The Classic Means of Music Discovery Is Still the Best One
While at home for Christmas family time a couple weeks back, I asked my 15-year-old sister how she finds new music. I wistfully recalled swapping bursting binders of CDs with my buds, and the radio presets through which I endlessly flipped in Mom’s Subaru.
“Spotify,” she said. “Oh, and Pandora.”
“Do you ever listen to the radio?” I asked, a tad incredulous. “Nope,” she replied. “Never."
This is, I think, a sad state of affairs. And also, it sucks for my sister.
I assume her preferences are a decent bellwether of things to come, both for her and for the media-consuming demo she represents. For one thing, she's got decades of listening ahead of her -- her current means of consuming music will in some way inform how she finds music later on. Who among those of us over 15 don’t still attach ourselves to MP3 files, vinyl records, or our massive leftover CD collections, however financially and spatially nonsensical it all is? Yes -- your habits as a 15-year-old probably define how you’ll consume music forever.
What my sister and others of this brave new generation -- and potentially you out there, with your earbuds in your ears at this very minute -- are missing out on is only an entire universe of potentially life-changing music experiences. You don’t have to be an obsessive to find value in discovering great new music, especially if it's something you discover -- something that feels special to you, like you own a little piece of it. This makes life a richer experience. Who would I be if the greasy kid in my high school music theory class hadn’t told me, with rapture in his eyes, about Neutral Milk Hotel? Or, even further back, if I hadn’t heard Talking Heads or the Band on my dad’s car radio? This is music that brought me a new kind of contentedness, accompanied me at my most forlorn, inspired me to make things.
And so by relying on the whims of Pandora’s robotic programming and Spotify’s related artist function, my sister is entrusting her spiritual development to an algorithm. I’m sure she’ll stumble on great things that way -- I’ve discovered plenty of good bands via Spotify. But she’d do much better if she turned on the radio.
Radio is certainly the classic means of music discovery in the modern age, but it’s also the best. Bigger radio stations -- from indie powerhouses like KEXP in Seattle and WFUV in New York to your garden-variety Mix 104.1s and 107.7 the Ends -- are curated by experts whose sole job is to sift through thousands of songs for what they think will click with listeners. The difference, of course, is that you are much more likely to discover something new on a station that isn't beholden to sticking to a tight playlist. For the truly adventurous, scrappier free-form stations like WFMU in New Jersey enlist genre obsessives to mine more obscure music.
There are plenty of other great sources of music discovery. If you've the stamina, mine the stacks of your local record shop. And, duh, the internet (you're here, aren't you?). Wondering Sound and GoldFlakePaint are thoughtful spaces for those in the know; BIRP publishes and circulates a thorough and exciting monthly playlist of new music; Mixcloud is a social site that lets you follow DJs and music curators.
Great radio is like any of these things, but alive, oftentimes built on the spot, for the very moment you’re in, narrated by someone you come to trust. It's local in a way some brands with major curation firepower usually aren't -- not in the traffic-and-weather sense, but in the sense that you'll hear bands that are rolling through your town soon; that the dude or lady selecting your music might shop at the same record store as you; that you'll hear bands from your area -- bands that generally have an even better chance of making your life awesome.
According to a study from last year, radio (corporate radio, that is) is still the No. 1 means of music discovery. But one can’t help feeling it won’t be that way for long. Do yourself a favor and turn on an indie radio station today.
And flip it on for your kid sister while you're at it.