I remember just a couple of weeks ago, I was driving home from work and a song caught my attention on the radio. I was pretty sure I’d never heard it before, and given the nature of my two favorite radio stations, there was every possibility I’d never hear it again either. And the DJ never told me who it was.
And I had a thought. If more stations would play something other than the same 50 or 60 songs over and over, and the DJ would actually tell you what each song was, and you could run home and buy it for 75 cents,
I reasoned, then the music industry would be in a whole lot better shape. They might not sell what they wanted, but they’d be able to sell something. Which, if you listen to them, doesn’t exactly describe their present situation.

Now in the age of the Internet, if I’d been able to remember or jot down a couple of lines of the song, I’d be able to search Google for it and probably come up with an artist and title. The RIAA hates it when people post song lyrics on the Web or on Usenet, and while technically it is a copyright violation, I know I’ve bought tons and tons and tons of records that way. I hear a song or remember a song from the past, search for it, find out what it was, and then I buy it. Case in point: One of the first songs I remember hearing on the radio was “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson. I think the last time I heard it on the radio was sometime in 1983. I remembered the tune and one line: “We’ll leave the TV and the radio behind.” One day I couldn’t stand it anymore, searched, was shocked to hear it was Joe Jackson, went to CDNow, listened to the sample, and bought his Greatest Hits album on the spot.

Now I would later find out that I can pretty safely buy a Joe Jackson record for one song and there’ll be at least one other song on it that I like a lot and one or two others that I like. I found out through experience that’s not usually the case. My CD rack is full of discs I bought for one or two songs and weren’t worth the price of admission.

There’s an Offspring song called “Gone Away” that I really like. But I don’t like Offspring. Similarly, I can’t stand Sugar Ray because all of their songs are about either getting sloshed or getting laid, and I don’t care for that lifestyle or music that celebrates it. There’s so much more to life than that. But somewhere along the way, that band recorded one song that I like and would like to own.

I don’t care much for Matchbox Twenty because all of their songs pretty much sound alike and the lyrics are almost all about shallow and empty relationships that started in bars or ended in bars and how lonely and empty they leave Rob Thomas feeling. If I want mope rock, I’ll listen to The Cure because at least they’ve found more than one thing to be depressed about and found ways to make it sound different over the years. But I’ve heard one or two Matchbox 20 songs that I like and wouldn’t mind owning.

Listen.com offers downloadable tracks for under a buck but it’s a subscription service. Apple’s iTunes has the right idea, with a fair price and no subscription, but of course it’s Mac-only at least for the moment. And now there’s Buymusic.com, which is completely Windows Media Player-centric. I tried visiting the site with Mozilla and it told me to download Internet Explorer. When I visited with Internet Exploiter, it gave me a popup saying I needed a newer version of Windows Media Player. I closed the window and it let me browse.

I’ve looked at both Listen.com and Buymusic.com, and they both have holes in their catalogs. I know some bands don’t want to be listed because they want to sell albums, not singles. To which I say record great albums and I’ll buy them. When I put in U2’s The Joshua Tree, more often than not I skip past the first four or five tracks that contained all of the album’s hits. There wasn’t a single hit on the second half of the album, but the songs are better. “One Tree Hill” and “Red Hill Mining Town” are two of the best songs they’ve ever recorded, and most people have probably never heard them.

I’ll almost always listen to Disintegration by The Cure and Straight Up by Badfinger and Whatever by Aimee Mann all the way through. But the last great album I bought was All That You Can’t Leave Behind by U2, and that was two years ago. I can’t tell you the last great one I bought before that.

But hey, at least now I’ve got a way to buy some singles with a clear conscience. I kind of like the idea of being able to buy all the big-label music that’s caught my attention the past five or six years for about 20 bucks. And I do want to buy it legitimately. I’ve spent some time writing songs and I know a lot of work goes into it. And even more work goes into recording songs. I’ve spent some time in a recording studio too, and all I know is that I don’t know half the time and effort that goes into recording a song. Most of the people you hear on the radio work longer and weirder hours than I do and yet make only slightly more money than I do. So I really don’t want to steal from them.

Now I need to go find some good indie stuff. I’m pretty sure that’s where I’m going to have to look if I want great albums or something that sounds a little different.