Modern music discovery, what are the options?

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In a pre-internet age, radio and record shops were crucial for new discovery in music. With the gradual demise of these, and the increase of online accessibility, another question now applies – how to filter the endless choices and discover good stuff? MEG conducted a very non-scientific survey of mainly 25-44 year olds, admittedly skewed towards the older end of this. We were pretty impressed with the quality of the responses received.

Everybody we spoke with felt their listening habits were atypical, that they are no less into music, new bands etc. than they had ever been. What HAS happened is that their method of listening to music has fragmented, just as music has. The ‘catch-all’ albums that those in the know picked up on (e.g. Nevermind by Nirvana, Is This It? by the Strokes) no longer exist. Or if they do, they exist in silos. Your definition of a classic album is completely different to mine, or anybody else’s. But what is certain is that there are fewer record shops, and that the role of radio and music journalism has changed forever. So do we blame / herald the internet for this?

One of our interviewees felt that the demise of radio & record shops has come hand-in-hand with a general decline in the quality of music overall. A bold statement, perhaps. There is of course still some incredible music being created today, but is it that it’s harder to find?

We took a look at the options available for music discovery and how we use or don’t use these options in our internet encompassed, instantly gratified lives.

Music Shops

Physical shops which sell physical forms of music (CDs, vinyl) can never really compete with the immediacy, convenience and long tail of online retailers. There is some nostalgia for personal recommendations from record shops but others are not sorry to see the back of them. Tower Records, recently relocated in Dublin, provide an experience for the music-lover. But some will have downloaded their albums of choice already or listened online before purchasing. Fewer and fewer are ‘buying blind’ based on a cover or a name as many once would have done.

Radio

Many of our interviewees listen to music radio less than they used to, turning instead to podcasts, their own vast collections, or talk radio. In Dublin, Phantom / TXFM built up a legacy as a pirate from the late 90s, but by the time they won a broadcast licence and launched in 2006 the role of a music radio station had become more peripheral. Some say radio basically succeeds by just playing you the same songs again and again until the moment you’re actually in the mood for one of them. People for whom music is not a priority in their life tend to settle for whatever they come across… and those for whom it is, will spend more time seeking out that last 20% of extra enjoyment you can get out of listening to something that is really right up their alley — for which there are more resources than ever. The bottom line is there are ‘better-targeted-to-me’ alternative music sources out there.

Music Journalism

There are far fewer music magazines in existence than in the heady days of 25 years ago when a trip to the newsagent could yield THREE weekly music papers (NME, Melody Maker and Sounds), all with a headful of attitude. It was around this time that monthly magazines came into being but those too, are in decline, despite the presence of free, yet seldom listened to CDs which accompany them.

Broadsheet newspapers such as the Irish Times and the Guardian have beefed up their music content at the same time that their own readership, of the physical product at least, is in decline. Failure to recruit a new generation of readers is a definite factor, along with the plethora of online choices, the latter of which has led many newspapers to upload vast chunks of their content online. It seems that online music sites such as Allmusic, Pitchfork, and others, (such as the one you are reading!) have become the main source of music journalism.

Other Sources

Discovery of new bands at gigs (support bands etc.) remains a solid discovery route, while others site musicians themselves as a source. Obviously musicians are huge champions of music. They frequently reference other musicians both as sources of inspiration,/influence or that they simply enjoy listening to. Public libraries are a resource of physical music, covering everything from world music, ‘trad’, classical and older pop.

Internet – the dominant tastemaker?

In some ways, technology has killed the act of researching and hunting down a new album, purchasing a physical, tangible copy on tape/vinyl/CD that you can hold in your hand and examine the artwork and sleeve notes, then listen to it with a proper amount of attention. These days, many people have a “huge music collection” that was created by copying thousands of songs at a time by giving a hard drive to a friend to fill. Getting music in this way couldn’t be a more different process, it can make it difficult to listen to said new music with the same level of attention or even respect that you would give a physical copy. In the eyes of some, it’s been obtained too easily and won’t be appreciated properly. And not because it was free – but more the lack of personal association, no hunting required.

Others suspect that because almost everything is available, more or less instantaneously it can lead to picking out band names that sound familiar rather than taking a chance on unfamiliar names. There are sites which offer recommendations or ‘related artists’, eg “if you like x why not try y…” like Amazon or Spotify but realistically they have mixed results. Facebook and blogs can play a similar role, and Shazam can identify a song in a matter of seconds. Some feel a sense of loyalty of an artist, and want to support them. Often the artist’s own official website can provide a valuable resource of information and occasionally exclusive material. Many also use digital formats as their main source of listening, as well as music filtering, which is probably down to convenience, but this is a whole other debate…

Online communities can allow those with common interests and musical tastes to share this information. For members of these, recommendations from other members can be a valuable resource and adds a personal touch to the array of options online. This brings me nicely on to…

Friends / word-of-mouth

Many of our interviewees have friends who like and care about music. Personal recommendations from friends or so-called ‘tastemakers’ have always worked well though there are as many who won’t listen to something because it has been recommended as those who will! The accessibility of music can breed resentment. I’d like to recount one particular answer I received:

“If someone asks me for a copy of a particular album, I am happy to give it to them. This to me shows that they are at least putting some thought into their own search, so I appreciate that. If someone asks me for a copy of a large playlist, or ‘a load of music’ from a certain genre, to be honest this pisses me off – I usually say no problem then come up with ways to not do it. My reason is that I have put a lot of work into building my own music collection, time and money (but more time really) so why should I just give it away? Why should someone else, even a good friend, get the fruits of my labour without any effort? My friend has asked me for a load of recent music because he is planning on getting the same mixing software as me. My plan is to give him a large amount of tracks, all with different names but all actually the same song upon listening – The Weather Girls’s It’s Raining Men.”

Finally, I’ll end with these pearls of wisdom from another interviewee:

“By far the best way to discover new music will never really change: Keep your ears and your mind open!”

Killian Laher

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