Buying Music Can Be Tricky

Today I listened to the always charming This American Life podcast (where-in I learned that host Ira Glass is allegedly straight–who knew?). The episode features bits from a series of live shows that TAL did around the country in support of their companion television show, which I have never seen.

They toured with this husband-and-wife duo of an indie band called Mates of State. I liked what I heard, so I figured I’d purchase some MP3s and give them a more extended audition in my music collection. But which songs to buy?

  1. First stop: Wikipedia, which indicates that they have five albums, dating from 2000 to a May, 2008 release.
  2. Next stop, eMusic, where I’m a subscriber. eMusic only offers their first three albums. eMusic says their most popular songs are, in order, “Ha Ha”, “The Kissaway” and “Fluke”.
  3. To Amazon. Amazon claims to stock four albums, but one is, in fact, just an EP. Plus, they say that the 2004 album is Mates of State’s “latest release”. Clearly this is not the case. Top songs on Amazon: “Goods”, “Along for the Ride” and “Jellyman Kelly”.
  4. Next, the iTunes store. I don’t usually buy from them, but I figured I’d have a look. iTunes lists six albums (including the EP). Confusingly, one album is listed twice. Assuming the 2008 album isn’t out yet (though why isn’t it available for pre-order?), iTunes has the most exhaustive catalog. Most popular songs: “Goods”, “Along for the Ride” and “Fluke”.
  5. On YouTube, the top videos are for the songs “Fraud in the 80s”, “Get Better” and “Fluke”.
  6. Finally, there’s The most popular songs there are “Ha Ha”, “Think Long” and “Like U Crazy”.

Finally, I visited the band’s website. Why did I go here last? Because band websites are often lousy, and rarely help me to answer the question “which songs should I buy?”. I see that their forthcoming album isn’t out to May 20th, 2008. Their first single is out, though, and the video features a scooter rider in rabbit mask:

There’s clearly little consensus out there on the best three Mates of States songs. Is there a market out there for a website that just answers that question? It could be It could grab data from the above (and other) sources, and produce a reasonably definitive three song starter list for every band on the planet.

Somebody go forth and make that, please.


  1. Band websites are where I usually go first, although for smaller bands they don’t tend to update often. But still I’d like to give them first opportunity to sell me their music rather than Amazon, iTunes or HMV.

    Universal Hall Pass is a perfect example of music I found by going to the artist’s page and then purchasing:

    For hearing a sampling of music? The way I see it, trying out music is what torrents are for. It replaces radio for me. If I like, I buy.

  2. Darren, surely that is just silly.

    My fav three songs of any particular band that perhaps we both might like are probably not the same as your three songs. In fact I’d go as far to venture, that your favorite song of any particular band may well indeed be my mosted hated. eg. I quite like U2 – but their most popular songs are the ones I detest.

    You wanna collate all the favs then average them out – that’s just dumb, what do you get but the boring average which more than likely will tend to the biggest singles etc.

    Be a rebel Darren – blow a buck on a random choice… and play it 20 times over the next 3 weeks.

    Thats the best way to figure out if you like a band. (outside of buying an album) nothing tricky about that.

    The cost of a CD in my town is about the same as 3 pints. I figure its worth the risk.


  3. Welly: First off, I think your premise is flawed. There will be more similarity than difference in taste for the music of a particular band. That’s why, at concerts, most of the fans go nuts for certain songs. There’s a certain consensus on what they like.

    It’s certainly not 100% reliable, but my approach ought to be somewhat predictive. My theory is backed up by a bunch of the science I read in the excellent book “Stumbling on Happiness”.

    But, anyway, money is not the problem, time is. I currently have 8273 songs in my collection, and iTunes says I’ve never played 2703 of them. That’s not strictly true (as many were ripped from CDs I owned), but I sure haven’t played them in the past two years.

    Looking at my account, I might play (and that’s ‘play’, not necessarily ‘hear’) 30 songs a day.

    To make a long story short, I have a supply-side problem. Too much music, and too little time. That’s why I’d prefer a better-than-random sampling. I may only hear these songs a few times, so I’d prefer to hear ones that I’m likelier to, uh, like.

  4. I forgot the question of art. Some songs are intrinsically better than others. As it happens, U2 has a ton of great, popular songs, so there’s a much large pool for us to choose from. That’s the exception, not the rule. Most bands will only have a few highly likable songs, which makes predicting the ones I’ll like all the easier.

  5. Stats and figures in iTunes are based on puchases. While the more “popular” songs are usually purchased more than others, popularity is not the best means of measuring whether or not a song is good. Let’s face it, taste is subjective. And, how often does it happen that the best songs on a record were the ones that were not released as singles?

    If a site were to be populated by the information you describe, it would also be good to allow people to submit their own $0.02.

  6. I’m siding with Welly-Steve on this one. 3 songs don’t describe a band, and the 3 most popular songs aren’t necessary the “best” ones. When I’ve gone to concerts, quite often the songs people cheer over aren’t the ones that made it on the charts.

    And you may not like a band’s “radio-friendly” songs but dig their older stuff, or their lesser-known albums, say. 3 songs is a start, but it’s not everything.

    There just isn’t an easy way to “get” a band and decide if you like them or not. My pre-purchase modus operandi includes:

    1. Going to their MySpace page and letting the player run through a few of their songs, and/or

    2. Going to Hype Machine ( and searching for them, reading any blog posts about them and downloading mp3s to try out.

  7. Exactly Darren,

    Your opinion on serves to strengthen my point. We all like music for different reasons.

    You might choose to select music based on what other people think – (average top voted particular song lists or how ever you decide what algorithm to apply thereby deciding “the best” list)

    My decision making process is far harder to pin down, (whether it is actually even logically describable I’m not sure)

    I do know one thing tho, I can usually eliminate 80% fairly rapidly by choosing a random track from a myspace page – etc. Perhaps my margin of error might be higher than yours Darren, I might have more crap in my collection (haha, I bet I do actually – oh well) but maybe I also get to not miss those rare gems that represent just what Indie is all about (for eg). Some of my favorite music is stuff I’ve literally randomly stumbled upon.

    If we all chose to listen to music based on concensus, we’d all be listening to Billboards top ten – and Indie wouldn’t exist. And looking at billboard today – I wouldn’t give the time of day to anything in the top 50.

    Popularity isn’t a measure of anything (imho) except perhaps popularity.

    I get your point about the supply issue and available time. Not sure there is a fool proof way to minimise the risk. Sometimes it’s worth listening to the crap just to remind ourselves just how good Wilco are. (haha, for example.)

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: