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Why it’s still hard to discover new music online (and how we can fix it)

Why it's still hard to discover new music headerSallie Ford and The Sound Outside are a great band. They have released two excellent full-length albums – their second, Untamed Beast, arrived just last month. They have solid music videos for their tracks Party Kids and I Swear (amongst others). They have played on The Late Show with David Letterman. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely you had heard of them before now.

Technologies like Pro Tools and Bandcamp have democratized the production and distribution of music as never before. Unfortunately, many artists – even those as widely appealing as Sallie Ford and The Sound Outside – don’t reach large fanbases. Finding music online isn’t all that different from the way we used to do it before the dawn of the MP3. Here’s why, and how you can start to fix it.

Everything we have now is broken

Despite significant advancements in digital distribution, none of today’s major platforms has solved the problem of music discovery.

Pandora and Spotify initially seem like good candidates. Spotify in particular, with the recent launches of its Follow and Discover features, appears to be turning resources towards the issue.

Unfortunately, each of these services has big problems. First, because these services make large content libraries available for a subscription fee, they discourage listeners from investing in individual albums, and neither pays musicians much for the privilege of hosting their content.

Neither Amazon nor Apple will solve music discovery because they don’t have any skin in the game.

Second, both have limited information about what you might like. They can pull information from Facebook and a few other sources, but they don’t have a full picture of your listening habits. Spotify doesn’t know what I listen to on Bandcamp, for example. Or Pandora. Or what’s in my iTunes collection. Lacking a full picture of user listening habits, recommendations from these services can only ever be so good.

iTunes still packs its Genius feature, and Amazon has its own incredible product recommendation engine, but neither service really has the financial incentive to improve music discovery. Apple makes a substantial profit selling music, but its earnings from iTunes are dwarfed by those for hardware sales. As long as iTunes keeps driving iPhone and iPad sales, Apple doesn’t really care if everyone buys the same Pitbull album.

Amazon has been known to sell some of its highest-profile releases at a loss, which could indicate that Amazon’s view on digital music serves the same purpose as it does for Apple: Get customers in the door to buy something else. Sales are terrific, but the service is mostly used as advertising for higher-margin sales. Neither Amazon nor Apple will solve music discovery because they don’t have any skin in the game.

With hordes of independent artists and a neat Discoverinator feature, Bandcamp is commendable for its efforts in support of indie music. Unfortunately, Bandcamp’s userbase is dwarfed by those of the other services (at least if profits are any indication). Serving more than 50 million downloads is a praiseworthy accomplishment, but Bandcamp lacks the size, in terms of both users and musicians, to give informed recommendations.

MOG produces many of its suggestions based on data pulled from Facebook. But how much similarity is there between the artists you “like” on Facebook and those you listen to on a daily basis? If you are at all similar to me, you are far more liberal with Facebook “likes” than you are with your listening time. Additionally, promoting artists already “liked” may not help one discover anything new, as you have already interacted with those artists in the past. This makes any discovery system based on this particular indicator necessarily flawed.

Imagining a better discovery service

The failures of existing services may indicate the path forward for a better discovery solution, which would have several different qualities to improve upon them:

Independent and exhaustive – To make the best recommendations, the service needs a full picture of someone’s listening habits. That requires learning what you listening to no matter where you listen, which means it can’t be a proprietary technology. Instead, it would have to vacuum up data from around the Web through a series of APIs. The discovery service will have to offer the distribution services major value in order to get access to their data.

Valid – The discovery model must be based actual listening habits instead of on other indicators (i.e., preferences expressed via social media).

Incentivized – Discovering music must be a part of the discovery service’s bottom line. If the service isn’t rewarded for the discoveries it provides users, then it has no motivation to connect its users to novel content. iTunes doesn’t care if you’re purchasing a record from Justin Bieber or Sallie Ford and The Sound Outside, and, thus, will never care enough about music discovery.

Rewarding – There must be incentives for the listener as well. If tastemakers were rewarded for their recommendations, they might offer them more freely, helping us all connect to new and better content.

Personal – Users should be able to actively participate in this process — or, not. That means radio-type listening (less active), playlist-type listening (highly active), and everything in between. It should take advantage of input like ratings, skipped songs, or a simple thumbs up or thumbs down.

Do it yourself

Despite the lack of a solid automated discovery solution, there are many behaviors you can adopt to begin discovering more music right now. Here are a few suggestions.

Consult local media – The alt weeklies for your nearest city can turn you on to great local bands you might otherwise miss. Similarly, there might be blogs or other media, like Portland’s excellent IntoTheWoods.tv, covering your local music scene. Seek them out and use them. Your local record store, especially its local music section, also should be considered a local medium for music discovery. Don’t overlook them; they could probably use your support.

Use non-local media – Pitchfork, Daytrotter, and all songs considered are all excellent prompts for new music. They’re merely a few of the blogs, podcasts, and media sites covering national level music. Find a few sites or writers you like and check back on them for recommendations. And, don’t forget The Promo Bay. Pirates have pretty good taste, it turns out.

Go to shows – Local media often promote upcoming events. If a band sounds cool, take a chance on seeing them live. Be sure to check out any opening acts as well, as they will often be smaller, possibly local bands.

Learn the ecosystem – Who is touring with whom? What bands share labels? Producers? A number of facets of the music economy can suggest new content you will like. The more you know, the more the potential for discovery.

Find tastemakers – These could be close personal friends or famous rock stars. Social media can connect you to people whose taste you trust, and this connection can inform you as to what those people are listening to. Tune in to find out.

Evangelize – Find something you like? Share it! Others may follow with suggestions in reply or with similar posts of their own.

Conclusion

Right now, music discovery largely comes down to your willingness to exert the effort necessary to find new good things. As I’ve outlined, no one is going to do this for you. However, if you do it yourself, you will be rewarded. Sallie Ford and The Sound Outside prove that.

Good luck, and good discovery!