Didn’t I just pay for that?

Deutsche Grammophon launched its music download service in 2007, and I bought two titles to see how the user experience compared to other such services. I ended up really liking both albums — Osvaldo Golijov’s Oceana and Emerson String Quartet’s American Originals — so I bought them on CD.

Then I realized I fell for the classic trick of the music industry — make consumers buy titles multiple times between different formats.

It reminded me of the late ’80s, when I moved from vinyl to cassette tape, then finally to CD. At first I thought I would dub my vinyl albums to blank cassette, so that I may listen to them on my Walkman. (Remember those?) But I ended up buying pre-recorded cassettes because the sound quality was better than what my aging boombox could capture. Then I got a CD player, and the dubbing option became moot.

With each format change, the question remains the same — what makes the leap to the new format and what doesn’t? It applies as much to new purchases as to catalog.

With teenagers ignoring CDs and iTunes becoming the second biggest retailer of music, the digital download is the format to which the industry is moving. Unlike the move from vinyl to cassette to CD, the change in hardware is not so drastic. Digital files can be created from CDs, so CD players do not have to make way for digital file players. (They probably will anyway.)

I don’t see CDs going away. I remember reading an article in Billboard where someone commented that anyone who thinks digital files will replace CDs has probably never downloaded anything. I’ve seen too many panicked Ask Metafilter threads where entire music collection were housed on failed hard drives. That’s a significant reason I still buy CDs — they’re glorified backups.

If anything, digital files are the 21st Century equivalent to blank cassette tapes, just without temperamental tape heads and real-time dubbing. I could conceivably just stick to buying CDs and ripping to MP3 without ever once purchasing anything from iTunes or Amazon MP3 Downloads.

But the file sharing paradigm has pretty much made smarter consumers out of music fans. The recording industry would like to paint illegal downloaders as thieves who don’t want to pay for its product, but employing the services of the Evil Sharing Networks hasn’t stopped me from buying CDs — it just makes me more selective about the ones I end up purchasing.

eMusic’s subscription model is a nice, cost-effective middle ground between the ala carte model of iTunes and the free anarchy of file sharing. I use it as a paid preview service — at 65 downloads for $14.99 a month, I spend $0.23 per file. Unlike file sharing, a fraction of that $0.23 goes to the artist. On Bittorrent, that total is $0.00.

I’ve bought a number of CDs as a result of downloading from eMusic. Yes, I’m paying for the same album twice, but the added cost is marginal. Duke Quartet’s Hunting: Gathering CD cost $16.98 on Amazon. The album’s nine tracks totaled $2.07 at my eMusic subscription level. I spent $19.05 on two versions of the same album.

Had I bought both download ($8.91) and album from Amazon, it would have totaled $25.89. From iTunes ($9.99), $26.97.

As for the Deutsche Grammophone titles, I sank $29.38 ($10.99 download + $18.39 CD) on the Emerson disc and $29.30 ($11.99 download + $17.31 CD) on the Golijov.

In the past few days, I’ve collected a number of titles on an Amazon wish list that I would like to download in the future, but I haven’t made the leap — I want to make sure what I get isn’t something I’d get twice. Weird, right?

So far I’ve noted vinyl titles in my collection that were never crossgraded to CD and CDs I owned but let go for some short-term cash. I’ve got maybe one or two new releases on that list.

This experience shows me the subscription model encourages buying in multiple formats, where the ala carte model assumes I’d stick with one. eMusic has certainly allowed me to part with more cash than iTunes or Amazon combined.