Like many of us, I’ve been looking for bargain records, new or used, at record stores, highway antique shops, second hand emporiums, dilapidated book depositories and surprisingly well-organized Goodwill buildings for a long time. The pastime became known as crate-digging, because we weren’t shopping for anything in particular, but looking through the crates or cartons of albums in the dollar bins on the floor looking for a cheap thrill, or just killing time.
It’s not a totally archaic endeavor: a few years ago in upstate New York, in a second hand book shop, I spent one dollar on a mint vinyl copy of the original soundtrack album to the 1956 science fiction movie Forbidden Planet, considered one of the first electronic albums, played by the composers Louis and Bebe Barron on their own pre-Moog synthesizers.
There was a time when grand bargains could be had at a series of stores on West Eighth Street between Sixth Avenue and University Place in Greenwich Village. One specialized almost entirely of new jazz overstock from Atlantic, Riverside, Verve, Blue Note, Impulse and other major labels. Everything was cheap enough (three albums for $5, say), that you could take a chance of judging a record by its cover, and invest wisely in The Complete Yusef Lateef, swinging Latin jazz by Cal Tjader, or Pharaoh Sanders’ Tauhid on Impulse: an impulse buy that more than delivered.
The problem with crate digging these days, even if you can find a record store or even a second hand store like Goodwill in your area, is that most people did not take care of their vinyl as well as you or I did. Goodwill stores are a good place to browse: there is always something. But most often that something is a Jim Nabors Christmas album, or an Andy Williams Christmas album, or a Connie Francis Christmas album. Or any Jim Nabors album, seemingly the vinyl of choice for those who give to Goodwill. It’s hard to understand: a few years ago, while doing renovations, we called Goodwill offering a mint condition dining room set a few decades old, and they refused to even haul it away for free. But they’ll take endless amounts of your Jim Nabors albums. It makes no sense to me.
I love my vinyl collection and my CD collection, but like many people, I suffer from the not-unpleasant minor malady of having too many choices, now that music is a nearly free utility that spouts from our phones to our speakers, headphones, ear buds or car audio. Too many choices; sometimes it’s just easiest to turn on the radio or the playlist shuffle and let the music out of the spout.
But I still like looking for music, a pleasurably addictive habit, so I crate dig for MP3s. It sounds ridiculous. How would you even do that? What I do is continue my subscription to eMusic.com, which sells downloads from an ever-shrinking music catalogue.
I have been a monthly subscriber since 2007. I am nothing if not loyal. I pay $11.99 a month, and for my loyalty I am given another few dollars of music purchase credits, so figure that for $12 I’m getting about $14 worth of purchases, which I must use each month: you can only carry over a balance to another month if it is less than 49 cents, which is the smallest amount a song may be sold for. (Single tracks might go up to 89 cents.) I would guess that a majority of the catalog sells for 49 cents a song. And the few people I know who’ve ever subscribed like to buy by the track, which is perfectly sensible if you make playlists for exercise, commuting, long drives, cooking, cleaning…all the activities in which music augments our lives.
But if you count that out in terms of albums, I have $14 a month to play with and can buy two albums, every month, at about $6.99 each. These prices are invariably a few dollars less than what the same albums would cost on Amazon or the Apple Music store. Subscribing forces me to buy two albums every month, and since I am stubborn and still think of the album as the proper means of taking measure of the art of popular music, I tend to look for albums. I also download some singles to round out my monthly purchase requirement.
Sometimes I can get considerably more than two albums if they are older jazz albums, which might consist of five or six longer tracks to constitute a 30-minute plus LP. Those tracks might be available individually at 49 cents each, so a jazz improv album with five or six longer tracks might cost $2.49 or $2.99. (Prices are also listed in euros, since eMusic is available in the EU.)
You download to your desktop, open the .zip file, and install it in your music library. I use what used to be called iTunes. [I still have it on some of my devices as I stubbornly haven’t upgraded the OS on my Apple devices. – Ed.] The recording appears promptly with album art, and plays on all the devices I have access to my Apple playlist: phone, laptop, iPad, and desktop computer, where I do most of my work.
The eMusic service started in 1998. It has gone through many evolutions and iterations, but its initial purpose was to focus on selling indie music at a discount. In its earlier days (and again, I’ve been with it since 2007), it had quite a few of the larger indie labels except for a handful: no Sub Pop, no Matador. The technology was glitchy, downloads sometimes did not work, and the audio quality was minimal to basic.
In mid-2010s, eMusic made arrangements with major labels, and for a short period it was indeed a well-stocked virtual record store. But indie fans didn’t like the majors, the majors did not like their renumeration, and the overhead was high because eMusic had added plentiful and excellent features and reviews under the leadership of editor J. Edward Keyes. (I wrote for eMusic.com, rebranded as Wondering Sound, and curated both its classic rock and modern rock inside-the-app radio playlists.)
Since 2018, eMusic has lost many of its labels, and finding worthwhile music has become time-consuming. But gems pop up. A “lost” album, A Step Ahead by 1970s Stockton, CA soul-funk band The 9th Creation, recently surfaced on the Past Due label of Beat Caffeine blogger T. J. Gorton. Think a less-slick Earth, Wind & Fire, and since it has been awhile since this music has been in fashion (at least in my house), it’s fresh.
I also copped a Graham Parker and the Rumour concert set a few months ago, via a company called Enterprise Music and Distribution. It has a substantial number of concert discs in its “Legends Live” series of classic rock acts, but there’s almost no information about when and where these recordings were made or which iteration of a band is performing. But with a selection from Blue Öyster Cult to Hall & Oates, you might want to take a shot.
Strange things show up on the HHO label: one of eMusic’s most popular offerings of the last few months has been David Crosby and Graham Nash’s Wind on the Water album. HHO also has everything from Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk to Doc Watson bluegrass, Duke Pearson bop, Soft Machine electronic rock, and Merle Haggard country. There is little about the personnel or sessions or even the labels themselves (many are based in Europe, and do their own compilations from various sources). I don’t want to sell you off-brand or re-recorded material, but you can listen to 30- or 60-second samples before you buy in the eMusic app before you buy.
Some of my best jazz purchases have come from Nagel Heyer records, a German jazz label based in Hamburg. There are about 300 Nagel Heyer album downloads at this writing, including Night Tide by Lou Donaldson, a 16-track compilation of Blue Note tracks circa 1962. Tracks, including “Watusi Jump” and “Spaceman Twist,” are so much better than their titles, and feature the likes of Grant Green on guitar and the underappreciated Big John Patton on organ. ($6.49 for the album, 49 cents a track.) For the same price, there’s a 22-track Eric Dolphy collection called Sugar. I was on the fence about it until a little research showed that six of the cuts represent the whole 1961 New Jazz label album Caribé by the Latin Jazz Quintet and Eric Dolphy. It’s not considered a Dolphy masterpiece, but it’s an interesting session if you just want to do a web search for the particular tracks and buy them for 49 cents each.
Blue Moon Music, another international distributor, has 135 classic jazz albums in its collection, including titles by Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and others, but again, smart shoppers will want to try to do a search to find out the provenance of some of these sessions. The UK’s Trunk Records label has hundreds of albums to download, and specializes in “lost film scores, unreleased TV music…sexploitation and kitsch,” but poke around and you’ll find the outstanding Miles Davis soundtrack to the 1958 French movie L’ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), amid oddities from Basil Kirchen and a collection of British flexidisc tracks.
Rolling Tide music carries just about the whole Steve Forbert catalog, including a 19-track “Best of” for $6.99, an outstanding discount since individual song downloads are 89 cents. And Willie Nile has a good selection of his catalog albums in the same price category, including his excellent 2013 album American Ride. Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records is still on the roster.
All these selections could be temporary; labels, especially those dedicated to individual artists, disappear without notice. Sonic Youth’s catalog was here one day, gone the next, as has Acony Records, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’ label. It does take more time each month to find how to make the best use of my $14, but I don’t mind the hours of browsing. That’s the fun of crate-digging, even for MP3s.