I may listen impulsively, but I don't typically buy that way. I try to approach albums the way artists laid them out, which means buying whole albums rather than picking and choosing downloads, and listening to the album through, in order, at least once before allowing myself to skip around.
I would argue that a trustworthy artist puts thought and care into their tracklisting, so give it the respect due.
- Ideally your first listen to any album would be in an environment with minimal interruptions - in the car (although if you're concentrating/into it as much as you should be, you probably shouldn't be driving), through headphones (never EVER on computer speakers for your first listen), or in the space you have set up for listening (surround sound! a comfortable chair!).
- Beautifully, a good listening experience isn't a rich man's game. For the sake of the argument, let's assume everyone has SOME way to listen to music (CD player, turntable, car stereo, mp3 player, laptop, computer, phone). The easiest way to get great sound is with quality files that you purchased yourself (physical format or a high-quality download/rip from physical format) and a good pair of headphones.
- Skullcandy makes in-ear or over-ear headphones starting at about $30 that are as good as some of the "audiophile" quality kind that will run you big money. Seriously. This makes a huge difference.
- This is about improving the quality of your listening experience, not showing off, because there really is no ceiling in the cost of stereo equipment. The difference between $50 and $150 speakers is astronomical, but the difference between $1K and $5K speakers, not so much. $120K speakers, on the other hand, sort of demand a house to be built around them.
- JBL and Canton make some very decent and very affordable pro-sumer speakers which you can easily find. Befriend someone in the audio business, haunt your Goodwill.
- Regarding streaming: Pandora's fine if you're making dinner. Spotify I prefer when I'm at work and I can control the queue obsessively.
- Daytrotter, in a marketing stroke of genius, provides free mp3 streams of 4 or 5-song sets performed live at their facilities. In some cases you can buy the same tracks in high-quality for a nominal sum.
- Commit to buying one record a month. Just one. You can afford to pay full price if you're only buying one. As far as buying physical music: your money goes furthest when you buy from the artist at the merch table. Your next best option is a record store, or the artist's website.
- Choose well. Ask people you trust what they've bought and enjoyed. If you've found something special, harass your friends until they listen to it. Don't be afraid to shelve something you know you'll grow into, don't be afraid to sell something you really hate. You don't have to be a tastemaker, but ideally, you should educate your taste buds, and your opinions should be backed up by lots of listening.
- I still think the best way to experience music is live shows. You don't have to see tons. Try one a month. It might require a little research, you might have to sign up for some emails. I personally love the shows in small venues with low attendance. You get to be right up front if you want, you get to interact with the music in a way you simply cannot in larger venues.
- Liner notes are important for credits, for lyrics, and for thoughtfully written commentary. If the liner notes do not include at least two of these three things, there's no point.
Josh Ritter's team signs off their emails with a modified lyric from one of his songs: "Hold it high for us and we'll do the same for you". I find this charming and meaningful. Support your local musicians, make an effort to go and see your favorite touring musicians, buy physical media, buy merch. In return, you're going to get to build some unusual relationships, you're going to get high quality media, and who knows, maybe even the occasional free sticker.