DISCOVERING NEW MUSIC: THOUGHTS ON "THE HUNT"
Earlier this week – on Tuesday, April Fools’ Day – Google scattered 150 virtual Pokemon across the globe in a temporarily “updated” version of its Maps app. Around the world, a simultaneous inhalation of glee as children of the ‘90s rejoiced. It was time to relive the thrill of the Poke-hunt, first experienced on monochrome Gameboy screens. This was perhaps the kindest April Fools’ “prank” ever played; no-one was really made to look silly, and loads of people lost their proverbial shit excitedly scouring the earth for Squirtles.
There’s something about “the hunt” via the “leap into the unknown.” It would not be so much fun to find Pokémon if we already knew where they were lurking. Nor would we feel so compelled to meander blindly through Google maps if it weren’t for the glimmering promise of a Charizard. It’s the joy of finding a really great needle in a really big haystack. But how do you do it?
It’s a pertinent question even beyond the world of Pocket Monsters.
There’s no doubt it’s fun to seek and discover new music. It’s a thrill to pluck something out of the ether, too, that isn’t necessarily all abuzz hype-wise – and it’s not a matter of being an obscurist purist, or a “I heard them first” variety of wanker. I’d say it’s a relatively wholesome pleasure: the joy of encountering something excellent, unfamiliar, and a little bit secret – like a special and rare Pokémon in a dark, labyrinthine cave full of goddamned Zubats. The dizzying immensity of that cave can make it hard to know where to begin, though.
When looking for new music to listen to, we all have our little procedures I guess. I keep a running list (or, more accurately, lists plural, littered across various hard-to-remember locations) of recommendations from friends, and will often stick my nose into a trusted website/blog/magazine to browse their recommendations, too. As far as my tastes and interests are concerned, I’ve found that Mess+Noise, Tiny Mix Tapes, The Wire, Gorilla Vs Bear, Resident Advisor, No Fear of Pop, Mutant Sounds (now sadly defunt, but lots to peruse) Rose Quartz (now not-so-active, but same deal), Awesome Tapes from Africa, Afropunk, OkayAfrica, Noiseinmyhead, Maximum Rocknroll and ol’ mate Pitchfork Media (a love/hate relationship in which love is currently winning) are good regular go-tos. Apart from the requisite quality control, I’ve found that these staples offer pretty consistent, intelligent, insightful commentary on the tunes they feature – which is good.
Then, of course, there’s radio; RTRfm holds me in good stead, and other local/national broadcasters can offer up gems too (you can visit this article to read a somewhat silly review I did of radio stations accessible analog-style in Perth… honourable mentions to 6EBA 95.3fm, Perth’s most multicultural station, and Noongar Radio 100.9fm, both of which I failed to include). There are podcasts, sites like Mixcloud, and plenty of other publicly accessible DJ mixes (Strange Holiday Radio, based in Melbourne – for example – is great for weirdo playlists and idiosyncratic selections).
But the thing about all of these options, great though they may be, is that you remain a relatively passive receiver of tunes; beholden to someone else’s tastes and preconceptions, rolling with their sonic curatorship. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the “passive” vs “active” idea is a pretty flawed dichotomy: I mean, even turning on MTV requires a degree of active personal choice, and ultimately all music is “offered” to you by someone else unless you make it yourself, or eavesdrop on some reclusive noodler’s jam sessions. The point I want to get across, anyway, is that it can be nice to feel a little more “in control” of your listening journey than by simply choosing what blogs, radio stations and so on you access. There have been weeks when I’ve realised that everything I’ve listened to has been stuff recommended by a single website, and that can make you feel like a bit of a sucker. A SUCKER!
So, music-lovers and Pokemon trainers, here are some open-ended, unprejudiced tools to aid you on your ear-filling adventures! They’re probably mostly familiar to you, but maybe you’ve yet to try them out, or can’t decide which one to preference. I hope this helps, a little, perhaps.
This feller is an oldie (dating back to 2002, woah, did we even have colour tv back then?) but it definitely warrants a mention. Once you download a little nugget of relevant software, Last.fm “scrobbles” (a Carrol-eqsue nonsense word basically meaning “records”) the details of what you’ve been listening to on your computer or device and makes recommendations based on “similar artists” (usually artists that share a listenership), tags, geography and so on. It can seem a little condescending at first, but the more and the more broadly you listen, the more wonderment it opens up. I’ve discovered some of my favourite artists – like Ariel Pink, Vashti Bunyan, El Guincho and Lucky Dragons – through last.fm. It’s also good for reminiscing about what you used to listen to (and in some cases, blushing/snorting with laughter). Plus there are lots of pictures, videos, free downloads, articles, groups and more. The “similar artist radio” and “recommended radio” features are pretty damn nice.
Bandcamp is awesome. I love Bandcamp. Where possible, I opt to listen via Bandcamp, purchase via Bandcamp, get information from Bandcamp and write little love notes on the backs of coasters to Bandcamp.
The genius of this site comes from its simple, aesthetically pleasing interface, its insistence on high-quality audio, and the way it allows artists a degree of creative freedom to present their music as they so desire (and to charge exactly what they like too, right down to bonus merchandise, pay-what-you-want minimums and so on). This means that rather than getting a bland, uniform network, you get endless pockets of artistically customised musical hubs. Which was one of the best things about Myspace back in the day; personality. Bandcamp has the personality, but is way less gross in all other ways.
Typically I visit Bandcamp with an artist already in mind, but relevant to this article is its (rather good) “Discover” function where you can browse by tags, format, and so on. There’s also “staff picks,” and artists can recommend their favourite tunes too, so if you want it, you can have that “curated” experience as well.
The other great thing about this website is the lack of corporate bullshit. No ads and no jargon. All their text, FAQs and so on are written in a humorous and conversational way, despite having plenty of big names and serious musicians on the site – which makes for a really refreshing change.
Soundcloud.com is a no-brainer when it comes to interactive musical exploration. Its culture of “comments” can be a bit distracting (several, or maybe zillions, of comments will pop up as you listen to a track), but hey you can always let the tunes flow and pop on a nice beach scene screen saver or whatever.
The important thing is that this is a really community-driven site, with countless artists remixing each other, sharing their music in groups, commenting on each others’ work, making playlists etc. Even if you don’t make tunes, there’s no reason you can’t do this too; anyone can comment, and you can easily favourite songs that grab you. Naturally, you can search by genre or whatever, but I think the best way to dive in is to find an artist (or label or radio station or whatever) that you already like, and follow the endless yellow brick road of profiles, playlists and audio gems.
Bonus (maybe?): if you’re the sort of dawg who doesn’t like surprises so much as being prepared, you can see the waveforms of every track. This offers a sort of sneak peak of what you’re in for dynamics-wise, without giving anything really meaningful away.
I don’t use these so much, though I have signed up for Spotify, and must agree that it’s an incredible tool. There’s a lot of stuff on there (to the tune of 20 million songs), and it’s a lot easier to find specific stuff than on, say, Soundcloud, which is kind of “messier.” There’s been a lot of controversy about artists getting a pittance from plays, but hey, if you’re after a tool like this, it’s a good start. You can always pay good money for a record once you’ve discovered it. Spotify’s music-discovery engine is highly personalised, much like Last.fm, and pretty damn handy.
Rdio is a similar deal, again with millions of songs, and similarly it works as a kind of extra tier of distribution and promotion for contemporary acts. It’s created by Janus Friis, co-creator of Skype, and it shares the latter’s streamlined, minimal aesthetic. I’ve got minimal experience with it, but it seems pretty slick. Although, just now when I typed in “The Skids” it brought up the Bob Marley discography. So… there’s that.
Ah, old faithful Youtube! Youtube kind of sucks for listening to music. Stuff is often posted in low quality, and it’s not the most user-friendly navigation system; essentially you search by keywords, and the rest is luck of the draw. Music tracks are certainly not neatly organised by artist, or even by genre, with the exception of dedicated “channels.” But there’s always VIDEOS (duh) which is kind of a nice point of difference, and you can really get lost in weird and wonderful pockets of sound, browsing from one “related video” to the next. Once again, not great for pure listening – but great for discovery. The lack of staunch genre separation and slight randomness can actually enhance the meandering experience.
There are dozens, if not hundreds more sites and tools like these. I’d like to hear about them. Feel free to hit me up with your own list of recommendations. For now, buddies: so long, and happy listening!