bad person!" This is the misogynist bullshit that still gets perpetrated, and it is awful. This is another mistake that I think is more difficult to make now with the increased awareness of everything, though again, so much more work needs to be done.

We could be here all day if I did a full accounting of the problems in the environment I came to love music in, but I think those are the main two that have begun to improve. I think we can maintain and promote the fixes that have been made while simultaneously recapturing the important things that appear to have been lost.

I think people should buy some music without knowing whether they like it, when they can afford to.

I imagine myself in some kind of symposium, proposing this idea, and being confronted by overwhelming dismissive laughter from the esteemed audience. Someone would respond "In this economy?! With the ability to verify that we do indeed love specific music and that it belongs in our collections before we purchase?! When there's already so many things that we know we love and haven't bought yet?! You are mad!"

But I believe this is the main good thing that has been lost. Because yes, people do still buy music in the current environment. But the behavior now is that people try before they buy, make an informed consumer decision, and completely avoid the sensation that they did not get the absolute best value for their dollar by picking the cream of the crop. This leads to people spending significant chunks of money on deluxe physical editions of their taste totems. And sure, all the people who spent 20 dollars on a CD in the 90's only to find out that they the single is the only thing they cared about probably think that arrangement sounds much better, but I think this behavior needs to be challenged.

I've mentioned a lot of problems, but the thing that ties it all together is the epidemic of nerd synesthesia. Regular synesthesia is where people will hear a piece of music and say "oh wow this sounds so orange", that mixing of the senses. Nerd synesthesia is where people hear music and go "oh that's a 6 out of 10". People putting a number score on music has been going on for a while, but with the aggregation capabilities of the internet and sites like Metacritic promoting the idea of an average score among a group of scores, it has fed into an existing problem; the idea that having an opinion is the most important and interesting thing about the experience of music, that it's the endpoint. And there's so much value placed on it, you can do your part to shape the aggregate, and align yourself with likeminded people. On some level, it hasn't changed that much, since it's just a numeric translation of the value adjectives like "good"/"great"/"terrible" and the inverters and multipliers like "not"/"very", and so on. But the increased utility of the numerically translated version has elevated this behavior to a dangerous height.

This behavior has its roots in the opinionated identities of music reviewers and snobby record store clerks, AKA people who didn't have to spend money to hear all of this music and accumulate all of these opinions. Taking the opportunity afforded by streaming to emulate these identities and put our own expertise ahead of supporting scenes is what has brought us to this point with so few people actually buying music.

If you're contributing to something you care about that's bigger than a single artist or title, you're never wasting your money, even if you don't like the specific thing that you got. Because that money can help produce future things that you will care about. When the emphasis is on the closed relationship between one isolated unit of music and your opinion on it, this value of community is lost, and the only reason to buy it is if your opinion is high enough. I'm a big fan of Erstwhile Records, and have spent a lot of money picking up albums they have released. There's been a few that I didn't really care for, but all of this money that I've spent has maybe helped just a small bit with one of the releases they've put out since I started paying. Part of the reason I buy music is because of the benefit to my listening habits that I illustrated earlier with what happened in 2019, but the main reason I buy music is because of this feeling of being invested in something.

I think that this is how we do it. We make having an opinion the least interesting thing you can do with a specific piece of music, and put the emphasis on building significance out of its context with other music, to invest ourselves in the scenes that produce this context. Then we can turn so many of these problems into assets. The problems I had growing up with an isolated perspective, we can easily use the abundant availability of music to shatter misconceptions and understand the significance to the marginalized music that is foundational to the music we already care about. We could use the abundance without the goal of stamping our personal rating onto everything, to be self-aware of when we are outside of something and not worry about having an opinion, and embrace the possibility that there may be an entrance into a whole new world of context to become invested in. Instead of wasting our time remarking on the things we supposedly believe to be unremarkable and contributing to their overshadowing, we can put that work toward building something and elevating it out of the now less-intimidating shadows.

So the answer to the title question, how to buy music when you don't have to?

1) Devalue opinions

2) When you don't have money, use every unfair opportunity you have to develop a love for music that goes beyond individual pieces and into the connected networks that they belong to

3) When you do have money, invest in those networks while keeping an open mind towards entrances to new ones

I believe that if this approach was taken, we would be doing a much better job at sustaining the music that we love.