Over the years, the definition of music discovery has changed. For some, music discovery encapsulates the serendipitous event of finding a new song or artist, which is often wrapped with infatuation of a new crush. You can’t stop talking about the artist that is now the love of your life and when you have free moment, you quietly stalk them on Facebook or Twitter. For others, music discovery entails the process of searching for and sifting through new music — a dedicated and consuming journey that sometimes results in the uncovering of a hidden gem. It’s a labor that often leads to love and avid music listeners can’t get enough.
In recent years, through, music discovery has become embraced by startup founders and software engineers and grown to stand for a larger concept and potential problem. The belief is that music discovery can be automated by various mathematical algorithms and recommendation engines and distributed through music services and apps. This allows the process of exposing listeners to new music to scale beyond the limitations of close friends and media outlets and become personalized to an individual’s specific taste.
Due to this, music discovery evolved into the answer to the question of how listeners would find new artists in a digital landscape that spurred millions of options. Hundreds of established companies and fledging startups now champion music discovery as their core value proposition or important attribute of their product. Whether music discovery, as we understand it today, is an actual problem or a solution in search of one has become a topic of heated discussion amongst company executives and leading thinkers.
To gain a broader understanding of music discovery and what it is, sidewinder.fm asked a variety of experts across music and technology: How would you define “music discovery” as we talk about it today? Has the definition changed over time?
Music Discovery Has Changed, But Radio Still Matters
There are several facets to music discovery in the modern sense. Starting with automated radio, in the form of apps or built into music platforms. Such services are often based on algorithms that attempt to determine a listener’s preferences and play tracks accordingly, given the choices that listener has made such as preferred genre or specified artist.
Digital track and album sales, as well as streaming services, have also brought about the easy access, on-demand concept of music discovery, where listeners can sample something new with the simple click of a button. Long gone are the days of scavenging around a record store and traipsing up to the listening station with a pile of considerations to audit.
Last, but not least, there is the throwback to the good, old-fashioned, human component of music discovery, with many services hedging their bets on the idea that people will be more incentivized to listen to music that has already been given the thumbs up by friends, influencers and tastemakers, and making this information available. We are, after all, inherently social.
But despite all of these new venues for music discovery, I urge you not to discount traditional radio just yet. Through research we have done at Next Big Sound, we found that while social metrics such as YouTube, SoundCloud, and Facebook are becoming increasingly significant, radio spins continue to hold a very high correlation to sales. People are still tuning in to the radio and discovering music they just have to have.
Music Discovery Now Represents Websites And Apps
For this to succeed, this would presume a significant demand for people to actually discover music this way. The truth is that most people wish to discover music passively. They hear it on the radio, they have a friend tell them about it, they see something about them on TV. What they don’t do is actively search out the music that they might like in the future. They’d much rather someone tell them passively what they might like.
What’s also changed is the notion that music discovery may be a business all unto itself. When music was discovered solely by radio, print or touring, the industry referred to those outlets as broadcast medium. The idea was you convinced a gatekeeper to like something, and then they exposed it to a mass audience creating discovery.
Now that individuals can find things without the benefit of a human curator passively pushing music in their direction, music discovery arose as a term to supplant the presumed elimination of gatekeepers. The term gained credibility as the volume of releases increased exponentially making it difficult to filter releases to a manageable number.
Music Discovery Is Consistent, But Vehicles Have Changed
The definition has stayed pretty constant but the vehicles have changed — radio to the web, magazines to blogs, etc. At the end of the day, I think music from a trusted source will always win out, whether that source is a friend, an artist, a blogger, or a great radio station.
When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to discover music through a friend’s cool older brother, who made me mix tapes of local Portland bands. Because it was all so new for me, I developed a lasting affinity for those acts and would go see them live, buy their records, etc. I also learned a ton from reading interviews with bigger artists that I loved; Kurt Cobain mentioned Bikini Kill in a Rolling Stone piece and I found them, and it changed my life.
Kids today (sorry, I know I sound old) have an abundance of choices and sources, but that makes it harder for them to focus on one genre or one artist to really develop a taste for them. Back in the day, there were alternative kids, metalheads, stoner jam-band fans, and hip-hoppers, and never the twain did meet. Now there’s a million micro-genres and endless artists rising and falling on the web — a far cry from the days when you had to work hard to hear something besides what was playing on the radio. I’m still an Elliott Smith fan and waiting for a Bikini Kill reunion — how many kids will still be listening to Skrillex in fifteen years?
Music Discovery Is Whatever The Protagonist Wants It To Be
I think music discovery is whatever the protagonist of the discussion wants it to be. For some, they mean ‘active discovery’ — i.e. the act of seeking out new music. Very few people actually do this, and my guess is that many of them do it for reasons of growing their social capital (in the case of ‘tastemakers’) or because its their job of passion (in the case of music bloggers). For others, they mean ‘passive discovery’ — i.e. the act of listening to what their filtering ‘sources’ are providing to them (like a favorite record label, college or mainstream radio station, Pandora, Pitchfork, a Spotify app, tastemaker friend, music blogger, etc.).
At ReverbNation, we employ an “artist-driven” music discovery philosophy — letting the artist you already like guide you to the next song. We offer this via a feature called the ‘Rabbit Hole.’ If you click on ‘Rabbit Hole’ during a song play you like, the next song you hear is based on who that artist recommends, or who they have played a live show with in the past. This approach is not better or worse than others that are out there, but it’s an example of how many different flavors “music discovery” can come in.
All of that said, I think what people are really trying to unpack in this discussion is how music rises from obscurity to ubiquity in our culture and other cultures — and specifically the role/influence that various stakeholders or technologies have in it, and how that is changing over time.
Photo courtesy of Flickr, Finding Josephine