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How Music Discovery Failed Me [Glenn Peoples]

1Glenn Peoples documents how the release of a new Manic Street Preachers album slipped under his radar due to a combination of product shortcomings and user error, and how better data can keep it from happening again.

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Guest post by music and technology journalist Glenn Peoples

How did I not know about a new Manic Street Preachers

until four days after its release?

Part user error. Part product shortcomings.

So much for counting on technology as a safety net. I’ll have to keeping doing the dirty work.

The Manic Street Preachers released a new album, Resistance is Futile, on Friday. I didn’t find out about it until yesterday (Monday). To be truthful, I probably knew the street date at one point in time. No doubt I got some sort of message about it — I track the band as best possible. There were surely emails leading up to its release. I might have run across an article. But last week the album was far from being on my mind.

Anonymity is a problem. I’m one of the few thousand people in the U.S. — excluding expats and Europeans on vacation — who like the band. OK, maybe that’s an overstatement, but the Manics are one of those bands whose homeland popularity hasn’t migrated to the States (see James, Girls Aloud, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, The Libertines et al). As a result, the band’s albums fly way under the radar here.

Technology is supposed to help solve the anonymity problem. Algorithms predict what new music will interest me based on my listening history. A music service I’ve used for seven (Spotify) and ten or 12 (Pandora) years should know my favorite bands by now. They have received thousands of signals on which to base their calculations.

Subscription services talk up their music discovery prowess. Spotify’s roughly 1,000-page form F-1 filed with the Securities Exchange Commission uses the word discovery 35 times. “We are in the discovery business,” it says [page 97]. The service’s “powerful music search and discovery engines,” combined with “a large and growing” user base, enables Spotify to “continuously learn about [users’] listening behaviors” in order “to create a more personalized and engaging experience” each time a person visits [ibid].

But algorithms failed me this time. Curation failed me, too. And this was a textbook case the potential and promise of the algorithm-curation combination.

3Spotify didn’t let me know Resistance is Futile came out. There’s nothing in my New Release Radar, the algorithm-created playlist that provides a decent overview of new and recently released tracks. New Release Radar is a good—and popular—discovery tool that introduces me to unknown artists and new tracks by familiar and beloved artists. But not this week.

I can’t find the Manics if I browse through Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist, a curated group of songs from the more prominent new releases. Digging around a bit, however, I see a new Manics song on the New Music Friday UKplaylist. This was easy to miss. As a U.S. subscriber my default new music playlist is the U.S. version, New Music Friday (minus the UK). The solution is obvious: follow the UK playlist and sift through the two new playlists each week instead of one.

Pandora didn’t let me know the album came out, either. I don’t see Resistance is Futile on either the personalized new releases section or the general list of new releases of the Pandora Premium app. A new song might be programmed into a station but which one? I’d guess New Rock but I get Godsmack, Greta Van Fleet, and the like. I just don’t listen to New Rock too often…but Pandora knows that.

Finding out about new releases requires some legwork. I have something of a system. It’s far from perfect.

Each Friday I look at the previous night’s email from Grimey’s Used and Pre-loved Music, a great Nashville record store, to see what new albums the store highlights. Grimey’s always alerts customers about good albums. I didn’t read the email Friday, but the Manics album wasn’t mentioned.

I try to remember to look at MusicREDEF’s Friday emails to see what new releases get a mention. The Manics’ album made the list but I didn’t read Friday’s email. So, user error in that case.

I follow the Manics on Twitter. The problem is I probably miss 95 percent of things on Twitter because I don’t spend much time there. Using Twitter to learn about new music is like scanning movie credits moving at 100x speed— if you’re actually looking at the movie credits to begin with. Side note: Twitter did alert me about the album but it was a MusicWeek tweet. I have a list of music industry trade pubs/blogs so I don’t have to sift through hundreds of Tweets to run across a single Billboard article of interest. Maybe I’ll have to put together a Twitter list of my favorite bands.

I rarely look at Facebook, so no chance of learning about an album’s street date there. Perhaps I’m guilty of laziness in this case, but I’ll choose ignorance over frequent Facebook use.

I subscribe to the Manic’s email list. The email about the album’s release arrived Friday, but I missed it. With the high number of emails I get, I often miss stuff in my Gmail “Updates” folder. If the email came to my primary folder (I’ll fix that) I might have seen it. Again, user error.

You can forgive me for not opening the Manics’ last email, though. Here’s a typical Manics email loosely translated into American English (with a Southern dialect since I live in Nashville):

“Thanks for being a fan way over there. We know you enjoy email updates about new concert dates about 10,000 miles from your home. On those rare occasions we announce a U.S. tour, it’s unfortunately one of those eight-city jaunts that skips your market and effectively says, ‘Well, we gave it a try but the U.S. is a hard nut to crack!’ And while we have your attention, we’re going to debut a new video on the band’s official Vevo channel that you’re not allowed to view for licensing reasons.”

To be fair, Spotify and Pandora have introduced me to great music I wouldn’t have otherwise found. On a regular basis. But services frequently seem to be more interested in new recordings by new artists than new recordings by familiar bands. There’s ample evidence for this. All streaming services (as far as I’m aware) try to enhance their brand by associating themselves with next big things and up and comers.

But I need streaming services to do heavy lifting. They’re built to lead listeners to music they’ll love. Left to my own devices, I’ll get crushed under an avalanche of social media posts, emails, and magazine articles. Nobody who works full time and has a family is going have the spare time to outrun the debris.

Data is the solution. I won’t count on human programming. Curators can’t be expected to perfectly understand my likes and dislikes; I can’t be expected to have similar tastes as curators.

Help me, algorithms. You’re my only hope.

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