Every now and then, you as a music-listener get adventurous, and want to find something new to listen to. Not necessarily something that was just released yesterday, or is the most popular thing right now. Something new to your ears. In my mind, the process one goes through to find a new tune closely resembles the dating world, where us humans pursue nearly every means available us to find our next fling, stable relationship, or even lifelong lover. It’s often a daunting journey, riddled with missed chances, lucky breaks, bizarre introductions and moments from where you can pinpoint that your life was changed forever.
Dating, no matter how confident you are, always has an inherent risk attached to it. Such is the chaos and unpredictable nature of people. For example, you might only find out halfway through your first date with someone that they have a creepy fetish that doesn’t set well with you, or completely offend you with their style of humour. But with the right techniques and approach, there are ways of you reducing that risk, so that hopefully, you will achieve what you set out to get.
Just like with people, I don’t know all the dating secrets. One can never guarantee that you can find the ‘perfect catch’, or something even nearly as good. Musical tastes are mostly subjective; liking one band doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll fancy another similar one. The crux of recommendations is really to have a general idea of what you like already, and together with that knowledge, what you intend on looking for (sometimes not even the latter, as you’ll see with certain music suggestion sites). So if, dear reader, you feel the need to breed (in a musical sense), then take heed of some of my tried and tested advice:
1. Know thyself
Okay, this might sound a little too obvious: take stock of what’s on your iPod, in your CD collection, on your hard drive, etc. Honestly, some people just add and add and add, building up clutter which never gets listened to, especially in an age where digital music is near-total in its influence, as well as its apparent ease of acquisition. Look at your Play Counts (if applicable) or manually keep track of what you listen to the most; always a good indicator of preferences. If you own, or even just listen to music enough, you should have a basic idea already. Foo Fighters fanatic, a Justin ‘Belieber’, Jay-Z worshipper, Bon Jovi groupie; whatever your tastes, surely you listen to some artist enough to say “Yeah, I kinda like this guy”? Good. That’s a start.
2. Time and effort
Put aside some time and get ready to put effort and research into finding what you want. Although most people have very busy schedules and can’t afford to waste time looking for music, the more work you put in, the more likely it is that you’ll find something you instantly fall in love with. Nothing beats the feeling of discovering a band after much spade work, and finding that they suit your tastes exactly. Really, it should come as no surprise to you then.
3. Knowledge is power
Wade your way into the shallow end of the dating pool by finding out more about whatever artists you like already. Doing so firstly makes you a better fan. You begin to understand the faces behind the music, as well as their intentions for making it the way they did. Secondly, many Wikipedia articles, album reviews and news reports, etc, tend to mention similar artists when speaking of a particular artist: “a Beatle-esque chord progression”, “an early Led Zeppelin swagger”, “introspective lyrics reminiscent of 2Pac’s Me Against The World era”. The list goes on and on. After reading enough about your favourite artists, you’ll soon start to see patterns emerge, and they’ll be difficult to ignore!
Comparisons like these are used to help describe a sound that the reader might not have heard yet (especially if say, a new album by the artist has just been released), so reviewers and journalists will try to patch together a sound scape in the reader’s head of existing material; simple and effective. Just like with dating people, you cannot expect the perfect man/woman to fall into your lap if you sit at home doing nothing about it. Proactivity is the key!
Personally, this method works really well for me. For example: whilst doing research for my Foo Fighters review in April, I kept on hearing about this Scottish band called Biffy Clyro. And since these mentions weren’t a once-off thing, I decided to give them a try, and download their two most recent albums. And what do you know…I was blown away by them, and instantly knew they were the exact match for my tastes. So, those reviewers were right: Foo Fighters’ ‘Rope’ does seem to “tap-dance in stoppy-starty guitar weirdly reminiscent of ‘Infinity Land’-era Biffy Clyro”
Music of today, more often than not, bears some similarity to music of yesterday. Artists wear their influences on their sleeves, and whilst they still continue to progress and innovate the art form, their mentors will always shine through them in some way. Going back to the roots of what inspired your favourite band to produce their magnum opus is generally the next step you’d take if you’re serious about exploring new music. But it’s not always a successful venture; sometimes the reason you enjoy an artist is because they’re an amalgamation of various influences, not just a specific one, whose back catalogue might bore you or be too old-fashioned. But it’s worth a try, since the world has a nice collective half-century or so of popular music sitting there, waiting to be experienced. Obviously, if you’re into classical music or something like that, you’d probably want to go back further than that, but then again, I don’t think this article is aimed at you!
4. Your friends are my friends
Look to your friends and find out what they like. Just like meeting that blonde hottie through your friend Dave, introductions to new and exciting artists from people you know (and hopefully, trust) eliminate the effort you have to make searching for the perfect tune. Usually you are friends with people whom you share similar interests with, so take advantage of that closeness and find out what hidden talents they’ve discovered.
For example: I should really follow my advice, since my housemate from last year shared very similar tastes in music to me (plus, he was an expert on guitar). Towards the end of the year, he discovered and fell in love with this indie rock band named The National. He played one or two songs of theirs to me when we were relaxing with our other housemates one night. Since I really just wasn’t in the mood for that kind of music, I sort of brushed aside his impassioned recommendation. Fast forward to April this year, and I eventually decided to take him up on his offer. And one album in, I was entranced by the singer’s smoky, baritone vocals, obscure & gloomy lyrics and the band’s beautiful, subdued, yet lush melodies. Ross, I’m really sorry for not listening to you back then, mate…
5. Digital solutions
Finally, there’s the online dating option; one which I believe has some fun, interesting, unpredictable, yet mostly disappointing results. Over the past few weeks, I’ve attempted to have a look at as many websites as possible offering ‘music suggestion services’. With such a vast scope, I could’ve very easily devoted a post with a length comparable to a Doctorate thesis reviewing each one intently and professionally. But my ambivalent attitude to their success rate (if you want to quantify it like that) means that I’ll give you a rundown on the ones that stood out for me.
The main reason I feel so cynical about this option was that as a non-American citizen (i.e. a sizeable portion of this world), I am denied access to what sounds like the most perfect and exhilarating service in the world of music: Pandora Radio. Internet radio stations are a dime a dozen, and are probably the most popular websites devoted to finding new music, not necessarily just listening to it (as radio’s traditional role has been). Basically, they allow you to pick a station from a range of genres, or other variables of your liking. By listening to a station matching your current interests, these websites hope that you’ll enjoy anything new on there. Pandora takes that one giant step, if not leap, further.
Pandora is a custodian of the Music Genome Project, a musical analysis and research initiative that was formed to fundamentally capture exactly what traits makes songs unique, or similar. It uses almost 400 musical attributes, which, when combined in larger groups, amass about 2000 focus traits. If this sounds oddly scientific, it is. The founders based their idea on the study of genetics, and have statistically deconstructed music down to exceptionally precise terms such as: gender of lead vocalist, rhythm syncopation, level of distortion on electric guitar, key tonality, and many more than the average person has the ability to name. Organise these altogether with complex mathematical algorithms, and you…wow, the jealousy is flooding my veins as I type this…get a service which eventually is guaranteed to pinpoint exactly what you like and might like, in ways that you probably would never have thought possible. It’s actually scary to think what potential there is if one took advantage of such a mindbogglingly brilliant service. To sum it up: if I had unrestricted, full access to Pandora, this post would be the shortest I’ve ever written, or ever write. Only one line: “Sign up at http://www.pandora.com. You will experience heaven on earth”.
So after briefly meeting the girl or boy of your dreams, then finding out that you can never be with them, what does one do? Settle for less…
5.1. Radio lovin’
If internet radio sounds like your kind of thing, then the following are pretty decent. Last.fm focuses more on social networking and using the service as your primary medium of listening, which I found a bit frustrating, with me being an iPod slave. Despite its popularity, my earnest attempts to actually find new material with it were hopelessly convoluted. It wanted me to ‘scrobble’ my iTunes library to get an idea of what I listen to already (good start), but then very little became of that endeavour on the website itself, where it showed my (incomplete) listening history, but mainly for the purpose of others finding it, since the recommendations it gave were rather weak and short-reaching (it only gave recommendations of artists I had actually listened to already, according to my Play Counts. Go figure). iLike was much the same, focusing heavily on getting other users to ‘like’ what you like, but this time you have to input your favourite artists. Too much effort, not enough reward; especially for something which is meant to streamline the process!
Jango sets a good standard, and one can easily ignore the social networking part and get down to the nitty-gritty of finding new music. You can fine-tune the variety of artists and songs, and its interface is kept simple; all it asks you to do is input just one artist, and it will base your personalised station around that. With a rating system and music video section too, Jango is uncluttered with very little frills, and is worth having a look at it.
If Jango’s interface was simple, Musicovery‘s is even more so. Its innovative design focus on moods, rather than artists, allowing one to find a station based on what type of mood they want to the music to convey. A graph, with ‘Energetic’ and ‘Calm’ on the y-axis, and ‘Dark’ and ‘Positive’ on the x-axis is your tool, and can be tweaked chronologically and by genre. A ‘dance’ radio option also sorts music by tempo and by, what it seems to be, whether you can dance to it. Stereomood goes one further, and specifies oddly specific moods and activities that might apply to you as a listener, such as ‘just woke up’, ‘good karma’, ‘dinner with friends’ and ‘spring cleaning’. Mood radio might find just the song for you right now, and if used smartly, many times more when you’re feeling a little different. It’s like meeting an arty and intellectual cutie in a coffee shop, then later meeting a bold and passionate Casanova in a bar. Different moods, different situations, different desires…
5.2. In blogs we trust
Just as one would trust a friend’s opinion (see point number 4), opinions and recommendations from blog-writers are a marriage of authentic journalism and newsy chats. Their personal nature can make one feel like the writer is speaking directly to him/her (oh, the irony…), and their recommendations can come across as friendly advice.
But since there are so many out there on the web, where just about anyone can start one up, it can be really difficult to find the good ones, or ones that appeal to you. Aggregators like The Hype Machine and Elbows trawl through the proverbial ‘blogosphere’ to track trends and find the most talked-about artists and songs. The Hype Machine focuses on providing MP3 links, so that one can hear what’s on their Latest or Popular charts and read about it too. This way, both the music and the blog are discovered, so that future plays of the former and visits to the latter will hopefully occur. As such, blogs that post actual MP3’s seem to be the focus, and are more likely to get recognition. Elbows handles the music industry as a whole, and aggregates articles, videos and anything else one might find interesting that’s currently being discussed. Both sites provide one with easy access to discovering good music and thought-provoking discussion of it.
5.3. Indie Cred
Discovering artists before they hit the big time is becoming easier and easier nowadays. Whilst attending small, cramped gigs in seedy bars and buying limited first pressings of garage recordings aren’t activities that are going to completely die out, the quest to find independent artists involves much less on-the-ground activity than in the past. Artists can post their work on music-sharing websites, upload performances to Youtube and create a buzz amongst their fans, who in turn can share their indie favourites with just a click of a button.
thesixtyone is one of those websites that strives for that indie aesthetic. Named after Highway 61 in the USA, a place rooted in music tradition and history (à la Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and the King himself, Elvis Presley), independent artists can post their music in a homely forum where substance is valued highly, and talent can hopefully be discovered by the right people. Or just you, as an inquisitive soul, seeking a refreshing burst of creativity from people that have yet to secure a massive record deal, churning out hit after hit.
As such, the site is a lucky packet of pleasures, modelling itself on the internet radio format, but with high resolution photographs forming the backdrop of each song, and quirky quips from and about the artists artfully integrated into the interface. It’s an intimate, enriching and engaging experience, and you can feel good about the fact that you are giving exposure to someone who needs it more than your big rockstars and popstars.
5.4. A map to/of your heart
Lastly, there are the ‘map’-designed websites, which are fun for exploring the relationships between artists and genres. Personally, I found these to be the most useful and successful, because of the visual aspect. Seeing the links with your own eyes is incredibly effective, and it’s no wonder teachers at schools and universities recommend mind-mapping to their students; the human mind responds to the ‘spider webs’ well. Just like a little stalking session of someone’s Profile Picture album on Facebook upon meeting them, you get a clearer idea of how the music is related.
TuneGlue is a straight-forward, nifty mapping tool that creates webs of similar artists based on one input by you in the search bar. From there, you can branch out of the original six suggestions it gives, looking at artist bios, discographies and even links to the official websites. The key here is its simplicity. In my own experience, I discovered Klaxons after inputting my favourite band Bloc Party, and found their indie-rave-punk chaos close enough to be associated with my beloved Bloc.
Music-Map (and its sister website Gnoosic) continue with the trend of simplistic interfaces (see where I’m going here?), and are akin to gentle nods in the right direction of true love. The former takes on the form of an orbiting galaxy of stars, placing the artists you choose in the middle of the cosmos, as more similar artists orbit it in a closer trajectory, and less similar artists spiral around the periphery. The latter is also developed by the same person, and requests that you enter three of your favourite artists into the search bar, upon where it will give an automated recommendation. Don’t like it, or don’t know it? Rank the suggestion, and it will adapt for the next five or so suggestions. No profile, no sign-up, just a ‘Like’/’Don’t like’/’Don’t Know’. Personally, I put in Bloc Party, The Strokes and Kings Of Leon, and the first suggestion, Interpol, completely suited my tastes and made me wonder how I had never heard of them up until now. And since they’ve been around since 2002, it’s nearly a decade I’ve wasted without their dark, angular riffs buzzing through my ears…
Finding love, both physically and musically, can be a nerve-wracking experience. I still get that pang of worry as I load an album of an artist I don’t know onto my iPod. But that fear of something new gets washed away when I feel a bond between the music and myself that was probably always there, but I never knew of it. Like a conversation between long-lost friends that gets picked up after many years. Like a reflex reaction between the ears and pleasure centres of the mind. You want to experience that feeling more and more. But you can’t expect to blindly stumble upon it every day and be successful.
Falling in love may sound romantic, but I’d rather dive into it, thanks.
Links to recommended websites:
- Pandora Radio
- Hype Machine
(On a side note: I made a chance discovery of The Music Map: The Landscape Of Music project whilst researching for this post. It’s a site I highly recommend anyone to have a look at, regardless of what you’re searching for. A certain computer programmer, Dr. Yifan Hu, develops algorithms and software for mapping the relationships between anything on the internet, and his music map is thorough, well-researched and fascinatingly useful. Treat it like a browsing session on Google Maps, except it’s not countries and cities you’re hovering over; it’s genres and artists.)