In the soundscape of YouTube, Sound Cloud and plenty of streaming platforms, we really are spoiled for choice. We wander streaming sites like we’re at Costco, snagging samples and probably not even buying anything aside from our assorted memberships. And surprisingly, to some (me), as of 2018, AM/FM radio still had the widest US reach of any medium, including search engines and smartphones. It’s exhilarating, but it’s also exhausting. Music consumers simultaneously face overchoice (having so many options you couldn’t possibly pick one) and the suffocating omnipresence of superstars like Ariana Grande. So lots of people ask me how I find new artists to listen to.
I hardly ever sit down and decide to find something new. I’ve built a lifestyle that delivers new music straight to me. My best advice is to start working on yours. I won’t say this is a comprehensive list of options, because unless I start a career in A&R I just don’t have time to perfect a ritual. For now, I’m just answering the loaded question, “How do you find new music?”
The first, most obvious answer is Spotify has my back. All I have to do is listen to music, and more music comes to me. There’s a really interesting article by the Medium publication OneZero that explains the data science of Spotify in greater detail. My biggest takeaway is the 30-second rule: the algorithm assumes you like a song if you listen longer than 30 seconds. I hope this doesn’t encourage you to make judgements too quickly, though. We’ll talk about that later. The best you can do is remember that algorithms, like plants and people, need to be fed. If you feel like Spotify (or YouTube or Apple Music or whoever) is forgetting who you are, go consume some music you already know you love. Spotify probably thinks I like raps about Pennywise because I listened to one out of morbid curiosity last week. Now I have to bury that data in Dolly Parton. Maybe reconnecting with your roots will remind you who you are, too. If you’re feeling exploratory, think of an artist you love and check out their related artists column. Don’t forget, there are endless curated playlists by Spotify staff and other users, too.
The Spotify playlists I keep coming back to are:
Discover Weekly – Every Monday, Spotify gives me 30 new songs to listen to. I hear a lot of complaints about this playlist, but I find mine to be pretty accurate, and it doesn’t give me too many songs I already know. Did you know you can follow someone else’s Discover Weekly playlist? Find someone whose taste you trust and ask for links to their custom playlists. Here’s mine.
Release Radar – Every Friday, this playlist delivers up to two hours of what it deems new music. This article talks about what that algorithm values, and it’s more than just having a new song. I don’t really love this playlist, because I don’t think it gets me like Discover Weekly does. I feel like I’m constantly skipping songs by Hot Sugar, but I just learned a deluxe version of Mac Miller’s “Circles” dropped two days ago, so that feels worth it.
Daily mixes – I really have to be in the mood for these, because they can get really monotonous. I don’t tend to listen to things over and over unless I’m endlessly fascinated. I also find it difficult to listen to one genre for two hours. But I do think they’re a good set-it-and-forget-it option, and I think they’re good for retraining your other algorithms to branch out.
I don’t interact much with the other personalized content Spotify offers. Since I’m not much of a repeat listener, I’m looking at my On Repeat playlist (“The songs you can’t get enough of right now”), squinting at two songs I could swear I’ve never heard before. On the far opposite side of that spectrum, one of my coworkers listened to more than 24 hours of Post Malone last year. I don’t think she needs a reminder to listen to any more.
Sometimes we just can’t be trusted with our own taste.
I believe radio DJs are still the most powerful people in the music industry. I’m doubling down on that belief after seeing the numbers I linked in the intro. But I think the taste level of commercial music stations is lacking on FM radio (with the steady exception of college radio and musical segments on NPR). Luckily for me, every year my dad exclaims he’s done with Sirius XM, calls them, and complains himself into a better deal. Every year it’s my Christmas present. I love getting in the car and letting someone else be responsible for what I’m hearing. I love knowing that someone really likes the song they’re beaming into my car. I love Dusty Street, the DJ who complained Janis Joplin used to steal her boyfriends and who broadcasts from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think having regular contact with career music consumers is vital to participating in a community of music consumption. If the day ever comes that Sirius won’t meet my dad’s demands, I will be shelling out $15.99 a month for satellite radio. Shh. Don’t let Sirius hear that.
These are my favorite Sirius stations: Classic Rewind, Classic Vinyl, Deep Tracks, The Spectrum, Tom Petty Radio, SiriusXMU, Alt Nation, Soul Town, Bluegrass Junction, 40s Junction, BB King’s Bluesville
Despite owning one, I don’t really follow music blogs. Sorry. So much of my life is trying to keep up with print media, I just don’t take the time. But there are some great ones out there! I usually turn to music blogs when I’m curious about a specific artist or release. I especially like Pitchfork, which I think puts out some really good reviews. Some other very well-managed music blogs that come to mind are: NPR’s All Songs Considered, Gorilla vs. Bear, Consequence of Sound, and Stereogum.
I haven’t read Rolling Stone cover-to-cover in over a year, but I used to enjoy it. There’s a lot of fluff in there. I still subscribe, and I flip through. Just seeing the names that pop up frequently helps me recognize them when I run into them in the wild. I read whatever catches my eye. The whole magazine is one big recommendation, so it’s hard to come away with nothing. I trust the New Yorker the most with reviews, profiles and, frankly, my life. They’re not as lusty for fame as Rolling Stone. I also enjoy the depth of the New York Times (the music section is not afraid of getting technical) and I especially like its wide scope: a recent headline reads, “Dancing With Myself: How Artists Stay in Shape Without a Stage.” My favorite print discovery (although I don’t remember from which publication) is Coulter Wall.
My favorite book genre is music history. (I mean, thank God. It’s only my bachelor’s degree…) In searching for something new, you can go the obvious route and take a deeper dive into a genre you like, or that sounds interesting to you. Those books are just page after page of influential artists, albums and songs. Just make sure you’re stopping to listen as you read, or you never will. Plus, it doesn’t feel right to read an analysis of something you’ve never heard. My favorite music genre books are “Southbound: An Illustrated History of Southern Rock,” and “Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century.”
While their scope may be narrower, biographies are also a great way to broaden your horizons. If it’s a good book at all, you’ll learn about the artists who inspired, worked with or even worked against the subject. Some even have a referenced works section at the end, or additional recommended listening that they didn’t take the time to write about earlier. Plus, the more you learn about the sounds you like, the more you’ll be able to catch them in unexpected places. My favorite biographies are “Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band” and “The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America.”
While written music analyses can leave a lot to be desired in the arenas of clarity and precision, podcasts offer an almost magical ability to layer sounds and their spoken explanations. That kind of clarity is important when looking for new music because I think songs slip by us when we don’t understand why we should like them. I find that podcasts make even music I don’t really like very intriguing. So who knows, you might discover something you never would have tried. Plus, you can listen to them in the car to really maximize your catalogue expansion regime. My favorite music podcast, period, is Song Exploder. Episode 114: St. Vincent “New York” is the first episode I heard, and I keep going back to listen again.
If you’re a die-hard member of the music industry meritocracy, just go straight to the source: the charts. Don’t be arrogant. If you can’t find a single thing to interest you in the Billboard 200, you’re probably having bit of a tantrum, and should go listen to “Mr. Brightside” until you’ve calmed down. At the time of writing, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” is no. 82 and has spent 365 weeks on the chart.
Don’t forget you can also view charts narrowed to country, blues, R&B, latin and more.
Maybe you remember I said I don’t spend much time actually looking for new music. You don’t have to drown yourself in trade magazines to have a finger on the pulse.
Be the music person
Music is supposed to be social. I ask people what they’re listening to. I make playlists for my friends (not only do I usually stumble across something new in creating a playlist, but I sometimes get one in return). I make it really clear I’m down to accompany anyone to any show they want to see (under the $45 ticket tier!). Every month or so I take initiative and check flyers around town and pull together an outing. Going to concerts alone is one of my very favorite things, and I might make a friend while I’m out whose taste I dig. I befriend people who play and perform, and then my access to their communities really opens up.
People send me songs almost every day, because people inherently want to share music. All you have to do is make sure you’re the first person they want to share it with.
Keep an open mind
Listening to music you don’t like can’t hurt you. Be gracious when someone shares anything with you–they’re being vulnerable. Listen past the introduction (I know I don’t have to tell you how different intros can be from the rest of the song). I believe the more I listen to something, and the more I learn about it, the more likely I am to enjoy it. The most fun person to share music with is your high school best friend who always insisted she has no favorite genre. She says, “I like everything,” and every year you come a little closer to wrapping your head around what a superpower that is. She dances at your friends’ shows. She listens to things before they’re cool. She listens to things that never become cool. She really gets what we’re doing here.
Please leave a comment sharing your music-finding super power, and good luck out there!
My friend Alexa edited this post. Please let her know you liked her work by hiring her to clean up your own writing. She’s a teacher certified in Elementary, grades 1-6. The featured photo is by Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash.