Yes, all too often 'back in the day' we had to buy stuff without hearing a note of it beforehand.
I grew up in a small town, rural area- no one had jack for anything to listen to. Nearest shopping mall was over an hour's drive away. My one chance to hear things was on Headbangers Ball, which I'd sit up and watch every week. I'd instantly memorize anything that sounded interesting; I didn't care if the video sucked, I just wanted to know what was worth buying on my next pilgrimage to that far distant mall! I'd keep band names in my mind for years based off of one viewing of one video. I bought a used tape in a store in Texas about 7 years after seeing the video get one play on HBB b/c I still remembered adding it to my mental check list that night it was aired.
When I went to college I expected a vibrant music scene with lots of people into metal. Wrong-o. In four years, I met exactly one serious metal head, and we're still friends to this day. But the college radio station did have a late night Metal show on the weekends: 'Metal Storm'. Not only could I listen for hours to hear new stuff, but I could also call in and request things from bands I had heard of, but never actually heard. Those poor folks got so tired of me calling in requests. I taped stuff off the radio show; for years I had piles of 'Metal Storm Vol __" tapes. The only downside was that I started college right after the grunge explosion, so 80s metal was quickly falling out of favor, which meant more and more air time was given over to 90s 'not-metal' stuff such as Alice in Chains, Tool, Stone Temple Pilots, etc. And a lot of the remaining air time was devoted to death metal, which has never been my favorite. But that's when I'd call in and request some Overkill, Manowar, Saxon, Solitude Aeternus, etc- they had a surprisingly good selection for a small campus in the middle of the Rust Belt. Black metal started to get some spins by '94-'95; late by the rest of the world's standards, but the US overall was pretty slow to catch on to the Norwegian revival.
While I do have a certain nostalgia for those 'Metal Storm' days, in reality it was a lot of work and time to find out about bands back then. And yes, a lot of wasted dollars on things that were not worthy
But the difficulty did make one really appreciate it when they learned about something new or heard a really good track, and I think that's somewhat lost today. There's an old saying that you only value that which you have to work for, and nowadays we don't have to do jack squat to hear music from an unknown group. You hear something on YouTube or BandCamp and it's like, yeah, that's not bad, whatever, on to the next song- it's forgotten in a matter of days. The guys over at Worm Gear used to call it 'the disposable music phenomena' and they had a point. Compare that to having to special order 'Tales from the Thousand Lakes' or waiting three weeks for Jim over at Madhatter Music to track down a copy of 'Point Blank' on the foreign mail order lists. Took Jim over a month to find a Blind Guardian CD- any CD, we didn't care which album- for my friend and I. Those weren't just new albums, they were fucking Big Game trophies, they were 1st Prize in the Heavy Metal Conquest. How's a $4.99 emusic d/l gonna compare to that? Those discs got played for WEEKS, even when they didn't live up to expectations. D/ls these days get one, maybe two, chances to impress me before they're relegated to the darkest corners of my hard drive.
Of course, maybe we'd be in the same boat now even if digital music wasn't a thing. Once you do something long enough, there are fewer and fewer chances to experience new stuff. Sure, there's always some undiscovered gem out there, but there are fewer and fewer that you don't know about, and it takes more and more time and effort to find them. If I was still taping songs off 'Metal Storm' these days, how many new songs would they play that I'd never heard before? 25 years ago 'Metal Storm' could blow me away by letting me hear my first songs from Iced Earth ('Stormrider'), Paradise Lost ('mortals fear the day'), Manowar ('Wheels of Fire'), Dream Theater ('Metropolis Pt 1'), Samael ('Ceremony of Opposites'), Emperor (something from 'Nightside Eclipse'), and dozens more.... but those days passed on by long before blogspots and band camps became a thing.
Compilation albums suffered the same fate. I used to love them b/c they gave me a way to hear a bunch of new bands all at once. But as the years went by and I heard more and more groups, there was less and less reason for me to listen to most compilations. One of the greatest discoveries I made back in high school was a $5 tape bought at a truck stop called 'Thrash Metal'. It gave me my first listen to all of the following bands: Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth, Nuclear Assault, Death Angel, Savatage, Lizzy Borden, Helloween, Vinnie Vincent, and one more.... see? almost 30 fucking years later I can instantly recall 9 of the 10 bands off the top of my head, even though I haven't played that tape in probably 20+ years. By comparison, I probably can't tell you 5 albums I've downloaded this year. That comp was a treasure trove. I ended up eventually buying at least one album by every band on it except Lizzy Borden (and maybe the one band I'm forgetting). That tape literally dictated at least 8 album purchases I made soon after buying that tape (in no particular order, Persistence of Time, Peace Sells, South of Heaven, Game Over, Frolic Through the Park, Streets, All Systems Go, and what is still to this day my most favorite album ever, Keepers pt 1)- it was a huge part of my metal education at that time.
But today, I wouldn't even give a compilation like that a second glance.
"I'm sorry Sam, we had real chemistry. But like a monkey on the sun, our love was too hot to live"