When I first started buying records in earnest in the mid-1980s, a 7" single containing two tracks cost around $3, or $1.50 a track. Sometimes K-Mart or my local record store would have a sale, but that wasn't something you could rely on and wouldn't necessarily get you the music you wanted. Albums were marginally better value, but with many only running to 10 or so tracks and new releases costing $12, the cost was still relatively high.
These days, a standard release track on iTunes (the dominant player in digital music) costs either $1.69 or $2.19 — a remarkable outcome given a quarter of a century inflation. At $16.99 for many digital releases, albums have gone up even less. Yes, you don't get a physical object, but you do get a far wider choice than any actual music store can offer. The same applies to movie downloads, which at $ on iTunes are often cheaper than the tickets at my local cinema.
While the convenience of downloading has all but killed off the physical single, it has tended to eliminate our tendency to shop around, which isn't necessarily a sensible move. We might be in the digital era, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't go hunting for bargains.
On iTunes, for instance, new release tracks often tend to attract the $2.19 price tag. That's the case with 'Rude Boy' by Rhianna, which is riding high in the Australian iTunes chart as I write this. Move over to Big Pond Music, on the other hand, and the same track can be had for $0.99. Even if it wasn't a top 10 special, it would be $1.65. Yes, downloading from Big Pond adds one extra step if your ultimate playback device is an iPod, but the files are in standard MP3 format, so it's not a major inconvenience.
That's not to say that iTunes always comes out second-best in those comparisons. Head to the ABC Shop Online and you can purchase a digital download of the Doctor Who special The Runaway Bride for $4.99. On iTunes, the same episode is $2.99 — a substantial difference.
Some material is exclusively tied to a particular platform, and in those cases you don't have much choice. But it's often worth doing a little hunting to see if you can get your entertainment fix at a lower cost. For additional savings, you can check the specials sections on iTunes, BigPond or any other provider, or stock up on gift cards, which are discounted with astonishing regularity.
How do you save money when shopping for music or movies online? Tell us in the comments. Thanks Alex and Di!
Lifehacker's weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.