Why should anyone pay to listen to an album once?

I’ve been pruning my iTunes collection to prepare for iTunes Match. iTunes Match is limited to 250001 songs. As of this writing I have about 30000 in my iTunes collection.

Almost all of these albums I’ve listened to only once. Some of them aren’t from legitimate sources. Some of them are from Amazon’s daily deals.2 Some of them were bought on impulse. Some were junk and some are albums that I thought were okay, but didn’t think were good enough to visit again.

How do I know? Because I set up these smart playlists years ago to help me figure out this kind of stuff. If they were real CDs they’d be collecting dust somewhere.

The majority of this was added back before streaming services launched in the US, back when I’d hear about new tunes, buy and/or download them, and either like them or not like them. So now, when I’m going through and deleting stuff I didn’t like, I’m feeling burned. Every little square that I delete in iTunes’s grid view represents $9.99 that I may as well have just lit on fire.

It made me miss Lala.com. Lala let you listen to an album, for free, once. If you liked it enough to go back to you were prompted to buy it.

I think that model is a good compromise between the current $9.99 square that can burn you and the small payouts of streaming services. I’m hesitant to switch entirely to Spotify and Rdio because sometimes things just disappear. If I love something and download it to iTunes it’s always there. But the streaming services are much better for discovery. There’s no buyer’s remorse when listening to an album and not liking it. It didn’t cost you anything other than your subscription fee, if you’re even paying one.

It’s that buyer’s remorse that makes it difficult to feel empathy for an industry that feels like Steve Jobs screwed them over. That same industry operated for decades on selling albums on the strength of one or two tracks. But now we have things like star ratings that can show us how much value we’re really getting out of a $9.99 album or the CD you bought for $16.98 a decade ago.

Given the launch of streaming services I don’t go on downloading binges anymore. If I get a recommendation it goes into my Rdio queue. If after listening to it I think it’s worth owning I’ll buy it. Rdio for me right now is my music discovery platform, even though it feels like it’s trying to be more.

That means I pirate a lot less. It also means I buy a lot less because I’m only buying what I think is worth owning.3

  1. 25,000 tracks is a lot, but I get the feeling that it’s a number pulled out of the sky to satisfy licensing requirements, not to ease demand on a server. I deleted a couple of Todd Barry stand-up comedy albums I bought, each with ~30 second tracks, taking off maybe 70 tracks. 70 tracks for about 90 minutes of material. A 40 minute Sufjan Stevens album might have 22 tracks on it. Meanwhile I have classical albums four tracks long that last an hour. Tracks aren’t a good measurement of actual musical duration and content, but it’s what the suits use because it’s easiest. 

  2. Like a Lady Gaga album I didn’t like for 99¢. 

  3. There’s a cynical part of me that feels like that’s the real thing behind the complaints of streaming’s low payouts. How are we going to make money on this music that nobody wants to own and could do without because it’s forgetabble?