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Efficient Dollar Bin Shopping: Record Labels

Happy New Year!  If your vision is not too blurry then welcome to my first post of 2010.  And oh, if you really want to know, my resolution this year is to go commando more often.

There are many times when one just feels inspired to try out some new music but may not be willing to spend a lot of money to do so.  One can satiate this desire for some fresh tunes by surfing around for some mp3s or perhaps flipping on their favorite college radio station.  When one is away from a computer or radio, though, one is more likely to stumble into their favorite music store and hope for the best.  This is where the lottery of the dollar bin comes in, and I usually take my chances a few times a month with varying success.  Decisions on what to buy primarily come from the album cover, band photo (if there is one) and song titles on the back of the cd.  However, what can one really discern from such information?  Unless the clothing and facial expressions make a band’s sound obvious, one usually can’t tell if the stoic, awkward poses mean the band is trying to be aloof or if they just don’t take good photos.  Album covers are the worst deceivers in whether a record is good or not, for whether or not the band tabbed a good artist (or even made a good artistic choice) has nothing to do with the music contained on the disc.  Therefore, dollar bin shopping usually ends up being a total crapshoot.

Although one can’t really control the odds one has in a monetary lottery, one can take a more educated approach when shopping for cheap, castoff records.  This usually involves getting to know your record labels.  Granted, there are tons of them out there that have formed, spat out an assortment of goodness and garbage, and then promptly disappeared.  There is little chance that one will ever get to know all of them intimately, yet there are certainly a group of 10 or 20 that one can pin down as preferable to the buyer.  Since record labels usually try to diversify their band lineups so that they don’t rely on one particular sound for success, it can be difficult pinning down which labels will be automatic favorites of the buyer.  However, through some strategic research and a little effort on learning label history, one can use record labels to their advantage.  Therefore, here is my advice for using record labels to help assist in dollar bin shopping:

1.)  Go through your own collection and mark down the labels of your favorite artists on a piece of paper.  For each time that a label appears, put a mark next to it.  To have a credible, statistical result, sift through at least 100 cds if possible.  By the end of your tallying efforts, you should see not only a wide array of labels that you might otherwise not have known existed in your collection, but you may even find a trend.  Hopefully there will be a few labels whose quantity of marks stand out on your list so that you can at least do a quick visual search of cd spines for particular label logos.

2.)  Some record labels are so large that even if they are featured on your list of artists, you may not be entirely thrilled with whatever they put out.  For instance, Warner Bros., Sony, Universal, and EMI have such a wide array of artists on their label that one can get anything from rock to folk to easy listening.  Therefore, one should use caution before blindly buying something from them no matter how cheap.  It might be more beneficial to focus on smaller or independent labels to make a smarter purchase.

3.)  Speaking of which, if an independent label is the focus of your collection then it would be worth the time to sift through the label’s website to see what other artists the label carries.  One can preview the records from artists they are unfamiliar with to get a further understanding, and perhaps a stronger confidence in, certain record labels.  I, for one, know that anything off of the popularly indie Matador Records will usually be pretty good thanks to their history of hosting bands I particularly like, including Pavement and Yo La Tengo.

4.)  If a record doesn’t even have a record label, well, that’s a whole other gamble.  Since bands without record labels did not pass through some kind of pre-evaluation by a label executive or owner, one really has no idea how the production is on such records.  One may even get handwritten song lists or perhaps CD-Rs that contain the music when purchasing such music, so to dig out the dollars for this kind of music one has to really be interested in getting to know the truly unknown.  Unless I have heard of a local band or know that a certain band has opened for a better recognized group, I rarely pick up such music because the odds are usually against me.  I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for when deciding on whether to take the risk on an album without a music label.

By getting to know your record labels one can browse dollar bins with a keener eye than one who may be going in simply taking chances.  One still will be gambling on picking up an artist on certain labels regardless, for each label has its list of successes and flops.  I suppose there is no more guarantee that one will have a better chance with an edgy-looking artist off of Epitaph records versus an artist that is dressed in eighties clothing from Sweden, so it truly is up to the buyer to decide on what to spend their valued dollar on.  Sometimes it’s just more fun to throw educated guess out the window and go with any band with big hair!

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