Saturday, April 2, 2016

Streaming and Discovery: Where I'm At


Lately, I've been finding it harder to get excited about music. Just yesterday, I started going through the Spotify New Music Friday playlist, which I do each week, and it was an exercise that seemed to be adding digits to my age with each skip. I was wondering if it had finally happened. Had I reached the age and moment where I was going to be the guy saying music today is crap? The guy I hate? It was getting close to it. At this point any song that contains the phrase "in the club" is going to piss me off with how shitty it is, but there has to be something else on this playlist, I thought. And eventually there was, but the percentage was lower than usual. Of course the issue isn't one of age or "music today." It's a complicated one because the very thing I love so much about "music today" is also now becoming the thing that is making it, ironically, harder to find new music I will love. I'm talking about the easy access to everything and how that leads to an almost impossible world of choices in one sense, but no choices in another.

Star Trek. That is all. No, really, one of the most exciting things to me watching Star Trek back in the day was the "Library Computer." They had access to everything on request. They could say "Computer, play The Beatles' Abbey Road" and it would instantly happen. The fact that we actually live in that world now is not something I foresaw but it's something that excites me to no end. All this music that growing up I'd only read about but couldn't find and/or afford (I know, pay the artists and all that, but that's for a different post), I can now listen to on a whim. And the stuff I'd never even heard of is mind-boggling. So much catching up that I've done in the past several years. But I may have reached a point where open exploration has hit it's limit for me. Maybe it's a time thing, too. I just don't have the time to wander through the infinite possibilities to find something I might actually like.

The crew of The Enterprise working on a killer playlist.

Sure, Spotify and others have algorithms to help you and they can be great. Even before streaming, Amazon recommendations lead me to discover The Black Keys (before they were cool) among many others. There's nothing wrong with that. But algorithms are limited. I recently started listening to The Earfuel Podcast, hosted by Joel Freimark, who I had gotten some recommendations from through his YouTube channel The Daily Guru in the past. On a couple of episodes he's spoken about this very issue: how streaming has somehow limited the discovery of new music because the human element is missing. He also talks about how the whole experience of music itself can be very disconnected and empty. And I've been feeling just that for at least a few months now.

Way back in jr. high school, as I've mentioned before, I met a few kids who introduced me to metal. As the years went by, we would all trade cassettes and even vinyl and that's how I would get into everything from Ozzy to Metallica and Mötley Crüe and Guns n Roses, and all that stuff. And that's all great. But the thing is, I was (I can only assume, but fairly sure I'm right) the poorest kid in that collective. I also lived further away and was, frankly, a bit overprotected by my parents. So I wasn't the one going to the record store on my own (or anywhere else) exploring the music bins and just getting whatever looked cool (this would come much later). Hell, we didn't even have cable on a consistent basis so my exposure to MTV was sporadic at best. And radio was just not going to cut it. I got everything filtered and second hand via The Rockers at Kinloch Park Jr. High in the mid 80s. I won't even go into what happened in high school, but the point is, it wasn't easy for me to access music back then, but at least I had a shared experience with friends over what I did get access to.

My section.
Fast forward to now and it's basically the opposite. I'm the one making recommendations to people, except that everyone is so overwhelmed or, frankly, old, that they don't listen, don't care or I don't know what. The thing is, after a certain point, I was always the outlier among any group of friends I've ever had where I'm listening to stuff way off their beaten paths. Sometimes they listen, but it's mostly just Carlos (Mostly Just Carlos is his new band). And he's gotten me into a few artists too. But it's just two of us and there's a whole world out there. It gets hard to navigate and we need guides sometimes.

So I think the next step in the evolution of music streaming is pretty much what Earfuel and others like Stephanie Kibbe at Some Kind of Awesome do. On the face of it, it's not that revolutionary. They have blogs or podcasts and post about artists they like. There are millions of those (you're kind of at one now). But what I think they do that's a little different is the attitude and approach. For starters they are not focused so much on known entities (though Joel will review bigger albums on the podcast at times), but instead focus on artists that you may not hear about elsewhere, whether new or established. They both also have Spotify playlists they update weekly that you should get here and here. They have a goal in mind with what they do. Their intention is to expose you to music you may not find on your own. They are not interested in just being part of an echo chamber where everyone is talking about the same music. But there's one other thing about them specifically that I think sets them apart, as I see it.

Sure, social media makes everyone seem accessible, but not everyone is and it's a weird, tricky thing when they are. I hate people and am not one to talk to strangers in general. Never have been and being in my 40s means I am actually comfortable with that fact now. I have no idea how I managed to get married and have children. But I digress. The thing about Freimark and Kibbe is they are actually very accessible and un-intimidating.  And I feel like that is what actually brings the human element back into the mix. You get a recommendation from a blog where you know nothing about the person writing it and it may as well be an algorithm. But you get something from Kibbe's playlist and read her posts and twitter feed and it somehow makes sense. And if you later hear something, you might find yourself thinking, strangely, that this stranger might enjoy it. And what's more, you can actually share it with her and she might like it. Star Trek's library computer couldn't do that, but that's the thing about music. It's supposed to do that. It's supposed to connect humans together that maybe have never met and have no idea about each other, but somehow this thing is shared.

Anyway, I've rambled on enough. I have no conclusion. There is none. It's a an ongoing thing, I guess. I hadn't posted in a while and all this was sitting in my brain so there you have it. Go listen to some music. For example, this new song from Rachel Fannan's new band The Bomb. Play it loud and get your air guitars ready.

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