|Fringe with Greg Smith
Back Issue Article
Guerrilla CD Shopping
There's this article that keeps circulating around the magazines I read. Now that the world at large has discovered shopping on the Internet, journalists by the score have set off to describe how to get the best deal when buying music online. Yet they all seem to write the same boring story. Somebody gets a shopping list of CDs that are incredibly easy to find. They buy them at some local store, then turn around and order them from a couple of Internet music stores. The prototypical article requires that you give a nice table showing who gave you the best deal on each disc, along with information about what each place had in stock and how long it all took to arrive. Wonderful, right?
Let's talk about how this works in the real world. In 1991, while in college, I discovered the mail-order music scene. Noteworthy Music was the company of choice at the time. While sadly out of business now, Noteworthy used to have the best deals on CDs, bar none, with an incredible stock. Since my Hoboken home is near one of the great UPS nexus points, I'd order CDs in the afternoon from Noteworthy, get them delivered regular ground, and they'd usually show up the next day. I ordered a couple of discs here and there from them, building up to The Big Order after I got a good summer job. I went through their entire catalog and picked out all the music I'd been meaning to buy -- 62 discs total, which came to $630.40. A couple of days later, the monster box arrived. It took months to absorb and appreciate everything I'd bought.
When I went to put together another order shortly after that, I realized something pretty profound. The new limit on how much music I could buy was directly tied to discovering things I wanted to hear. It used to be that the availability of titles at the record store meant I'd poke around for months trying to find CDs I wanted. Nowadays, I've already bought everything that's in print that I thought I'd like. The fact that I can find online stores with hundreds of thousands of CDs available doesn't mean diddley if I don't have new music I want to buy. This month I'll lead you on a tour of where I buy music at, which actually is quite a complicated path. I started out last month with 24 discs I'd been meaning to buy, and I've tracked most of them down. This is the story of that expedition.
The local stores
I used to have excellent luck with CD shopping around town. The first key is to avoid all the big chains. As far as I'm concerned, the people behind the counter at stores like Sam Goody and Tower Records should be wearing ski masks -- the prices are that high. There was a while there that some of the electronics franchises, like Best Buy and Circuit City, had good selection and low prices. But lately, it seems they've regressed back to carrying only popular titles, and the prices have escalated. If you only want something that's really popular, you're probably better off just going to K-Mart, Wal-Mart, or one of the big discount club stores like BJ's.
Sadly, the only stuff I buy locally anymore are used discs. Any town I visit, I find all the used record and CD stores in the area and take a tour. You'd be amazed some of the bargains you can find. In Baltimore, where I grew up, Record and Tape Traders is the place to visit. Here in Hoboken, Tunes on Washington Street is a regular stop even if there's nothing in particular I'm looking for. They've got a whole bin of $3 CDs in which I can usually find something worth trying every week or so. Last week I picked up extra copies of Eric Johnson's Ah Via Musicom and Yes' Talk; two discs for $5; and they go in my collection at work. In Long Island where I'm working, I regularly stop by CD Warehouse on Rt 110 (right across the street from a nice, overpriced Tower Records store). Like many big used-disc stores, they've got multiple copies of just about any popular title for a couple of bucks. After some other poor soul paid real money for No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom and traded it in, I scarfed up my copy for $4.99. None of these suggested stores may help you in particular, but wherever you live it's worth trying to find the little, obscure record shops. It's lots of fun to grab a couple of local phone books, some maps, and spend a day driving around looking for discs.
If you're looking for used discs online, there are several stores available that handle that. Many people have recommended www.secondspin.com to me. They have a whole bunch of used CDs and DVDs available, but I haven't placed an order with them myself yet.
The easy stuff
The next 13 discs on my list are easily available from any competent CD retailer. Titles like John Fogerty's Centerfield are on store shelves anywhere, but the local stops all wanted $15 and up for a copy. For some reason, while I don't blink at paying upwards of $40 for an obscure import or carefully remastered title, I can't bring myself to pay $15 for a regular old CD. Discs like Head East's Flat as a Pancake and Procol Harum's A Salty Dog are easy to find back-catalog material, and I know perfectly well they should cost under $10. Best Buy had the cheapest prices, at $12 each. Yuck.
Albums like this are the perfect thing to price-shop for on the Internet. If you've got more than a few titles to order, the shipping and handling charges become negligible (and often less than the sales tax you'd pay locally). I hit a couple of the big sites to see how they stacked up. www.musicblvd.com is a gorgeous site that's easy to navigate and includes lots of pictures and album information. Unfortunately, their prices are only a touch lower than those of the retail stores. I can testify that their service is great. When my sister needed a Canadian import CD in a major hurry, Music Boulevard was the clear choice. They have extensive information on probable shipping times available, and they're open at all hours. After realizing that the order I'd placed for her at 4AM on Sunday morning had the wrong zip code for the shipping address, I called their 24-hour customer service line and straightened the whole thing out easily. One of my friends recently ordered a bunch of expensive DCC titles from there, and they all arrived with their special jewel cases crushed. Music Boulevard sent him a new set without any fuss when he called them up.
While it doesn't feel quite as slick, a less expensive place to shop is the much advertised www.cdnow.com, which is really distinguished by its tolerant search engine. When I wanted the Giorgo Moroder-produced music from Metropolis, CD Now let me search specifically through the soundtracks for it. The other sites I visited all threw back a slew of discs with that title I had to sort though. Even more impressive is that CD Now will find close matches to what you type, so when I tried to spell the band's name "Procul Harum," it found Gary Brooker and company anyway. Prices at CD Now seem to average almost $1 less than the same title at Music Boulevard, and there are frequent sales and promotions that drop them further. The copy of Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica I wanted was 30% off, making it about $2 cheaper than at anywhere else. But for regular discs, we're still not at rock bottom.
There's no fancy graphics. There's limited information about the releases available. But what it lacks in slickness, www.cdconnection.com more than makes up for on your invoice. Averaging another 50 cents lower per disc even than CD Now, my shopping list of 13 albums was a quite reasonable $146.11 there, with many under $10. I've been ordering from CD Connection for a long time now, and they've always offered a good cross-section of labels, both domestic and import, at very low rates. And the shipping charge is waived for orders over $100. I used to find their shipping a bit on the slow side, but now that they've switched to Fed-Ex two-day even for that freebie deal, it's much better. They claim 3-10 days, and my experience matches that. But if you don't need instant gratification, you can save quite a few bucks in the process. One warning: their shipping boxes are labeled simply CDC, and that can get you some funny looks. Also note that they often include a free CD in larger orders for no particular reason. My last order had a miserable disc from a guy named Graham Grace. Be glad this fellow isn't a household name. They did give me a nice CD of Christmas music one year, so I can't say the gratis discs are all bad.
While all of the places above offer import discs, the selection is pretty limited. My favorite source for overseas material is definitely www.musicexpress.com. German Music Express (GMX) is pretty damn fast, usually getting me obscure titles like that in around three weeks (they claim three to six). Like CD Connection, you can monitor the progress of your order to see what's in stock and what they can't find. They had Tim Pierce's Guitarland (with Kevin Gilbert) listed as available, and nobody else has any idea that CD is still in print. I'd also been meaning to pick up Lost Boys from The Flying Pickets, a male vocal group that I'd become fond of from their work with Eric Woolfson and Alan Parsons on Freudiana.
When GMX gives up, I have one last resort. www.cdeurope.com has about the biggest catalog of CDs I've ever seen. They've successfully delivered several discs that nobody else I'd found in the world knew of. The down sides are several. First, prices are quite high. Second, delivery time is lengthy. While they claim three to four weeks is typical, everything I've ordered (admittedly, a quite difficult bunch) has been closer to six. But by the time I've gotten to CD Europe, I've exhausted all other possibilities, so I can't really complain that sometimes it takes them a while to find what nobody else can.
Let's say you're a big fan of, say, Camel. Not the smokes, the band. How would you go about finding more artists that sound like them? Easy. Visit www.roadkill.com/Camel and join the mailing list devoted to the band. From postings there, I've found at least a dozen new bands I never would have discovered any other way. The Camel list led me to Marillion, IQ, FM, and many other progressive bands. If you've got a band or three that really stick out in your mind as a favorite, consider joining a mailing list that discusses them. Even if you only hang around for a little bit, you can ask for the general buzz from the list members about other discs you might like, and you'll probably be bombarded with good suggestions.
I had half a dozen titles mentioned on the list that were added to my shopping goals. The only problem was tracking them down. Luckily, the same people suggesting the music usually recommend where to buy it from, too. To find titles like Arena's Songs From the Lion's Cage and IQ's Subterranea, I was led to www.mandmmusic.com. These titles were also available in some cases from the places I mentioned above. But while German Music Express wanted $38 to send a single copy of the two-CD set from IQ across the Atlantic, M&M Music bought a whole bunch of them at once because they cater to fans of that band. Accordingly, they offer it for $24 instead. While looking through their catalog, I found quite a bonus: the Supper's Ready Genesis tribute album that features Kevin Gilbert and Robert Berry, which I've been trying to find for years now. Because M&M is tightly focused on a particular style of music I know I like, I could probably pick titles at random from their catalog and get all kinds of discs I'd enjoy. A similar place to shop, http://members.aol.com/PAULSSTORE/main.html, showcases another reason to buy from specialty dealers focused on small market. Order music from Paul's Store, and you'll probably have it shipped to you almost immediately, as he stocks almost all the titles he lists. If you're looking for something obscure from Marillion or Fish (a singer-songwriter who could whip Pfish's collective butts any day), Paul not only knows about, he probably bought a bunch of copies already and has them sitting to ship out. I ordered from M&M and Paul on a Friday afternoon, and both had CDs in my hands by Monday -- even using the regular postal service.
Finding online stores run by people with tastes similar to your own is a win for everybody. My personal favorite is www.thoughtscape.com. Scott at Thoughtscape has gone to immense trouble to track down titles from Alan Parsons-related bands, and he's always got the latest scoop on what's available in that area (he's the guy to pick up a copy of Freudiana from). As a fellow Sad Cafe fan, he's also led me to their marvelous Misplaced Ideals on CD after several years of searching. I'll sometimes call up Scott and just ask him for suggestions, ordering whatever he recommends. His prices aren't always the cheapest available, but how much it worth to find new music you love?
One last site I couldn't resist mentioning. www.80smetal.com is the home to "Restless & Wild Imports," your home for metal and hard-rock music from bands with names like Malice and (my favorite) Soylent Green. I feel like running around shouting "Soylent Green is music!" while doing my best Phil Hartman doing Heston impression. Their whole catalog is a riot. When reading about a new album from Fates Warning, a band I'm rather fond of, I find "I thought these knuckleheads broke up...Great for getting rid of those pesky burn-out friends who refuse to leave when the party's over!" Indeed, serve me up one of those then!
I needed a copy of the Super-Bit-Mapped version of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, to return a CD-borrowing favor to a friend. Only one problem: it's been out of print for quite a while now. Not a problem, if you shop at www.elusivedisc.com They still had plenty in stock, along with other SBM titles I recommend. If you don't have one, I suggest snagging Blood Sweat & Tears, Child is Father to the Man, which includes an incredible set of bonus tracks from the band's original demo. Mobile Fidelity is releasing a remastered copy that will probably sound better, but it's not going to have the extra material the Sony version includes. Elusive Disc carries all the other audiophiles favorites, so I also ordered some older DCC titles and considered dropping serious cash on some out-of-print MoFi discs. Other companies that have similar stocks of material that are not available anywhere else include www.amusicdirect.com and www.acousticsounds.com. Between those three catalogs, I'm always up to date on what all the audiophile labels are up to.
A couple of sites have sprung up to help you find more esoteric music releases. Lots of people swear by www.gemm.com, but I find myself swearing at the painful interface and confusing purchase terms. It's worth a shot if you're looking for something obscure.
Don't forget regular old Internet search engines as well. The two general purpose search engines I like best are www.hotbot.com and the new www.google.com, both of which are far superior in my opinion to Yahoo, Lycos, Excite, Altavista, and the other more popular places. Just last week, after ordering the Tim Pierce CD I mentioned before from GMX, I stumbled on the website for PRA Records when searching for information about Kevin Gilbert. They still have some copies of Guitarland available. Sure, it will cost me $20 for a single CD, but that's less than GMX wanted to import a copy (so far, they haven't found one anyway, so I'm trying to cancel that order if it's still possible). Similarly, a search one day let me to the Robert Berry home page, where they had his albums (often unavailable from any other source!) for sale. Mysteriously, that capability is missing from the current incarnation of the site, but I'm hoping it will come back again; his Pilgramidge to a Point is one of my favorite titles from the last decade, and I'd like to get some more music from the man.
Some music just plain isn't easy to find. If you wander the regular stores for a while and still can't find something rare or out of print, you might consider turning to professional. There are companies all over the world that specialize in tracking down elusive albums through a network of contacts. I haven't had to resort to such lengths so far, so I can't give any real specific recommendations. To get you started, I did hear good things about www.yodelinpig.com when I lived in Baltimore. For more companies like this, probably your best bet is to pick up a copy of Goldmine magazine at your local bookstore. There are literally hundreds of small record stores listed, many of whom can do a search for you. The Internet is more useful when you want to find things on your own, but the ads in Goldmine include lots of resources you won't find anywhere else.
Now I'm going to let you in on a secret. Would you believe that at least 90% of the music trivia questions people ask me are answered by visiting a single website? www.allmusic.com is the place to go. They have an enormous database of information about musicians, albums, history, you name it. I can spend hours browsing through there, following threads of interest throughout rock music history. You can use their site to find recommendations when you're shopping. When someone told me I'd like the music from Van Der Graaf Generator, All Music let me sort through the band's albums and figure out which would be a good first choice while I looking through what was available from GMX. A similar place with artist and album information, one with more band histories but less comprehensive coverage, is www.roughguides.com. Rough Guides is a nice spot if you're looking for information about more popular artists, but they don't aim for the encyclopedia-like content All Music gives. Meanwhile, if it's my current fascination that I'm looking into, the obvious place to visit is the Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock at www.progrock.net/GEPR/gepr.html (among other places).
My second favorite music research site is, sadly, unavailable in original form at the moment. www.lyrics.ch used to have full lyrics to almost any song you could think of. Due to legal pressures, the content is currently limited to merely searching for songs with a particular lyric in them. Still quite helpful. I'm hoping the business arrangements happen so that they can resume the full content.
www.ubl.com is The Ultimate Band List, an aptly named catalog. It's a big index to home pages devoted to specific artists. When you want something from a less than mainstream artist, contacting someone who runs a home page devoted to that artist can often give some very helpful leads.
Two weeks ago, I started seriously searching for the 24 discs I wanted. I'd only ever seen four of them in any retail store, and I'd been in at least a dozen stores the month before. With a few hours of searching on the Internet and ordering there, I've managed to get 18 of these albums delivered to me already. Another four are on their way to me right now, expected in the next few days, and there's one title I expect in a couple of weeks. Not a bad bit of work, and I saved a whole lot of money shopping this way. The one album left over? Godley and Creme: Consequences. Any idea where I can get a copy?
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