(The fall 2011 issue of GRAMMY magazine included a digital listeners/buyers primer, assessing the current landscape of digital music services available. Read the feature here.)
In the eye of today's pervasive technological hurricane, discovering new music is simultaneously easier and more challenging than ever. On one hand, it's arguably simpler to discover music because the Internet provides a means for instant musical gratification. However, discovery can be more difficult given the volume of musical outlets a fan must "weed" through to find the gems.
In days past, one may have discovered new music by listening to longstanding radio specialty shows such as Vin Scelsa's "Idiot's Delight" in New York, or iconic radio DJ Rodney Bingenheimer on KROQ-FM in Los Angeles — both of whom are still on the air in their respective markets. Or perhaps one would have come across new music in scanning magazines such as Trouser Press, Rolling Stone or New Music Express. Of course, one had to wait for a specific night to hear their desired radio show or a specific date for a magazine to hit the newsstand.
Today, discovery is at the touch of our fingertips. Just open an Internet browser and search blogs such as BrooklynVegan and Pitchfork; Internet radio services such as Last.fm and Pandora; social services such as SoundCloud and YouTube; or streaming services such as Rhapsody or Spotify, among many other options.
Given that these services provide the means for instant access to music, does traditional radio still play a role in helping people discover nonmainstream music?
Marc Kordelos, founder of alternative radio promoter Underground Network Committed to a Lifeline of Entertainment, says yes, though not always in the traditional sense. "We track 70 tastemaker shows," says Kordelos. "The difference is that many of the stations that were on the FM dial are now online or satellite. The online version of [Los Angeles-based] Indie 103 is actually an influential and profitable online station."
Iain Baker, keyboard player for Jesus Jones and a DJ on London-based Xfm, is a believer in being "connected." "Music discovery used to depend on whether you knew the cool people who'd found the music in the first place as to whether you ended up listening," says Baker, who endorses the online blog the Hype Machine. "That's why tastemakers like [the late English DJ] John Peel had such huge influence. Now, lateral sharing is not only more important, it's more developed. It's not about how cool you are, it's about how well-connected you are to a network of either sites or people who are listening."
"There are so many outlets to preview music today," says Steve Rosenblatt, senior vice president of sales and marketing for video-based music discovery company LP33 Group. "Many of these tastemakers are not driven by ad revenue. They promote what they like. The great thing is new [online] outlets pop up every day so they are not corrupted by the pursuit of ad dollars." Rosenblatt checks music services and sites such as Spotify, Stereogum and Pitchfork on a regular basis.
Former Apple executive and current EMI Music Executive Vice President of A&R Alex Luke says advertising comes with the territory in today's musical paradigm. "Artists or labels that use advertising to promote shouldn't be faulted," says Luke, who confesses to checking approximately 30 music sites daily. "The lines between advertising, DIY self-promotion and editorial are getting blurrier and blurrier every day. It's not how someone reaches a fan, but how those means of outreach convert."
Offering both a free ad-based model and ad-free premium service, Spotify allows users the ability to instantly listen to specific tracks or albums from a catalog of "millions and millions" of songs with virtually no buffering delay. With more than 250,000 paying subscribers as of October 2011, Spotify has captured some additional momentum in partnering with Facebook and becoming their default music service.
Spotify's impressive U.S. rollout might imply that musical suggestions are ad-based. "It's a combination," a Spotify spokesperson says. "The What's New section includes some advertising-based suggestions under New Releases, [but] our top lists are always user-generated."
"My favorite [site] is Rateyourmusic.com, which is basically a social network for discovering music," says Michael Landon, a student attending New York-based Fordham University. "You add friends if you like their taste and you can look to their ratings as points of inspiration for musical exploration. I only like a few online sites. I enjoy Tinymixtapes.com because it makes room for music that's a little more 'out there' than most. "
Los Angeles-based film music supervisor Jonathan McHugh says not only does he place music in various visual mediums, he also discovers music there. "Sometimes, I hear new music in a video game my son is playing or watching 'Gossip Girl' with my daughter," says McHugh. "Musical discovery can come from anywhere. I love KCRW[-FM] and listen to rebroadcasted podcasts if I miss the broadcast."
This random sampling of individual's music discovery methodology underscores McHugh's point. And while the sea of options available offer some challenges, the fun of musical discovery remains. And today's path is virtually endless.
(Mike Mena is a partner in the Redondo Beach, Calif.-based PR and marketing firm Ileana International Inc. He is a former record industry executive who enjoys championing music and music-related causes.)
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