Over the last couple of weeks, quite a few people have independently asked me: How do you find music?
The answer, of course, is: everywhere.
It’s not hard these days to find new music. What is harder is to cut through the noise - this is one of the reasons I started HotSpotMusic and that’s merely a very basic layer of aggregation and filtering, one or two degrees below the surface. Even more importantly, perhaps, is finding and dedicating time to do so. Gone are the days when I’d spend hours every night reading music blogs to keep on top of all the new bands doing the rounds but there are a number of sources.
So, in case you’re after some new sources of inspiration, here’s a few ideas:
Since I don’t have time for all the blogs, aggregators are a great way to zip through some of the things that they are posting. There’s two levels of aggregation - the first is the blog radio style where I can follow different bloggers or people and see what they post. The classic example of this is the Hype Machine which is just as strong as it was 5 years ago, the more emergent (but iPad-compatible) Shuffler.fm and the music jukebox in the sky that is ex.fm (which also handily picks up posts from your Tumblr and all around the web).
The other is review aggregators that aren’t necessarily following hot tracks but reviews from established outlets and trying to gauge the consensus of the critical elite. My favourites here are AnyDecentMusic (which has a UK-lean) & Metacritic (which has a US-lean). AnyDecentMusic, in particular, seems to go to extreme lengths to find new content and help augment its charts. The charts themselves are usually pretty representative of the current climate and ADM is therefore my go-to place when I feel like I’ve been out of it for a few weeks.
Okay… this is my favourite mode of music discovery: the random walk. Or, as it’s known in the modern age, the Wikipedia effect. Starting with something I know, I’ll endlessly browse through related artists, inspirations, offshoots, label mates and connected genres. Somewhere along the way I always run into something fantastic that I’ve never heard before. The best place to do this is (still) All Music with its encyclopedic detail of music history and, let’s be fair, taste. But this works equally well on Spotify’s related artists, Last.fm’s recommendations or tag browsing or even Amazon.
The flipside to this is randomised discovery via radio-mode on Spotify, Last.fm et al (Pandora being a big one that’s not available here in Germany). I should state for the record that I hate the shuffle function. So I don’t often use radio mode, but when I do I rarely remember the names of the artists featured. Shuffle mode is background music, it’s lazy mode and that’s why I don’t recommend it for real music discovery (also the algorithm’s are generally quite ineffective for unearthing new stuff, see 8tracks below).
Email / Newsletters
Most of the services I’ve mentioned here will do their own newsletters (and a particular shout out for the weekly album rundown by ADM & AMG as two of the best) and band/label mailing lists help too (if a little unwieldy to manage). Rough Trade also do a great weekly roundup (the website claims it’s ‘World Famous’) and their ability to pick new music is impeccable. The final one I use is a hack that someone put together called soundamus which looks at your last.fm history and tells you if there are any new records by those artists. Another handy reminder.
Podcasts / Radio
Today I listen to a lot more radio than I did a year ago thanks to digital radio through my iPhone. That means I’m able to enjoy 6music all the time (but particularly pre- and post-sleep and particularly when Gideon Coe is on). When I’m not listening live, I love a good podcast and some of my favourites here are:
- NPR’s All Songs Considered
- WBEZ’s Sound Opinions
- The Guardian’s Music Weekly
- Others include The Line Of Best Fit, Indie Feed, Hype Machine Radio
Daytrotter isn’t technically a radio station but they have an immense amount of great sessions (hidden behind a paywall) and there’s always something new and great there.
- Tumblr has a great network of music lovers who are continually sharing music, new and old alike. I’m always finding new tunes from folk like David, Kirk, Mark & Fred.
- SoundCloud - I follow hundreds of bands, labels, blogs and friends here who are posting and curating new music 24/7. Discovery happens entirely through this social feed and it’s now at the stage that most of the acts I search for have a profile too.
- Twitter - Obviously there’s a ton of artists out there on Twitter but the source that remains the most fruitful for me is the little community of Spotify-related users I have been unofficially inducted into through HotSpotMusic’s earlier days.
- This Is My Jam - a new-ish site that I’m just getting into (thanks to their new Spotify app), allowing you to post one “jam” at a time.
- 8tracks is a site that I care a lot for and yet one I don’t spend nearly enough time on. Human curators making playlists is simply the best way to find music and trumps any machine making automated guesses at what you might like.
So, even though I don’t have that much time to read blogs any more there are still a number that I consistently look at and rely upon. Below are a couple of my favourites and here’s a link to all of them (and some of the ones mentioned above) in Google Reader.
- Drowned In Sound
- Pitchfork & Stereogum
- The Line Of Best Fit
- I Guess I’m Floating, Gorilla Vs Bear & You Ain’t No Picasso
So there you go, that’s how I do it. Or at least 50% of it.
How do you find music?
… is some kind of app that allows me to leaf through all the albums I have ever owned or played in a way that replicates how I used to go through my own CD collection or through racks and racks at a record store. It would work best as an iPad app but could work anywhere. You could order by play count, genre, chronological, alphabetical, autobiographical…. It would give me recommendations and charting and insight and would help me to stumble upon all those albums that I’ve sort of forgotten about…
I guess what I’m looking for is a Last.fm browser for the touchscreen age.
Last Wednesday, Warner Music Group announced its antipathy for “free streaming” digital music solutions and the following day Google unilaterally deleted several (apparently legitimate) MP3 blogs. What’s going on here? The music industry finally looked like it was beginning to get the grasp of the age of the MP3 and the cloud and then they go and pull stunts like this.
This seems like a foolish move from Warner in the long run. Music is clearly in a transitional phase right now and if you want to be a part of the new era you have to play by the new rules. What’s even more curious is that they demonstrated their so-called forward thinking by investing in Spotify (or perhaps this was just a hedge) and now they’re trying to undermine its US launch. This seems like an attempt at a power play from Warner on an industry that isn’t really listening. By doing this they are trying to strong-arm the other labels into following them because if they don’t then Warner are in even bigger trouble.
People will torrent music unless they have simple, quality and legal solutions and this has been proven time and again. By making their content unavailable on these solutions when everyone else’s is, Warner are pushing consumers away and risking even greater cannibalisation than they already claim. The lesson here will be: don’t try and exert power on an industry in which you have little influence or respect left, engage the small players, learn new models and different distribution channels and develop something akin to a strategy for the future instead of crossing your fingers and hoping everything will work out fine. Let’s see if Warner can learn it in time.
As for the Google debacle, the blogs (which are clearly an incredibly important part of promoting new releases on the net these days) that have been majorly affected are those that appear to have been playing by the rules. But the rules are so complex that the record labels themselves don’t know what’s going on. Blogs such as I Rock Cleveland (click on the link and you might not find much) meticulously clear every track they post with the labels and yet it seems the A&R men promoting their artists aren’t talking to their own lawyers who have just opened up the machine guns and started firing in any direction.
Google must accept some complicity in this even if the labels & RIAA-induced confusion does not make it particularly easy for them. They seem to have let their standards of an open web and a Don’t Be Evil attitude slip under pressure and uncertainty when they could be playing the role of protectorate or change-maker in the industry. The blogs that don’t tread such a careful path are just going to move elsewhere, constantly moving where the labels can’t track them down (and, most importantly, can’t track what’s going on with their own music). Both of these events actually brings a about a great opportunity for companies such as SoundCloud that are trying to serve bands and labels by giving them control over their content and distribution and bring them closer to their fans. This is the future of labels – not whining in their ivory towers writing lawsuits.
I thought that with the new age of Spotify and last.fm et al, the advent of streaming meant that I would constantly be exposed to new music. It sure feels like there are so many new bands to stay up to date with. Indeed, I even started a music blog to help me (and hopefully some other people too) keep track by rating them in order of that most critical would-I-listen-again factor.
But looking at the data, and I am a huge data geek after all, we seem to see a completely different picture. I ripped this data from the last.fm database which tracks all the songs I play through my iTunes, Spotify and various other sources. I analysed it by looking at whether every artist that I listened to I’d listened to before. I looked at this for every week since I’ve been using last.fm (which is nearly 2 years now so apart from a few gaps for holidays and technical malfunctions it should be pretty robust data). There are several caveats here, the obvious large one being that anything that I’ve listened to in my lifetime that hasn’t been tracked by last.fm will appear as new and that things listened to on mobile devices aren’t counted.
The graph shows that around 2/5 of all the music I listen to is new and the rest is old news. And in fact, since I became a Spotify afficionado, it was 53% and now it’s only 35%. But it’s certainly become a far more stable pattern.
This might be explained by the fact that now I simply listen to more music and therefore the newer music is not displacing previous music but is instead fitted in with some old favourites. Might it? Let’s see… The chart below shows that the number of artists I’m listening to now is 58% more than the pre-streaming period (from 45 to 71 per week) but that the average number of tracks I listen to by each artist within that week has fallen by 21%. When you put all this together, what you see (indicated here by the size of the balls) is that I’m now listening to 25% more music!
Another cliche you hear a lot with digital music is about the death of the album – that music is so abundant and accessible that consumers don’t need to feel constrained by the artistic notion of a body of work but can pick and choose their own playlists. Well, I looked at whether or not my history showed whether I was moving away from albums or not (I’m defining an album rather loosely here – at least 9 tracks by the same artist in one week – since I don’t have the full data) and what I found was there is virtually no difference now. Whilst I was averaging around a 50:50 activity split between albums and individual songs, I now only spend 53% of my proportion of songs on individual tracks and 47% on full albums. I would posit that the wealth of tracks now available to us through the wonders of the internet has not really changed my habits – I still prefer to listen to a full album to get a feel for a band rather than dip in and out. Whereas before I might’ve needed to only sample artists on music blogs or downloads, now I can get the whole thing. So why not listen to it as the artists intended?
Get the playlist here.
2009 has, so far, been a pretty spectacular year for music. So, I thought I’d put together my favourite records so far and to celebrate my return to man-size blogging I’ll give each of them a 141-character review. It was a pretty difficult choice to rank these in any kind of order so I didn’t try too hard. I’m also flying in the face of convention by going for a top 12 – I’ll try and trim it a bit better by the end of the year. Sadly, Spotify doesn’t have all of them so, US-fans rejoice, I’ve put together a mix on 8tracks which you can listen to right here.
1. Sparklehorse – Dark Night Of The Soul
This record sounds like each song was tailor-made for each of the top guest vocalists and yet still sounds like its own complete body of work
2. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
I’m fairly certain that Dave Longstreth is a musical genius and with a Pitchfork review of 9.2 I’m not the only one. Truly a breathtaking LP
3. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion
Schizophrenic, joyous, disruptive, cryptic, hallucinogenic, danceable, fun & other adjectives. One of the most intriguing albums of the year.
4. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Jesus & Mary Chain meets My Bloody Valentine meets Teenage Fanclub meets a nice warm sunny day in Spring meets rocking out after dark in NYC
5. Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
Bill Callahan’s voice has such understated power (somewhat akin to Nick Cave’s) and the sonic textures & brooding strings resonate throughout
6. Emmy The Great – First Love
The fragile beauty of her voice belies the strength of the stories and the power of her songs. Long awaited record and it doesn’t disappoint.
7. Super Furry Animals – Dark Days/Light Years
If this record only had a song about trams and nothing else it’d be awesome. But no! There’s more, and it’s a super return to pop funkyness.
8. The Voluntary Butler Scheme – At Breakfast, Dinner & Tea
Would you invite the Voluntary Butler Scheme around for a meal? Yes you would, because he’s a very nice man. He also makes lovely pop music.
9. Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
Big bonus prize for Wilco. Not only did they finally release an eponymous LP but it’s also a cracker and the cover art is the best thing ever
10. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz
Never a band to give you what you’re expecting, the YYYs flip again to a more dance-oriented sound to create a beguiling yet addictive album.
11. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Why There Are Mountains
Tasty. Sounds like the apocryphal clamour of all of Staten Island screaming in unison: “We shall not go quietly (without our skinny jeans)”.
12. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
If Stuart Murdoch and Phil Spector were ever to co-produce a record together, that unlikely and unholy union would be this sparkling pop gem.
Honourable mentions also go to: Discovery, The Low Anthem, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, M. Ward…
Here’s what else there is to look forward to: Brendan Benson, The Flaming Lips, Monsters of Folk (a Jim James, Conor Oberst & M. Ward supergroup), Arctic Monkeys, Yo La Tengo, Richard Hawley not to mention a new Flight of the Conchords album and the somewhat bizarre prospect of a joint album between Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson.
have nearly 1,000 CDs in my record collection. I am a collector of music paraphernalia, shiny things and things I can categorise alphabetically, chronologically and thematically. If I could draw you a Venn diagram right now I would and it would have a nice big CD-shaped overlap. Yet, every single one of those precious, shiny discs was purchased before last summer – I haven’t bought a record for well over a year. And I haven’t shifted my music purchases to downloads either since I believe they are ridiculously over-priced. Why should it cost the same to download an album as it does to buy the CD (when you cut out transportation, storage, physical materials, distributor margin and all the other costs that go into the production)?
So for the past year I have been making use of other channels – from friends and also last.fm/Spotify, both of which have changed my music consumption habits immeasurably and permanently. But last week, I broke my musical fast and bought the new record by Fanfarlo, an indie band from Sweden via London. Why them? Whilst the album is superb, I made the decision based on a couple of tracks from a blog – I certainly hadn’t been anticipating it like a new Radiohead album (which according to Thom Yorke may now never come).
The reason why I got my credit card out was the differentiated pricing structure they had chosen for distribution. I was able to get the download only version for just $6 and if I’d wanted to get the CD, vinyl or the special boxset then these would’ve set me back $8, $16.50 and $35. You can even stream the album on NPR’s website for free for a limited time only. And I was slow to this band – had I been quicker off the draw I could’ve got the download for just $1. Whilst it’s certainly not the first occasion pricing tiers like this have been used to market a new album, it’s nice to see it trickle down to a smaller band – one who can’t necessarily afford to open itself up to the risky In Rainbows style ‘pay what you want’ model.
Whilst marginal costs are hitting zero and services like Spotify (who, incidentally, didn’t have the album in question) are trying to prove music services can be ad-supported I still think there’s room for bands to make money from their records. It’s just that this is a smaller piece of the pie than before. I would happily pay a nominal amount to get the music downloaded, to try out a new artist and to reward them for their music and according to recent studies I’m not the only one. The music industry is slowly trying to figure these issues out and it’s good to see independent bands setting the pace (check out a similar effort from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! wordsmith Alec Ounsworth).
For me, the bar was set low enough in this instance that buying the album wasn’t really a decision. Of course, everyone will have their own price for this indecision and it’s quite likely that for a lot of Gen-Yers who’ve grown up with free & P2P, this price will be zero. But even if small bands can shift just a few of these people into buying customers then they might be able to take 2 or 3 days off touring a year.
With the trial of Joel Tenenbaum just started in the US, it seems the right time to lay my cards down on one side of the music piracy table of debate. First of all, let’s be clear: this is not suffering artists pleading for their just rewards. Nay, it is the aimless thrashing and flailing of a dying industry trying to cling onto dollar bills as they slip slowly between the fingers.
The music industry, not the record industry, is thriving today because of, not in spite of, technology. Artists are still out there producing records but most have learned to make money through other channels like gigging, licensing and premium boxsets. The savvy record labels have adapted and become 360-degree agents, concert promoters and management for artists. Most have not. The internet as a platform puts artists directly in touch with their fans and builds that loyal following who will then come to the shows. There is more diversity and more depth than ever before if you look for it.
The record labels themselves have failed to realise (at least publicly) that the game has changed, that the game is no longer about controlled 1-1 distribution but free, in both the liberated and monetary sense, many-to-many flow of media. New tools are making it easier for artists to cut out the middle men and the result for the consumer is a torrent (pun intended) of content, waiting to be selected. Music too will now have to function on a freemium basis as it becomes closer and closer to being a commodity.
The record industry is unhappy because they are being cut out of the equation just like newspapers and countless others. Well, tough luck. That’s just the way it is now. The game has changed. As in any industry, a disruptive technology takes out a dying, greedy, old business that fails to adapt. Trying to solve it with disproportionately large lawsuits that bear no relation to the original misdemeanour will only stem the tide for so long. Good luck Joel.