Do Indies do it Better?

I must start this post with an essential caveat: this is all anecdotal. These arguments would not hold up in a court of law, but that being said I would have no idea why anyone would be talking about this in court in the first place. That would be a boring case to litigate. This is just me thinking out loud, so to speak, because I think that’s what having a blog is for.

Second caveat: this whole thing is going to reek of sounding hipsterish.

I like buying vinyl. I’ve talked about this before. It’s still the least common way to acquire music, save for people who out-hipster the most hipsterish of hipsters by acquiring their music on cassettes. Even I have to draw the line somewhere.

Lately a lot of new music has been coming out that I’ve wanted to get my hands on. In the past month or two, I’ve purchased new albums from Local H, Green Day, NOFX, Muse, and Pinback. Save for the Muse album, which I bought down at Everyday Music, everything else I ordered via mail.

Now, it’s been common practice in the years of the vinyl revival (2007-ish to present) for bands to include complimentary download cards with the records. It’s sort of a “thank you” from the band, a way of acknowledging that the fan spent far more money on an album by purchasing it in a fixed medium than they would have otherwise spent. Records aren’t easily portable, obviously, but the fan who went the extra mile should still have access to that music wherever they go. Fans who spent far less for the same music get it in portable form, after all, and the vinyl buyer should too.

Not every band does this, of course. This is not a uniform practice in the industry, but I can think of zero reasons—save for the tired fear of pirating excuse—for bands to not offer free downloads to their vinyl buying fans. It’s quite easy to do. Anyone with a Bandcamp or Reverbnation account can set up a free download system. To me it boils down to a customer service issue, a desire to give your consumer fair value for their money.

Of those five albums I listed above, two of them didn’t come with download cards. So hey, three for five. It’s good enough for a D, which is a passing grade. But as Mike Judge said in Office Space, “Now if you feel that the bare minimum is enough, then okay,” but I guess I just really want my pieces of flair. Music is an essentially communal activity, even when you’re just listening by yourself. You want to feel like someone shared something with you and didn’t just shrink wrap something to get your last dollar (I don’t even want to think about how many dollars I’ve spent on music the past few years). An easy way to do that here is simply to make the customer’s listening experience as easy and rich as possible.

Of those five albums, two of them were major label releases and the other three came out on indies. See a correlation here? In case you don’t, I’ll just spell it out: the major labels did not include download cards with their records. So, thank you Local H, NOFX, and Pinback, and shame on you Green Day and Muse. (At least one of you is reading this right now and saying “That’s what you get for still buying Green Day albums.” You may be right, but I’m like a Pokemon collector with my music: gotta have ’em all.)

I want to sharpen the contrast just a bit more before I get off my soapbox. The Muse album I’ll actually give a pass to a certain extent. The record was overpriced, but at least it was two 180-gram records that came in decent packaging. The Green Day record I ordered through their web store, got charge nearly an additional $10 for shipping (far higher than I’ve paid anywhere else), and when I finally got the record it was a week after the album had been released. No download card, and it was warped. Like, pretty damn warped.

I might not have minded that the album came a week late. Except, well, Local H kind of put Green Day to shame in this regard. Facing much higher demand for the vinyl than the band expected, they quickly realized they wouldn’t be able to get copies out to everyone in time. So, what did they do? They us all an e-mail apologizing we wouldn’t get the record in the mail by its release date. This was nice enough, but just to make sure we were happy they included a free download for the record right in the e-mail. Local H decided that instead of keeping us waiting they would reward us by giving us the record two days early.  Also, the Local H album is way better than the new Green Day album. You should check it out.

Pinback just showed up on my doorstep on Saturday. It was late relative to the album’s release date, but they also sent an e-mail apologizing for the delay. No free download like Local H, but it’s amazing how just the notification helps put the customer at ease (I never even got a notification from Green Day’s store letting me know the item had shipped).

When I opened the packaging for the Pinback album, I got a free download for the album, a catalogue of the label’s other bands, and a free CD for a band called Parlour, which turned out to be really good. I am a fan of Parlour now.

I’m not really going to draw an conclusions from this post. Plenty of major labels do make sure to include download cards, and I’ve actually been totally happy much more often that I’ve felt burned. But oh man, it sure sucks to feel burned when buying records. If there are any takeaways, its really one that we all pretty much know: take care of your fans, and they will take care of you. I’m not sure if I’m buying the next Green Day album (which is just a couple weeks away) after this experience, and that just kinda bums me out.

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