Signal to Noise: Music Discovery in the New Age of Choice
Digital technologies have opened up our ability to access more and cheaper music than ever before. They have also made it feasible for almost every musician to have their output available to everyone on the planet who has an internet connection.
On the face of it, such democratisation and ease of access is “a good thing”. How many genuinely talented artists have flogged away for their entire careers unable to reach the audience that would have truly appreciated their art.
Aside from those acts that were manufactured for the purpose of churning out the same popular styles that had already made money, how many gave up, defeated by the ultra-safe formulaic system that closed its doors in the face of almost every original, exciting talent that had the temerity to beg for a deal?
Yes, things have certainly changed, but are they a lot better?
In the early days of on-line music it looked as though every artist would have their own virtual record store, selling their music and merch direct to their fans. In some cases this has happened and artists have build successful careers. For most, though, it remains a distant dream as they struggle to get their music heard among the cacophony of other independent artists in exactly the same position.
Until relatively recently, music was physically distributed on CDs which had a production cost. OK maybe only 75p or around dollar per unit (including a card wallet) but when you’re buying 1000 copies to get the unit cost down to something reasonable, that’s quite an investment for a penniless musician. Now, with downloads from Soundcloud and the like, the cost of distribution effectively close to zero. OK iTunes and Amazon will be taking their cut but it’s still pretty cheap to get into the market – for everyone. So yes, there’s lots of competition, in fact, so much competition that many artists are giving their music away as free downloads, in the hope that they’ll sell more merch or get more bookings to compensate with a different income stream. That’s the theory. The trouble is that people have to find the music in order to want to buy the merch and to go out to live shows.
Once upon a time, the broadcasters were key to discovering new music from the record labels, including the more interesting indie labels. Some would take a chance and play music that diverged from the top 40 style of the day and occasionally such airplay led to acts breaking through into the mainstream. With just a few exceptions, at least here in the UK, radio has become as driven by metrics and the mass of data about who is listening to what and when. The result: formulaic radio where everyone is going after the same audience at the same time with pretty much the same content.
This is where the streaming services Spotify and Pandora step in. There is such a lot of music available through those services, although just like iTunes, they capture your listening history. By analysing what you already listen to, they are able to match styles and make new recommendations based on what you already like. That’s fine as long as you don’t want to listen to anything else.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, that you DON’T want to hear music you’ve heard a hundred times before. So radio and Spotify are out and you just dip into that vast reservoir of indie music in the inter-webs, right? Well, you could. But remember that the reservoir is constantly being flooded by enormous quantities fresh new music and none of the old stuff is going away. The reservoir is getting bigger and all the churning around of very variable content is making it extremely muddy. It’s getting harder and harder to spot the tasty fish among all the carp (is that how you spell it?)
So where do you do to hear the really good independent music you’ve not heard before, that you know is there, somewhere?
The answer is trusted curators. People who have a deep interest in music and the dedication to trawl through the murky waters to find what’s worth listening to. Some of these good souls are to be found in print media and a very few in radio. Others are online, where you can hear the music as well as read about it and have the presenter’s a tell you about it as well as put it into programmes that can be streamed or downloaded. Yes, that’s right, music podcasters.
There are literally thousands of music podcasts and on-line stations available of every style and genre you can imagine and plenty that you really don’t want to imagine (trust me). So where to start? Well, it could just be that you’re already at the ideal starting point. On this site you’ll find links to the 30 members of the Association of Music Podcasting.
Yes, AMP members’ presentation styles and music content are really varied but they’ve all been through a vetting process that ensures that they meet a quality standard in terms of music, presentation and technical detail. All will introduce you onto artists websites and on-line shops. All are in business to support the production of great independent music that might otherwise rarely be heard.
In this increasingly noisy world, it’s great to find a curator who has done the hard work and is excited to present what they consider to be the best of independent music.