March 15th, 2010

Music Discovery (at SXSW)

No, this post is not principally asking about things I should go see at SXSW next week, though I am eager to know about promising parties and awesome acts to catch. Holler if you’re gonna be in town or have a tip. (I can safely predict I’ll be unable to avoid the Tormenta Tropical tractor beam.)

Mainly, I’m posting to seek a little crowdsourced feedback. I’ve been invited to SXSW to speak on a panel about the history of music recommendation, or to put it another way: music “discovery” in (and before) an age of algorithmic “recommendation systems” and socially-networked music apps. Or: how do people find music today — or how does it find them — and how does that compare to times past?

Here’s how the convener of the panel, Michael Papish of Media Unbound*, only slightly cheekily frames the conversation:

Mention “music recommendations” and talk of algorithms, genomes, visualizations and widgets ensues. But, the concept of making music recommendations is far older than the tech industry can imagine. Beginning with traveling minstrels of the middle ages … to legendary freeform DJs of the 60s, we present a history of the music recommendation.

1. How did people ever learn about music without the Internet? Is this even possible?
2. What was the role of music performer in introducing audiences to new music?
3. How can songwriters teach listeners about music?
4. What is the place of the “cover version” in song discovery?
5. Was there a time when terrestrial radio helped people discover music? What different radio formats worked best for music discovery?
6. What is the current state of music discovery via radio (terrestrial, satellite, internet, interactive, etc.)?
7. Can record labels and music publishers create trusted relationships with listeners that allow them to find new and interesting music? Has this worked in the past? Are there groups doing this successfully today?
8. What about movie soundtracks?
9. Do people actually read music criticism?
10. What is the history of listener-to-listener music sharing?

I’m especially interested in the final question Michael poses, wondering about the ongoing history of listener-to-listener sharing (as opposed to artist-(industry/label)-listener models). I know that, for my part, I still tend to find most of the music I come across through directly interpersonal means. These days, that can be both in person (especially at gigs), but also, increasingly, via email or Twitter. And of course, in terms of seeking things out (which I do less and less, so much being pushed at me), I still find music blogs the best place to go to — as opposed to “music journalism,” which I seek out less and less — and reading other people’s blogs also feels like a listener-to-listener model.

I’m definitely curious to hear any anecdotes that readers would like to share. Given the open-eared, active connoisseurship which animates a lot of friends of W&W, I suspect that most of you still have plenty of traditional, interpersonal, offline/nonalgorithmic ways of finding new music. But I’ll be just as eager to hear from you if you happen to think that Pandora is the bees’ knees.

Of course, I’ve been thinking about songs as shared things for a little while now. And I’d love to be able to put that into broader historical context (and that’s largely gonna be my job at SXSW). I think that volumes like My Music as well as Tom Turino’s new Music as Social Life help to offer useful perspectives, and I love when little gems like the following leap out at me from music books otherwise concerned with other matters:

[Moses] Asch arrived at school [in Germany] in 1922 and discovered that the students, who came from all over the world, liked to swap songs from their countries. (86)

This sort of socially-guided music discovery is, essentially, one of the main things that DJs do (whether on the radio or in the club). And there are lots of continuities we could draw between music discovery in pre- and post-Internet time.

But I’m particularly curious to know what has changed, if anything, about our patterns of music discovery, and which recommendation “engines” we find most useful / awesome. Among other changes, musicologist Mark Katz suggests that the advent of unparalleled accessibility of music online has engendered (or at least strengthened) what he calls a “divergent approach to discovering music”:

Instead of seeking out particular pieces (a convergent approach), one initiates an intentionally general search in hope of broad and unfamiliar results. A search until the term “cello” yielded not only the expected (Bach’s cello suites), it introduced me to Nick Drake’s haunting “Cello Song,” the works of Apocalyptica, the Danish cello quartet known for its Metallica covers, as well as to the riches of Annette Funicello. What by all rights should be condemned as a poor search engine served as my trusted guide into the musical unknown. (167)

Adding to the pile of data & interpretation, a recent sociological study by Steven Tepper and Eszter Hargittai uses a sampling of college students (from 2003-05, unfortunately — given how much has changed in the YouTube era) to investigate “pathways to music exploration in an environment that offers numerous choices for discovery.” Considering the roles of cultural capital and social status as well as massive technological change, their findings suggest that,

While students certainly get some recommendations about new music through digital media, traditionally important factors such as recommendations from one’s social circles and mainstream media continue to be the most important means through which students learn about new music. (245)

Allow me to quote them at somewhat greater length, as the authors attempt to place their critical questions into historical context:

Prior to the digital revolution, discovering new music required an array of resources. Two decades ago, the expense and time required to discover new artists, especially for young people, was considerable. Music ‘‘mavens’’ often had to own their own cars and had to travel regularly to inner-city neighborhoods to patronize record stores that were off the beaten path. They invested significant sums buying dozens of albums every year in search of new unfamiliar artists. These ‘‘opinion leaders’’ and discoverers had to rely on broad social networks – family and friends living in other cities and countries, who would regularly send them music that was not available locally. They would have also spent time and money listening to new local bands in music clubs in the city. And, they would have subscribed to high-priced magazines like The Wire, where they searched for reviews of non-mainstream, cutting edge artists. In part because of issues of access and expense, past music mavens and opinion leaders have tended to come from the ranks of the elite.

In theory, the digital revolution and the arrival of new technologies should democratize the discovery of new music and the capacity for individuals to become opinion leaders in culture. More people have access to a greater variety of culture than ever before. The digital divide creates new inequalities, but as this divide closes, as some commentators contend that it will, more citizens will be able to discover new music through a variety of online services. If discovery and opinion leadership are sources of status, then new technology might serve to flatten hierarchies and cultural advantage. It is beyond the scope of this paper to sort out the relationship among technology, discovery, opinion leadership and status. But, we can answer the following more descriptive and more limited questions: First, does new technology facilitate discovery of new music for college students? Second, is everybody using new technology to discover new music or just some students? If there are variations in this activity, are there identifiable status differences between users and non-users? Additionally, are users more likely to be opinion leaders? If so, what are the distinguishing characteristics of opinion leaders in the realm of music exploration? Are such opinion leaders more omnivorous in their tastes? Are they pre-disposed toward experimentation? (230-1)

While I find Tepper’s & Hargittai’s narrative framework above to correspond to my own intuitive sense of how — if you will — things done changed, I also find it somewhat wanting in grain of detail. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to go back and survey “music mavens” and “opinion leaders” in the 80s or 90s. And this is where you come in.

In other words, I ask you, dear reader, to please help us out. Leave a comment indicating what, if anything, has changed in your own processes/practices of musical discovery/recommendation over the last several years. If you have a particularly illuminating bit of historical context to offer, as always, I’m all ears!

* Full disclosure: I worked as a lowly data-processor for Media Unbound, a modest but awesome music meta-data company (which was very recently acquired by a larger one), between 2003-4, grooming info fields for reggaeton artists and British boybands alike. It was a trip, and it helped pay the bills while I was writing my dissertation.


  • 1. KG  |  March 15th, 2010 at 11:53 am

    I believe Tim D. Taylor is working on the algorithm-based recommendation engines at and netflix. I’m not sure if he has published anything yet, but he presented some of his research at SEMSCHC and a department of musicology colloquium. It might be worth asking him.

  • 2. w&w  |  March 15th, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Interesting, KG. Thanks for the tip. Of course, the algorithmic side of things is actually the stuff that I’m least interested in, but worth keeping in as part of the picture.

  • 3. KG  |  March 15th, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    I remember he did something on the consumer recommendation features as well, but it’s all so hazy. I was sprinting to finish of my dissertation at the time… Good luck with this! I can’t wait to see how you interpret the situation.

  • 4. Gavin  |  March 15th, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    I do the bloggy/twittery/sharey thing, but I do a fair amount of blind purchasing since the age of saturation. I go to the bootleg market wherever I am (ALWAYS do this when I’m abroad) and pick some home-burned CDs up. I went to the Mexican CD shops in Chicago a fair amount, but the best stuff was at the block parties. I tend to go for the CDs with salacious cover art since that’s where the party goods are, but sometimes I’ll ask the seller for recommendations. Asking for “techno” will usually get you some interesting finds.

    The other thing I do, particularly in unfamiliar zones but also closer to home, is listen to the radio, go to clubs, and watch music videos (either the YouTube rabbit hole or indigenous MTVs). Always always always have open ears — sometimes you’ll hear the bangers coming out of cars, buses, laundromats. When I hear something I like, I go to the shops/sellers and try to find it. This will often involve some entertaining ad hoc beat boxing and pantomiming, especially if there’s a language barrier. Often I don’t even get what I’m looking for, which is maybe the point.

  • 5. 100dBs  |  March 15th, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    I still get a fair amount of personal recommendations, but for the most part it’s Last.FM all day. They’ve done a brilliant job.

  • 6. dave quam  |  March 15th, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    I’ve never used (I have an account but i never used it/never could figure it out) and never used any digital recommendation things. I get all my music from recommendations from friends, looking at the rosters in liner notes and cross referencing other albums, scanning through record labels, randomly, and people’s recommendations on the internet. I know these music recommendation sites seem to work and a lot of my friends really enjoy them though. My roomate loves pandora radio and has it on all the time and has found a TON of music he digs through it. I’m happy for him, I’ve heard all the good stuff they tend to play though.

    I am really really broke right now but I have dropped more coin on music than most things, beer aside maybe. When I get my employment rollin I will be hitting cumbia shops more frequently.

    Gavin, your right, the block parties here in Pilsen have the best music. I was going to meet up and trade with the DJ who spun at the last one on my block, but it never happened.

  • 7. 100dBs  |  March 15th, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    Pandora is pretty terrible. It repeats too often and has a weird method of calculating similarity (I think based on “moods” last I checked). Too subjective.

    Of course the best way to get recommendations is from fellow musicians and following different lines: producer, songwriter, era, label, etc… but I have not seen a better digital tool for discovering music than Last.FM so far.

  • 8. Ethan  |  March 15th, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    I have a small number of personal sources whose tastes I trust totally, musicians mostly. Some I know in real life, some I follow on Twitter and the like. I mostly use the web to follow up or expand on these people’s recs. I love Pandora, and it does a great job within genres, but it’s not so good at the left-field stuff. If I tell Pandora I like Bill Monroe, it’ll reliably steer me towards Flatt and Scruggs. It won’t make the leap to Coltrane or Peter Tosh. I discovered all of those people on the strength of Jerry Garcia’s recommendation. It would take me a lot less time, effort and money to act on that recommendation now than when I heard it back in high school thanks to the web. And the web is really good for totally random serendipity, but I’m long past the age where I need to be combing random Youtube videos. My friends are also good for cutting through the clutter – the singer in my techno band identified the four really happening Britney Spears tracks without my needing to slog through a lot of pop radio or whatever.

  • 9. poirier  |  March 15th, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    for me, it used to be the record store with the owner who was a music lover and asking him what’s good… also, by going to the same record stores again and again, i started to know some regular clients that were doing the same thing and we shared our discovery… but nowadays, i almost don’t go anymore to the record store, no more surprises there…

    college radio was also a huge influence in my musical education, listening to some key programs, i still have tape recorded from that era, and i remember the tracks on them…

    today, it’s dj friends, producers… the usb stick is my best friend…

    and the blogs, but i’d say twitter and fb are my main internet source now

  • 10. Birdseed  |  March 16th, 2010 at 9:58 am

    It’s hard for me to separate growing up from changing to digital, as the process seems to be remarkably similar. I’ve relied on “music mavens” before but not because music was necessarily hard to find, in the napster/audiogalaxy era of my first serious music interest; rather because I didn’t know very much and needed a guiding hand to help me understand. (Understand rockist wrong, as it were, but learning from the canon up is a decent Gadamerian way of working anyway.) The major changes have involved a complete drying up of CD purchases from hundreds a year to practically none, and an increased interest in hard-to-find music and unremastered vinyl, but I’m wondering if that wouldn’t have happened anyway since compilations and label catalogues are just another selection process/mavenhood… I’m not sure I’d want to know what “kwaito” is to some foreigner who just learned about the genre, and who includes weird kalimba-driven west african rap in the genre definition! But that’s not moving to digital, that’s just looking deeper.

    I don’t hang out so much with people who recommend me good things, nor do I rely on recommendation engines (besides the hidden ones like YouTube’s “related videos” or google search) or even online blogs so much, since the latter flow in overwhelming quantities in Reader and I ignore 95%. My main method of finding new music, now even more than before, is serendipity and chance. I browse random top lists. I go through junk vinyl piles. I type vague search terms into google. I listen to enormous piles of awful. Like Gavin, I keep my ears open all the time, whether AFK or online. I look for certain visual or word clues in record covers, blog texts, whatever (not tried techno though, good tip!). I’ve done a series on my blog on some of the less intuitive methods I’ve found myself using, from twitter searches (do it for any genre, it’s a good way to go!) to browsing wikipedia for self-promotors, to just looking through lists of “most watched videos”.

    I know I’ve found almost all of “my” stuff in some more-or-less random way! I discovered soca by looking at the enormous “caribbean” shelf of my local record store and finding a second-hand copy of D’Soca Zone 2. I discovered kwaito by finding a compo of mostly Mbaqanga in a public library. I discovered manele because I read a news article about a hacker who made a virus to destroy manele mp3s (!). And so on. It’s almost never that I get the “you have to listen to this” thing via books, articles, blog posts, friends, engines, and that makes me most happy; I much more enjoy pseudo-random discoveries.

  • 11. thecrookedclef  |  March 16th, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Great topic!

    Wayne, will this panel be open to lowly DJs/poor students like me or is there a badge requirement? If not, what’s the information about time and place? Thanks.

    As a DJ and music digger in general, I find that the mixtape is an essential component to my discovery of music. With the exception of certain promo-mix formats that include only the artist’s own work, or popular iterations of their work, the mix can be a tremendous meta-commentary on the state of certain sounds. I personally love the DJ who peppers their own work into a mix of their influences. So far I consider Kingdom to be the current grand-master of this kind of mix navigation (thanks to Jace for that pithy new lingo), and I believe this allows for a fascinating aggregation of sounds that can remain disparate inside the interwebs, either in rapidshare junkyards or non-English speaking blogs. I personally approach the mix as a meta format to draw together the familiar and the unfamiliar as a means for dissemination, a process that is only tangentially possible with a blog, and useful as a literal, immediate blending of sounds.

    My role as a DJ incorporates the above kind of research, but my interest as a newb-cultural critic often takes me to music critics and academics, who, however awkwardly related, take me to sounds that aren’t (so far) as frequently placed in the context of the mix. I’m a big Hip-Hop fan, occasional Indie rock enthusiast, and more recently intrigued by Ambient/Noise, all sounds that either rarely get put into the mix format, or when they do are singular artist expositions rather than taste-displays (Hip-Hop beat -recycling excluded). More than anything though, these commentators and critics are often key-holders to content. Mixes, promos and CD’s are sent to these people (sometimes) before the public gets a hold, and I think this is till a valuable process, leaving us to trust in people who may be more passionate than ourselves.

    Thanks Wayne for a great discussion Wayne, and can’t wait to shake your hand. Cheers.

  • 12. nina  |  March 17th, 2010 at 9:56 am

    When I was a teen I found music primarily by radio and by the recommendations of friends. We shared cassettes and I remember writing letters about music and then sharing music via telephone.
    Later, friends would email songs and we’d discuss music on Usenet and via email. We shared via email, mailed dvds and binary newsgroups.

    Audiogalaxy was THE BEST THING EVER, because not only could you share music, but discuss it and participate in a community comprised of people with similar tastes.

    Then I listened via the websites of fellow music lovers, fans who’d share their music and invite folk to their sites. Later, it was Yahoo groups. We’d discuss music, post files and mail cds of mp3s. OH and the Yahoo messenger WinAmp status message plugin was great, it set your status as your currently playing song.

    Now I discuss music via email and on Facebook. I also listen to the youtube videos on friends FB and Multiply pages. I scour music blogs and I subscribe to blogs or Friend people who I know are into music and just monitor their feeds. My main sources of tips when I actively search are forums, ex. I read the reggaeton boards and see what the kids are just CRAZY about and WHY, who they like and hate and WHY, who is hittin and who has fallen off.

    Right now maybe 25% of my music finds are from active searching, 25% from passive searching (I find and friend ppl who are into music then read what they post) 50% is from people emailing me stuff to check out or to review or to promote. “YOU HAVE GOT TO CHECK THIS OUT” say the emails, so I do. If I like it, I blog, email, FB and play it in RL for people. And ppl will often send me a song in return or give me info on the artist, tell me about other versions etc..

    I have the entire collections of a few friends and major portions of others friends collections. We mail data cds or dvds or flash drives. Sometimes we connect PCs and pool our music. As I get stuff in from a 60 year old friend in NYC, I add it to my stuff then will send it all to a friend in Korea, for example. That friend will send me all HIS stuff that I don’t have,which I may later send to a DJ friend in San Fran who was lookin for dancing songs. (Every once in a while someone dedicates a set to me in Asia or something. Pretty cool!)

  • 13. redmonk  |  March 18th, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Cool topic.

    When I was younger, it was ALL about mixtapes, I used to do loads of swaps with one friend in particular and we had a pretty healthy competition going trying to outdo each other with ‘you’ve never heard this before’ kind of stuff. I usually lost the competition but won a lot of cool places to start off exploring, whether it was early Warp stuff, noise, punk, jungle…

    During college, hanging out in a record shop a couple of days a week was a great way to pick up recommendations, as well as just browsing sections and spending a few hours listening to stuff I otherwise mightn’t get a chance to. Every time I walked past a record shop/stall/whatever, even on holidays, I’d run over and have a quick dig, even if I didn’t find anything, it just felt like good practice, familiarization (there was a great video on Pitchfork recently featuring J-Rocc, Ras G, Nobody and Daedalus digging for records and counting how many Barbara Streisand records there always is, even in the most obscure places). I was always living with music people, so we’d have CD mixes and records playing all day from early. At the weekends, I used to peep over the DJs shoulder to ID tunes, a tap on the shoulder if it was a white label… was a great place to go exploring an artists work and making connections.

    Up until a few years ago, I used to spend a bit of time on dubstepforum and the likes, picking up mixes and recommendations, but these places quickly got swamped with so much music I had to stop using them. In terms of filtering, I use Google Reader, subscribed to a few music blogs, as well as subscribing to a few Podcasts (such as Rupture on WFMU, Rhythm Incursions, Low End Theory…). Chat rooms for streamed radio such as SubFM can be great places to pick up recommendations, probably due to the density of music nerds everyone is mad eager to show off their knowledge. Even sites like Facebook can be great for recommendations, people do like to help each other out musically, as well as appear knowledgeable! Running a label, I get sent a nice amount of usually pretty good quality stuff each week, so sometimes dealing with that, as well as promos from artists who I’ve booked before can be more than enough listening material!

    Usually do a group listening session on a proper club rig before we do a club night, get to hear everything proper, then do a USB key swap between everyone in the crew. Also set up a secure web area between a few friends so we have this virtual record bag that we can all upload dubs to, which has been working a treat.

    Soundcloud is a top notch way of hearing new stuff, by choosing who you follow you only get presented with the tastiest music every time you log on. Starting to use Mixcloud a bit more too, mainly cos of the lovely interface.

    Been checking this blog since I heard yr ‘Another Crunk Geneology’ mix so about time I put up my first comment!

  • 14. Aremus  |  March 20th, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Tape trading in the punk and metal underground was how I learned about most music growing up in the late 80s; FWIW, I graduated from HS in 1992. There were no real magazines (though there were a fair number of zines) devoted to the music I was interested in, very few radio shows, and certainly no MTV airplay. Mostly word of mouth, tapes, and shows. Of course, that was the whole point of the underground at the time, and I remember being intensely suspicious of any music I cam across easily. Musical pleasure was part of the chase. Elitist and naive, I admit, but that’s what I remember.

    When I really got into the free jazz/improve thing, what struck me most was how similar the scenes were structured. Yet another underground, still off the radar, and still operating under the logic of DIY promotion and circulation. Getting heavily into music journalism helped, making it a lot easier to find out what was out there. But I still love the chase, the research, and the searching.

  • 15. zarathustra  |  March 21st, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    there could be something to say about the sorts of ruptures that can occur in p2p and not in algoriddims for music recs. I can still remember somehow getting linked from pitchfork years ago to the guy who used to write the weekly fader collum about bass/grime dubstep forget his name now. But I remember not even being sure if i liked the music but i thought he was pretty hilarious and thus kept reading and listening to his picks. i had never listened to anything remotely like that before.

    there is also something about sterophonics. as a kid i remember my dad bought putamayo and i would listen to these tracks and think these are ALMOST really cool but something is off.

    can say something about voyeurism too – varying degrees

  • 16. Tony  |  March 25th, 2010 at 1:47 am

    whatevre happened to chance, coincidence and serendipity?? :-) birdseed is right, get creative with searchtools and you’ll be surprised every time

    i like algorhythms but only as one possible starting point out of many, i think max. 10% of what’s recommended to me via algorhythms is actually what i’m looking for/interesting/useful (amazon, youtube, etc.) that’s about the same score as going through a catalogue of a label you’ve never heard of. one great tool for me is the excellent RA website. Some people like to search, some don’t. Die Antwoord? Surfing on the edge of chaos and enjoying it ;-)

  • 17. Adela  |  March 25th, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Growing up I first learned of new music by “borrowing” my sister’s tapes and CDs. As a teenager in the late 90’s/early 200’s, my tastes took a turn for the past, and I learned about bands first by mainstream radio (which I listened to religiously—staying in bed for hours on Sunday morning to hear rare album cuts and live versions from obscure acid rock and folk bands was de rigeur.)

    Online message boards later became the medium through which my music meddle was tested and enriched; if I thought I knew every group to pop up that ever graced Cali’s scenes, I was way mistaken. In order to keep up with the heads on the boards, I had to seek out new CDs and documentaries (before I knew what an MP3 was). Lateral searching on Wikipedia would lead to hours of discoveries and notations.

    Nowadays I’ll discover music by blogs, radio, and word-of-mouth recommendations–and still Wikipedia lateral searches and investigations. I’ll go through my friends’ choices on Lala to see what they’re digging. I’ll also note bands/DJs that are advertised in my local alt-weekly and listen to them to see if I want to go. So I guess proximity is key–if I read that someone’s coming to town for only $5 that night, I’ll check them out.

  • 18. wayneandwax  |  March 25th, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    I want to thank everyone for their thoughtful comments — and for sharing these stories with me. The panel was fun, I’m happy to report.

    One thing we did, given the relatively intimate setting (maybe 25 people in attendance), was to go around the room and discuss the first “record” we remember buying / receiving / discovering, as well as to share our current methods of discovery. And it’s pretty remarkable how many of the accounts/approaches listed here in the comments found echoes in our discussion at SXSW. It was particularly striking how important interpersonal recommendations remain (esp from [older] family members and/or cool kids) as well as how many people still really appreciate serendipitous, random, or divergent/lateral ways of finding new stuff.

    All that said, please continue to leave any thoughts you might have on the subject. I’m eager to have this conversation continue.


I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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