My 12-year-old daughter’s favourite music groups, as of yesterday: Fall Out Boy, The Beatles, and Simon & Garfunkel. I say “as of yesterday”, because as you know, the tastes of pre-teens fluctuate more than the stockmarket. But actually, those three have been up there for a couple of weeks now, and before Fall Out Boy came on the scene, her most-listened to was John the Determinist by Jeremy Messersmith.
An eclectic mix for a 12-year-old, you might say. But, although my daughter is obviously an original (obviously), many of her friends are mixing genres even more than they mix nail polish. So, what’s happening? Where are these musical influences coming from?
Partly from the home, yes. We play music a lot, from a wide range of genres. So I suppose that I can take credit for some of the influence. But only some. Jeremy Messersmith was entirely her discovery. And where did she find it? On Spotify.
Music discovery has always been a big thing for the music industry. How do new bands get known? How can we spread the word about this new group that we’ve just signed? How can we get more listeners? Traditionally, it’s been your friends, and radio stations. You would hear a song on the radio, like it, and then buy the entire album. Or, your friends would tell you about their new discoveries, you’d listen to them sprawled on cushions on the floor over at their house, and then you’d buy the album to socially keep up.
Then came the Internet. Soon there were music blogs accessible, for free, to anyone with a connection. And Internet radio. And iTunes. And YouTube.
And now, while all of the aforementioned discovery routes still hold, streaming is muscling in big time on the amount of time we spend listening to music, based on its strength in discovery. Music streaming, together with interactive Internet radio, is taking over as a main discovery engine, and in the process, is blurring the edges of genres.
Let’s talk about genres
What are genres, anyway? They’re really just labels that help us locate music we might like. If you like southern hip hop, you’ll probably like Young Jeezy. If you enjoy new country music, try Blake Shelton. If trance is your thing, you need some Chicane in your life. But, most of us don’t just listen to one music style. We don’t “belong” to one label. And even if we did, there are so many sub-genres that just because you like rock, that doesn’t mean that you like all types of rock. Hardly any of us are loyal to just one type of music (except heavy metal fans, apparently).
So, how is streaming changing music discovery? It’s the ease of access, combined with a practically unlimited access to a vast range of songs.
First, a bit of background. The music scene has come a long way since the iTunes revolution, which for the first time let us carry our entire music collection around in their pocket, and let us buy individual songs on a whim. At $0.99 a song, we could experiment, download a range of artists, get recommendations based on previous purchases. As an avid iTunes user (and self-proclaimed queen of playlists), the thought of having complete control over what I listen to and when was beyond exciting. However, we were limited to music we owned. And unless we planned to spend a chunk of money every month adding new songs to our collection (which, I speak from experience, took up a fair amount of free time), we found ourselves getting tired of listening to the same tracks.
With streaming and with Internet radio, we don’t completely control what we listen to. We can control the type of music, we can skip songs if we don’t like them, but on the whole, not much more than that. We choose our channel, our playlist, our filters, and we sit back and enjoy. On some services we can select artists to listen to, we can even download favourite songs and create our own playlists. But the music isn’t ours, and we can’t decide the playback order. We have sacrificed control for greater access.
Love those parameters
Which leaves us wide open to discovery. With streaming and Internet radio, we haven’t chosen the music. We have chosen the parameters, and within those limits, there will be surprises. There will be new songs and new artists that we like, and with a simple tap or click, we can save that song for future re-listening, we can explore more work by that artist, we can (on some platforms) even create a new playlist for those discoveries. And with a playful tinkering of the parameters, we can have a lot of fun. The list of genres available on Pandora include such gems as Viking Metal, Indie Classical, Hawaiian Reggae or Hipster Cocktail Party. That’s just for starters. And if you’re listening on your computer, Pandora shows you the artist playing, and displays a list of similar artists. Ideal for music discovery.
Creating original and interesting playlists via algorithms is fairly standard now in the online music world. Aggregating songs by artist or genre is easy, with tags and filters. A relatively new development, even better for music discovery, is mood-based listening. All of the playlists I listen to on Spotify are mood-based. There’s my Seize the Day, my Your Morning Coffee and my Southern Gothic (don’t judge). This is slightly harder to automate – how do you tell what is ideal for a rainy day, or for an angry heartbreak? And it is in mood-based lists that we especially see genres start to blur. For melancholy, try a bit of Sia followed by Pink Floyd. For summer smiling, Manu Chao goes very well with Ziggy Marley. We don’t care if they don’t belong to the same group. They fit how we’re feeling. And this is how we can not only come across new artists, but we can discover entirely new genres. I had no idea what trip hop was until I came across Glory Box by Portishead on a mood playlist. I then went and downloaded a bunch of Portishead songs on iTunes, which helpfully suggested that I might also like Massive Attack. They were right.
Most of the streaming services are betting on a wider palate. And the more new music they can recommend, and the more trustworthy those recommendations become, the more loyal users they can accumulate. And the more loyal users they can accumulate, the more trustworthy their recommendations become (because of the additional data), so the virtuous cycle continues. And it doesn’t seem that anybody loses out – we get more music and have more fun making new discoveries, and the revenue gets spread amongst a wider pool of artists.
Two of my web-based discovery sites are TheSixtyOne, which through a fun interface tells you about the artist you’re listening to, lets you support them, and interact with others that also supported them; and Songza’s daily selection of playlists based on horoscope signs, obscure instruments, choice of headwear…
The exciting part is not just the vast world of music that has opened up to us. It’s not even just the pleasure we feel when we hear something new that moves us. It’s knowing that this broader access is fostering musical talent, stretching creativity and supporting the sector as a whole. True, music revenues are down, due to the sharp decline in album sales. But music streaming revenues are up, and are expected to keep on growing. While most of that currently goes to the labels, the industry is undergoing a major power shift. More artists are taking over their own management, and receiving more of the royalties due to them from the streaming services. Alternative and low-cost forms of getting your music out there are making this viable. And streaming music and Internet radio make it ever more likely that new music will get discovered.
And that the young, on discovering it on their own rather than through their embarrassing parents, will appreciate music from times gone by. That will make their lives richer, perpetuate legends and provide some lively dinner table conversation. Those of you over 40 will hopefully appreciate this: my 17-year-old son emerged from his room the other day and asked: “Mom, have you heard of Johnny Cash?”