After reading about the latest proposed attempt to stop illegal internet downloads and file-sharing by imposing a £30 licence fee on those downloading music, I set about trying out the various ways in which you can buy music – and as cheaply as possible. Since the 12 Mercury nominees will be the names gracing most music-lovers' shopping lists this week, my mission is to purchase the lot for as close to £30 as possible.
The first challenge is to track them all down. There's always a random act on the Mercury list (typically jazz) that nobody has heard of, and this year's appears to be Portico Quartet, whose album Knee Deep in the North Sea few of the stores have in stock. Leeds independent store Jumbo Records' response is typical: "Portico who? Who are they?" Other shops claim to be adding it to their stock list because of the nomination. London independent shop Sister Ray is also missing it, as well as Laura Marling's Alas I Cannot Swim, which has just sold out. The shop assistant says that they have shifted "loads" of the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss album Raising Sand, as well as Radiohead's In Rainbows, Burial's Untrue and The Last Shadow Puppets' The Age of the Understatement since the announcement on Tuesday. Up-to-the-minute independent shop Rough Trade East has got Knee Deep, however, and it will be holding an instore gig with the contemporary jazz band next week. Other shops are missing the odd album because they have sold out due to their popularity since the Mercury nominations were announced.
On the high street, prices are much lower. When I visit one London branch, HMV has sold out of Untrue – the assistant's choice to win the prize. He has a gripe with the choice of nominees, which he considers to be too safe, lacking innovation, and with far too many acts not strictly complying with the British and Irish criteria.
So £30 for 12 albums? It's not possible. You can trawl through second-hand shops and pick up the odd bargain, but, buying all 12 in one go, I found that prices weren't rock bottom even for used CDs. Second-hand shop Flashback in Essex Road, North London, came up trumps, with all 12 albums costing only £84.88. But, as was to be expected, purchasing online was the cheapest place to find all the CDs new and at once. And then there's downloading from iTunes and 7Digital – well, it can't compare with free, can it?
The complete list of nominees is: Adele, '19'; British Sea Power, 'Do You Like Rock Music?'; Burial, 'Untrue'; Elbow, 'The Seldom Seen Kid'; Estelle, 'Shine'; Laura Marling, 'Alas, I Cannot Swim'; Neon Neon, 'Stainless Style'; Portico Quartet, 'Knee Deep in the North Sea'; Rachel Unthank, 'The Bairns'; Radiohead, 'In Rainbows'; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, 'Raising Sand'; The Last Shadow Puppets', 'The Age of the Understatement'; the winner will be announced on 9 September
On the high street
The cheapest place to buy new CDs on the spot, reliable HMV has 11 of the 12 CDs in stock. When I went shopping, it had not yet begun its Mercury promotion and I was assured that prices would drop nearer the time of the award. Step into the Oxford Street store in central London and, predictable as the CD shopping experience may be (the quicker you get it done the better), the job is carried out as slickly as at independent shops Rough Trade East and Sister Ray. HMV has run out of Burial's album, but everything else is in stock and at the cheapest price we found for a new instant purchase. At HMV's biggest high street rival Zavvi (formerly Virgin Megastore) the total for the 12 albums came to £108, with each one ranging in price from £7 to £9.
Our best buy: HMV, £95.70
It can be time-consuming, but unearthing the CDs at second-hand shops can save you pounds. If you're willing to trawl several shops you can find a few bargains at a time. National chain Music and Video Exchange is always a good source of up-to-date second-hand CDs: prices start at around £10 and get knocked down by a pound for each month they're in stock. Its Notting Hill, London, branch had three of the CDs in stock – Adele, Elbow and British Sea Power – priced between £8 and £9. The cheapest store was Flashback on London's Essex Road, which had all the albums in stock. Loyalty to the shop gains you favourable discounts – according to the assistant, the price "depends on who you are" – and, despite it being a second-hand shop, it had all 11 albums in stock with average prices for the collection, ranging from £5.99 to £8.99. Excellent.
Our best buy: Flashback, London N1, £84.88
By far the best record-buying experience and always full of attentive and knowledgeable staff. Of all the independent shops we checked out, Avalanche in Glasgow was the cheapest at £103.89 for all but Portico Quartet's album, with Sister Ray in London closely following at £108.88.
I started my search in London's most fashionable and newest independent store, Rough Trade East, in the hub of the trendy East End. There, record-buying is an old-fashioned pleasure. One customer's request to hear a CD is answered and, on the day I visit, shop staff are keen to tell me that one of the Mercury nominees Neon Neon will be turning up in a DeLorean car (the name of the engineer subject of their concept album Stainless Style) to play a gig. There is just one CD the shop doesn't stock – Estelle's Shine – but some of the CDs are not cheap, priced up to £15.99. But it's all about the experience – you could devote a whole afternoon to browsing in Rough Trade East with its instore café and free internet access.
Next I head off to the grimy back streets of Soho and the infamous Berwick Street, which has long been a source of vinyl and CD, both new and second-hand. There, the second-hand shop Revival has replaced the famous Reckless Records, but none of the Mercury albums appears to be in stock. Staff point me in the direction of Sister Ray, one of the few independent stores to have stood the test of time, a warren of musical treasures since 1981. Its albums are well priced for an independent shop in London, costing from £8.99 for Adele's 19 and Estelle's Shine, to £10.99 for Burial's Untrue. Jumbo Records, going strong in Leeds for 37 years, was more expensive at £118.86 for all but Portico Quartet's album.
Our best buy: Avalanche Records, Glasgow, £103.89
The cheapest place overall to buy CDs is Amazon Marketplace, where the full second-hand or new collection will set you back approximately £76.37 plus postage. Buying directly from Amazon, the price is almost identical at £95.76, but add on the postage and you're quickly paying more (Super Saver delivery is free, but takes longer). CD Wow is another online retailer that's offering the full list, while Play.com is the other option. At the latter, the 12 CD bundle comes to £98.68; first-class postage is included. If you're not bothered about owning a physical copy, digital download store 7digital comes out marginally cheaper than iTunes. At £86.50, its 12-album package is £3 cheaper than iTunes.
Our best buy: Amazon Marketplace, £76.37