In 1995 I was 11 years old. I was just beginning to realize the power of music in my life. I had never heard the phrase “music discovery.” My musical landscape consisted of radio stations and cassette tapes my mother chose to play. I never knew what it was like to discover a song for myself. That was until Windows 95.
My family had recently purchased a computer and with it, the Windows 95 installation CD-ROM. One day I was messing around on the computer, clicking through some of the multimedia samples and this Edie Brickell video for “Good Times” popped up in a tiny window on the top left corner of the computer screen. I was mesmerized by the video and the song: The rain falling on a car windshield, the laid back groove, the lilt of this young singer’s voice, the scenes of random people just hanging out and going about their day, and the simple, catchy lyrics “Good times, bad times gimme some of that.” I still remember how it felt to find this song myself—something no one else in my family had heard yet. It was my own. I played it for my brother, and we watched it over and over. We watched it daily for two weeks.
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Seeing Edie Brickell in the music rounds last month on the release of a bluegrass album with Steve Martin made me recall this song and that experience. I didn’t discover the song in some music nerd paradigm—spending time at an indie record store chatting up folks, going out every night to venues in search of a great underground band, reading critiques online all day, researching bands I already love and delving into their influences. The video was just a piece of cross promotion. Most people who owned the installation disc probably saw the video. It was a calculated move from her team that paid off in securing at least two fans, and probably a lot more. But, there was still a bit of chance surrounding the discovery.
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In April, a panel of New York’s EMP Pop Conference on music discovery addressed two main options—“algorithm-based discovery versus recommendations with a personal touch.” Spotify and Pandora contributed great albums and songs to my collection. Some of my favorite musicians I only know because a friend suggested I listen to them. But then there are gems like “Good Times” or another one of my favorite songs, Peter Murphy’s “I’ll Fall With Your Knife” that no one suggested to me, no one recommended I listen to, that don’t exactly fall into my general genre of choice. I never listened to Murphy’s solo stuff away from Bauhaus until I heard “I’ll Fall With Your Knife” play during the credits of a bad movie on Lifetime. This is music I discovered through chance—a discovery platform sometimes ignored, and perhaps, slowly fading away.
Most music discovery programs start with what we already like. On Pandora, you set a station based on a song, and it finds similar music. Even with a personal touch, friends usually tailor their suggestions to what they know you already enjoy. That leaves out a lot of possibilities. Sometimes you just hear something – in a movie, or on a friend’s mix CD –and it’s not something you would choose to listen to or thought you would like, but you do. It would never appear on your Pandora stations. But you connect with it. Maybe it just hits you at the right time, the right point in your life.
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Sometimes I wonder if we are slowly eliminating these chances of hearing something unexpected. At every click we construct and customize a personal universe by choosing people to follow and to friend on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook and any other social media site. We follow critics we trust, publications who cover the genres we like and bands we know. We only click videos we want to watch. If someone constantly publishes videos of metal bands we hate on Facebook, we can block their posts from showing up in our feed. Even with TiVo and satellite radio we narrow our worlds and streamline what we take in from around us. Perhaps we should do a little less curating.
The other day my friend said, “If someone asked me what genre of music I like I wouldn’t know what to say. I just listen to DMB, The Lumineers, Florence and the Machine and Mumford and Sons. That’s it.” When I went to see Grimes in concert, I didn’t bother to invite her. I absolutely love Grimes, but I know this friend would struggle to connect with her music. But maybe, if my friend happened to jump into my car with “Oblivion” basting through the speakers, it might just be the perfect song for her to hear that day.