[SoundStage!]Fringe with Greg Smith
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March 2000

Guerilla CD Shopping 2000

Last year I wrote Guerrilla CD Shopping, and I continue to get thank-you notes from readers who found that list of resources helpful. Accordingly, I thought I'd update some of that material with observations gleaned from another year of searching for CDs on the Internet.

I used to switch between a number of vendors for mainstream CDs. No more. cdnow.com is currently the only place I buy easy-to-purchase music from. First off, if it's in-print from a major US label, it's probably available from CDNOW. Last year, I commented that it was usually possible to beat their prices by 50 cents to a dollar per disc by using other vendors. What has become clear recently is that CDNOW has a perpetual sale going on of some sort. For example, this week it's "Buy More, Save More," where larger purchases get a substantial discount. With four or more titles, it's 15% off each. That's almost $2 off of a typical $13 title, and if you're like me, it's impossible to escape from CDNOW without at least four discs to buy. On the down side, I can't seem to escape paying sales tax on my order anymore from them.

Going beyond price and availability, CDNOW is the market leader at making sure you get exactly the CD you want. The cover artwork is scanned for almost every title. The listing of tracks on the CD includes the performing artists on compilations. I was trying to find Sniff 'n' the Tears' tune "Driver's Seat" after watching Boogie Nights for the first time the other day. I certainly wouldn't want to end getting the Capone-N-Noreaga song of the same title instead. The artist listing made me sure I was getting the right song when buying Rhino's Super Hits of the 70's Vol. 22. For the majority of mass-market CDs CDNOW sells, there are also clips of five songs off the CD available online. I've been having great fun lately going through random compilation from earlier eras and just listening to the sample songs that I didn't recognize the name of, and I've found a lot of lost memories.

The overall usefulness of the CDNOW website continues to improve, with the full listing of what shipping center has the music you ordered in stock being the feature I've most appreciated lately. Some quirks remain, like not always defaulting to use secure mode when placing an order. I recommend making sure that is toggled on before logging into your CDNOW account; you can verify you're securely connected by seeing that the URL at the top of your screen starts with "https://".

I could use CDNOW to figure out what I wanted to buy, and work hard to try and knock a few bucks off the order shopping somewhere else. But once you order from the company, you'll be on the mailing list to be notified of specials, and I only come back to place another order when there's a sale compatible with how I buy. Between the extensive amount of information available for music searches and the low prices during sales, I place CDNOW as the CD buying standard to beat right now. I am still looking; one store to watch is cdworld.com, which appears to have many of the same sources for album information and samples but with lower regular prices. And MuZicDepot also looks good and is inexpensive. But they're missing a really comprehensive catalog, without as many import titles or ones from smaller record labels as CDNOW.

Buying direct

One obvious trend lately is the move toward buying music directly from the artists rather than dealing with the big retailers. The dropping barrier to entry for making an e-commerce website selling CDs has been a big benefit to a lot of fantastic musicians who have never achieved the kind of popularity you need to get major-label distribution. It used to be incredibly difficult to track down music from The Ravyns, one of my favorite Baltimore-based bands. Nowadays you need only to visit kyf.com to buy their music, a video, and the latest solo albums from band member Kyf Brewer. Don't know if you'll like him? Listen to the sound samples: check out "The Curious Decline Of Miss Iris Tgaux" for a classic tune you'll, unfortunately, never hear on the radio. Robert Berry, which I mentioned last year as a site under construction, now has a big stack of albums and CDs for sale. Believe me -- you won't find some of these anywhere else, I've tried. Kevin Gilbert may be dead, but that doesn't keep new material from his estate from showing up on his website. Shaming of the True is the latest brilliant work from him; the limited-edition regular release is sold out, but the inexpensive regular version is coming. Try the "sound byte" for "Suit Fugue" to get an idea how cool this rock opera is.

Want a disc from prog veterans Camel? They don't have online ordering available, and the delivery is kind of slow, but you can get a full title list and order form from Camel Productions. The bonus: Buy the discs direct from them, and they even come autographed! If you're like me and want more immediate gratification, resellers like The Artist Shop serve as more professional middlemen between the artist and you. Try Camel's new Rajaz album sometime; Amazon.com claims it's an import and wants $24; Camel Productions wants $16, and The Artist Shop can sell it for $13 because it's the kind of title they're setup to deliver efficiently.

Networking with other fans of the music you like should reveal similar sources for what you listen to. And a bonus is that the people running stores like these can give recommendations on other titles you'd like but might never find on your own.

Used stores and rarities

I've gotten a lot of satisfied feedback from shoppers using Second Spin to buy used CDs online. The main problem is that they're so big now that anything good gets snapped up pretty quickly. A few other used vendors (many of whom also sell new stuff) have been recommended to me, and you might want to check them out. Cellophane Square is just popular enough to have a fairly large collection of titles, while actually having them available for a while. Duffelbag has interesting collection of stuff for sale, including a lot of cutouts and rare cassettes (for the obsessive collector). CD Cellar has similar offerings, including a huge number of promo discs, singles, and the like. Griffico Records specializes in out-of-print titles for audiophiles, with many MFSL titles and the like.

A number of used and rarities search engines are still going strong; GEMM and MusicFile are two of the best. And it's not music, but I've been buying a lot of used books using Bibliofind. All of these services let you know who the seller is, and it's often possible to bypass the search engine (and whatever service charge they pass along) and order from the merchant directly.

Finally, no mention of buying CDs in the year 2000 would be complete without mentioning the Wild West of e-commerce, Internet auction pioneer eBay. Auction sites have also sprung up at Amazon and Yahoo, but eBay is the one I hear the most about. There's a constant influx of rare music titles up at sites like these. The problem, of course, is that prices tend to rise according to demand, and often they'll go above what you can get the same title for using a more traditional source. But as long as you keep a cool head and know what the rest of the market charges for an item, it is possible to get some excellent deals at an auction on items available nowhere else.

...Greg Smith


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