Amazon prices major label CDs lower than digital? For some titles …

Now that I’ve fallen into the black hole of vinyl collecting, I rarely ever visit the CD sections of the local music shop. My penny-pinching tendencies have pretty much made Amazon my default for the now-rare instance when I want to buy CDs. (Or, as I like to call them, “high quality audio backups.”)

I’ve noticed something happening on Amazon — prices for some major label titles on CD are lower than their digital counterparts.

[Amazon prices of Purple Rain by Prince]

A few weeks ago, I decided to get Purple Rain by Prince and the Revolution. My first instinct was to use part of my eMusic quota to download it, but I did a price comparison between eMusic and Amazon and discovered the most economical way to buy the album was to order it on CD. On Amazon MP3, the album cost $9.49. On eMusic, it was $6.49. But to order a CD on Amazon: $4.99.

I ended up buying it at Everyday Music for $5.99. I didn’t mind paying the convenience fee.

It didn’t stop there.

My most recent orders included two Sade albums — Stronger than Pride and Promise — both priced at $6.99, which is lower than their digital prices ($9.99 and $8.91, respectively.) I also snagged Ghost in the Machine by the Police for $4.99, a buck cheaper than the digital offering.

I assumed perhaps this pricing strategy applied only to titles with a respectable catalog presence but not considered canonical classics. Then I searched some newer titles and found a CD for Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE going for $7.50, while the digital price was closer to $10. A few days later, the disparity narrowed, with the CD going for $11.49 and digital going for $11.88. Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady followed a more familiar model — $9.99 for the CD, $8.99 for digital.

Of course, teasing out meaning from the mysterious algorithms of Amazon’s pricing strategy is probably no different than forecasting the course of a day from a newspaper horoscope.

But this encounter made me stop to rethink some habits I’ve developed in my music consumership.

CD prices have been so high for so long that it’s easy to assume that the disc price would never be lower than the digital price. But the cultural sea change has gone so far in the direction of digital formats that it’s not uncommon for artists to bypass a CD release entirely. TV Mania’s Bored with Prozac and the Internet? is available only on vinyl and download.

I buy CDs when I know I want an album from which I can rip files in case my hard drive ever gets hosed. (See “high quality audio backup.”) But with CDs taking on the esteem vinyl did on its ascendancy, prices could be edging even lower.