Online Music Discovery in Action

An anecdote from my weekend. First, a cut to the moral: Online music discovery is largely about architecture within and across sites, personal connections and serendipity. Focus exclusively on algorithms and radio streams at your peril.

Between about 1988 and 1992 I worked at a record store. My boss there was a cool local musician friend with great pop taste. When I finished my Ph.D. and moved away, he and I kind of lost touch except occasional reports from mutual friends.

A few weeks ago, he showed up on Facebook (as a number of my significant lost people from the 70s and 80s have started to lately). Yesterday he posted some pictures, including one of Future Clouds & Radar — “my fav band, listen to them please” he wrote. He mentioned they were the same guy as Cotton Mather, whose record Kon Tiki is one of my favorite albums ever. What can I say? I was reared on “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and Rubber Soul.

I went to Last.fm immediately where there were 2 free downloads of theirs plus complete streaming of their 27 song double album. I downloaded. I listened. I liked. I checked out Amazon. All 10 reviewers had given it 5 stars.

I went to eMusic 10 minutes later and bought it all, including the 2 songs I’d just downloaded for free (even though it only had 4 stars there, too Beatleseque for some, apparently).

Now I’m blogging about them.

This is just a mundane little moment in one person’s musical life story, but it’s got some lessons that are important:

(1) I knew this guy from way back. He came prepackaged with massive credibility. The trick for the internet was to make his music recommendations available to me.

(2) He did it not through a playlist, not through a music application, not with a widget, not by sending me a link, but by posting a picture of the band in his Facebook photos (probably technically an IP violation and certainly not a venue seen as music recommendation related).

(3) Until the “new” facebook design, I almost always forgot to look for new friend photos. The new tab layout has made me remember to check for new pictures, so I actually found that picture.

Most online music discovery people assume that music discovery happens through radio, offline or online, which I admit much of it does, or through recommender systems, which again do have sway. Reviews in sites like Amazon, eMusic, and places like Pitchfork or Drowned in Sound are surely important.

But it’s very important to remember the serendipitous ways that we stumble across music through our connections with friends, and the need to enable that kind of discovery by making the kinds of things that fans want to promote easy to pitch and easy to find. Too often music discovery sites foreground the parts that can be done by machine, forgetting that the most meaningful music recommendations emerge unpredictably when the technosocial fabric is woven well enough within and across sites to let interpersonal surprises occur.

On a related note, triple extra credit to Future Clouds & Radar for pitching this holiday bonus:

When Radiohead released their wonderful new recording “In Rainbows ” last month for a special “pay what you want” price, few could have predicted the paralyzing backlash of consumer guilt and psychic gridlock that would grip the world as it became known that over 80% of consumers took the goods for free! The good news is Future Clouds and Radar can, in this special yuletide offer, help you and yours alleviate your guilt just in time for the holidays. By sending us just $23 US you will receive our double CD debut ($16 value) and make a $7 donation (actual Radiohead value) to our depleted coffers in the good name of Radiohead. Just write on your check or email with your payment the words “I feel bad about what I did to Radiohead” and we will make sure your act of contrition does not go unnoticed. Rest assured a band who needs your support far more than Radiohead will put the funds to good use and we will, as a special bonus, use a percentage of the revenue to fashion a Radiohead shrine available for viewing at our shows- topped off by a motorized Thome York figurine who will be programmed to gyrate spasmodically and caterwall in daring gibberish that verges on profundity at times!

I wonder how that worked out.

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