Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Geezer's Guide to Buying CDs

I'm probably unlike you in that I buy a lot of CDs that I’ve not heard before. I don't mean that I haven't heard the whole thing. I mean that I haven't heard it at all. Sometimes I have no clue, other than what I’ve gathered from a review, what I’m about to hear. This is occasionally dismaying when the music actually starts. But just as often it’s thrilling. I’ve already written about the problem with buying CDs that you’ve already heard. I figure my batting average is at least as good as yours.

As far as actually tracking down stuff, I recommend checking your usual haunts once or twice. But if you can’t find it, consider joining a music club (I’m in BMG, and they aren’t bad at all). This will put a greater selection at your finger tips. If you still can’t find it, just order the damned thing from Amazon or J&R and be done with it. Your time is too valuable. You’re not a teenager who can haunt record stores for days at a time. 

Vinyl albums were risky to buy used, because they could be full of scratches, but were arguably (the arguer being the guy who sold it to you) playable. CDs either work or don’t work. If you can find them used, buy them. I’ve gotten some great albums this way (Randy Newman’s “Faust”, Old 97s “Fight Songs”, Elliot Smith’s “XO”). I've saved some money, too, but it does takes a lot of time to go through the bins and, well, it’s kind of pathetic. So if you must do it, be discreet. If necessary, wear a disguise.

Now, all of the above is geared towards tracking something down that you’ve already decided you want. The other way of shopping is to browse. You can spend a lot of time doing this, too, but it's usually more fun. It depends what you find. I'll admit that it takes a keen eye to discern between the pathetic bargain shelf mole and the perfectly respectable browser. (I think it’s all in the posture, myself. I do recommend dressing up like you’re on your lunch break from your important job. Everyone will see right through this, but they’ll appreciate the effort you’re making.)

Another thing I love to do is window shop. CDs are expensive so I try to keep my instinct to overbuy in check. But around my birthday I like to treat myself. (The spouse long ago learned that I’m impossible to buy a gift for, so my trip to the record store saves everybody lots of trouble, although I’m not above asking for a box set. By the way, don’t buy a box set from a record store! Look it up in your record club. Even with shipping, it’s GOT to be cheaper).

I browse the aisles, picking up whatever strikes my fancy. The reason I do this is because there’s no telling if I’ll find a lot of stuff or nothing, so I cast my net wide. That way I don’t end up with nothing to show for the time spent. There have been times when I had 30 or 35 CDs, and I'd only gotten up to the letter J. I’ve somehow convinced myself that there is dignity in this.

Now begins the paring process. I look at those 35 CDs and ask myself a series of questions.
  1. Does it a nice cover? (What? It helped me pick up a very good Charles Mingus album. Besides, you want your friends to say, “Hey, what a nice cover!”)  
  2. Is the title on the edge of the jewel box vertically centered? Again, you may not see the relevance here, but remember, this will take up precious space on your shelf. You’re probably going to end up with a neck cramp while reading the titles. It'll only be worse if the titles are unreadable. (On LPs, this area used to be called the “slug line”. I don’t know if they still call it this. This has kept me from buying many an album, which is a good thing. After all, there are children to be fed.) 
  3. How many CDs do you already have by this artist? If you have a few, is this one going to be worthwhile? Maybe there’s another artist who you haven’t tried yet who deserves some of that attention. When in doubt, skip it. 
  4. How about the price? They can vary wildly. The only problem with some of the cheaper ones is that they may be older albums that will soon be re-mastered, with bonus tracks added. Ah, but now they’re expensive again. Your call. 
  5. How much music is on the CD? This can be tricky, as a little of a great thing is better than a lot of crap, but it’s something to consider. A CD can hold almost 80 minutes of music. Typical vinyl albums held less, and averaged about thirty-five minute per. The typical CD has at least 50 minutes of music on it. I hate buying CDs with only about thirty minutes on them. However if I followed this rule slavishly, I wouldn’t own the Shins “Chutes Too Narrow”, one of the best of the decade. 
  6. Bear in mind that you should try to balance enjoyment with that horizon broadening that’s intended to ruin a good time. Another good balance is old music vs. current. How about intimidating vs. accessible? Melodic vs. rhythmic? 
  7. What are the chances, based on what you know, that you’ll enjoy the CD? This step is optional. (Just kidding.)

    By now you should be down to less than ten. Put those other CDs back where they belong! This is a pretty sad sight, but it’s the right thing to do. Now pare it down again. (You can leave these rejects lying around. Enough is enough. You’re not a saint. Besides, the security guard is getting suspicious.)

    You should end up with about four CDs. You’ll never absorb more than that in the short term.

    I predict that you’ll like one CD immediately, two others will be okay to good. You will hate one. Keep an eye on this one. It may be the one that broadens those horizons I’ve been warning you about. While the first three may be infatuations, it’s the one you hate that you’ll form a relationship with. And like some relationships, you might find yourself coming around to if you give it half a chance. But we’ll talk about at another time.

    Now get home. Everyone is wondering where the hell you’ve been.

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