(John Ritter for The Washington Post)

When I was a teenager in Salt Lake City in the early 1990s, it was easy to buy music — unless that music was weird, controversial or outside of mainstream tastes. After all, Utah was the state where “Footloose” — a movie about kids living in a town where dancing and rock music were against the law — was filmed. People had tough standards.

My folks were not ogres. They even took me to a Grateful Dead show. But Nirvana’s “Nevermind” — a loud, angry, generation-defining album that also happened to have a naked baby on the cover — was not a record that they were inclined to purchase. My uncles owned a record store, but they weren’t going to slip me a CD that my parents were on the fence about. If I wanted 24-hour access to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” I was on my own, and would have to bike or bus myself several miles to the nearest decent record shop that was not affiliated with my family to buy it myself.

But do you know what would have been harder? Buying “Nevermind” on iTunes without Mom and Dad finding out.

Young Americans have lost the urge to spend money on music. It’s quicker and easier to listen on the Internet for free. Pretty much any song that has ever existed can be heard on streaming audio and video sites such as Spotify, Pandora and YouTube. And that’s not counting content that musicians give away for free.

It’s a great time to be a thrifty, music-loving teenager, even if you risk incurring the wrath of the world’s biggest metal band whose lawsuit crippled Napster. But if teenagers want to buy a record these days — out of altruism, pity or a desire to support artists such as Metallica, whose once-massive profits from the sale of physical albums dwarf the negligible royalties they’re paid by Web-based music services — options are more limited than they were a generation ago. The Internet has given kids boundless opportunities to hear music gratis, but few ways to pay for it.

To shop for mp3s on iTunes or Amazon, you need a credit card or debit card. If you’re a minor with an allowance, you probably don’t have either. Meanwhile, more than 3,000 independent record shops closed in the past decade. Major retail chains — think Tower, Virgin and Sam Goody — have been shuttered or dramatically cut back. And big box chains such as Target, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy have ditched old music and obscure releases to focus on a small selection of proven hits.

“They’re not carrying the depth of catalog,” says Russ Crupnick, vice president of industry analysis at the NPD Group, a market research firm. “You can still find the Carly Rae [Jepsen] CD in there, but if you’ve got a kid who is fascinated with Black Sabbath, you’re not going to find them.” If your tastes don’t align with Best Buy’s music buyer, you’ll have to turn to iTunes. And your folks, who control the purse strings.

“Right now, most kids are using parents’ iTunes accounts or otherwise relying on parental permission to make their purchases,” says Mary Madden, a researcher at the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The only hiccup: The songs that teenagers want to hear and the songs their parents let them hear are often very different. Leveraging chores in exchange for Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (uncensored version, of course), the Tool discography or anything Odd Future-related is for brazen teens with particularly liberal or oblivious parents. For the rest, an awkward conversation about the record’s content is inevitable — unless they get their hands on a gift card.

“This is kind of the untold genius of iTunes that’s not spoken about, when it comes to teenagers, is the gift card,” says Crupnick, who estimates that two-thirds of the money teens spend online is with such cards. But he acknowledges that buying music with a gift card means owning a lot of gear— an iPod, iPad, iTouch or even just an Internet-capable computer with iTunes installed. Although such devices are common — about 25 percent of teenagers say they have a smartphone — not everybody is iEmpowered.

When you’re young, music looms large. It makes a statement about who you are. It’s also a commodity that you purchase on your own. When I was a teenager, I usually got to choose my music despite Tipper Gore’s parental advisory stickers. Autonomy and individuality were key. Today, if kids want to buy music, it’s out of a sense of obligation.

“They only ever pay for music out of respect for the artist,” MTV researcher Mariana Agathoklis says. “They almost view that as a way to show off their fandom, where it used to be that you would follow an artist on tour, you would look like them and wear their T-shirts.” A record is no longer an impulse buy — it’s patronage.

Musicians, such as David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, find little comfort here. In a recent article posted on the blog the Trichordist, Lowery wrote that kids are “doing it wrong.” Because they are more willing to buy devices — iPhones, iPods and Zunes — than music, they are, in effect, stealing from the freaks to give to the man.

It’s a persuasive argument. But even if Lowery’s article softens some hearts and sends teens racing out to reward the musicians they love, they might find that purchasing music online doesn’t suit adolescence.

Back in the day, I borrowed a copy of “Nevermind” from a girl on the school bus and dubbed it to cassette, avoiding the bike ride to a record store that’s now closed. Today, Salt Lake City teens without access to a fully funded iTunes account probably have to ask a parent for buying permission. The alternative? Listen to any song they want for free, immediately, as many times as they want.

If you were 16, which would you choose?


Aaron Leitko is a music critic and an editorial aide for The Washington Post’s Reliable Source.

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