Tuesday, September 1, 2009

How I find music

I'm not a great hoarder of cds. We do have a trunk full of them at home, but they are not ordered or categorised. And I rarely play any of them. At some point, I intend to digitise my favourite tracks in order to create some mixes. I think I'll enjoy putting them together and it'd be nice to share them, too. But for the time being, I enjoying listening to music that I don't own* (like I do the cds), and I don't have to endure djs and advertisements to hear. These days, I listen to all my music on the internet. As a result I've listened to more new music in the past three years than ever before. This hasn't been a task I've set myself. Its a natural result of the changes in the way I choose my music.

When I say new, I mean new to me, as well as new to all of us.

One of the things that works against new music discovery is the traditional way that music carriers (vinyl, cd etc) have been presented and sold to the public. Classifying music by genre is how record shops and record companies have sorted their offer for us. Its a route to music discovery based around 'likeness'. And its an idea that has been carried into the digital age.

I have a few problems with this approach.

The first thing is that I always end up listening to music I've heard before. Familiarity in music is a powerful thing. Presented with a choice between a piece of new music, and a familiar favourite, I'll most often go for the later. The longer and broader one's musical experience, the worse this problem becomes.

Secondly, I hate it when discovering music becomes a task - a job of work. I don't want to have a disciplined approach to music. I don't want to examine a genre, or appreciate an artist's body of work. I'm lazy and I have a short attention span. I don't need no education. I want something I love in the here and now. Life is too short.

And thirdly, I like difference as well as likeness.

Likeness then, isn't necessarily the best criteria to find new music.

Charts help overcome these problems, encouraging the discovery of new music by providing us with information about a song's popularity. Unfortunately charts also provide a target for manipulation. This gives the competitive advantage to those who are best at manipulation, rather than those who are best at releasing music.

But then the places where art and money meet can be a difficult landscape.

For me, Last FM probably best typifies the transference of the traditional music selection and sales models onto the internet. Indeed, their tag line spells it out. "Last.fm recommends music, videos and concerts based on what you listen to." I think Last FM is a great site. But it is very C20th. And I don't use it.

Other behemoth sites work along similar lines, albeit with more emphasis on the notion that you should pay to have access to a piece of music (seems a bizarre idea to me). And I have a more practical problem with spotify, itunes and the other download-a-piece-of-software sites (including Last FM's scrobbler)'. I simply don't trust them. Silly, maybe. But the music industry is an injured beast at the moment just looking for people to lash out at. I'll let Google penetrate my portals, but not anyone who's sleeping with the music industry. You never know what you might catch.

Plus. I can stream pretty much any piece of music from somewhere. I use Grooveshark a lot, but there are other good ones.

There are two sites where I do perhaps 95% of my music listening. The sixtyone and 8tracks.

The sixtyone is based around gaming. Charts of songs are created according to their popularity with the site's audience. Music on the sixtyone can come from anywhere. A major recording studio, or an artist's bedroom. The beauty of the site is you can just click play and listen to new music. Sometimes I choose a genre, sometimes not. I love the idea of melding together market/gaming dynamics to filter music through a community - this has to be the most innovative solution to music discovery on the internet. However, what the sixtyone gains in technological innovation (both in a narrow and broad sense) it lacks in style. To me it sometimes has a sense of an embattled community. I wish the founders had more confidence in their gaming approach and worried less about the music. Us listeners will do that.

8tracks is a very different beast. It starts from a very simple, yet powerful idea. People put together mixes of music they like, and share them. Its a stylish site. Very Web 2.0. One simple idea, done well. Put simply, its cool. It has similarities to the traditional approach. But rather than appearing in the form of recommendations based on likeness, your musical discovery is assisted by art - by a fully formed mix put together by human beings. If you really enjoy someone's mix, you'll want to hear more from them - that's a better use of 'likeness' in music discovery. The path from music discovery to social network is entirely organic.

I had a short dalliance with Blip FM, which I liked. A bit like twitter with music. But I didn't really discover new music on it. Where as with the sixtyone and 8tracks new music discovery seems unavoidable.

And a last word goes to the old fashioned idea of combining a great knowledge of music with great writing. Headfullofsnow is the creation of Nick James aka @Jeffman1. Its an on-line music magazine with a focus on Psych, Rock, Prog. It's my sort of thing, and I like it. Thanks to HFoS, for the first time I listened to the whole of Sticky Fingers by the Stones. I've repeated that several times, now. I hope there's someone like Nick doing the same thing for punk, jazz, baroque and every other style, genre and variation thereof.


I'm sure you can find the rest. Happy listening.

*own - yes, i know. we just rent the right to hear it.

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