The other day, Om Malik wrote a blog post about music discovery, sparked by ‘Other Music’, a documentary about a record store of the same name that once existed in New York City. Om has fond memories of the place, from the time when he lived in that city:
From the day it opened till the day I left New York, Other Music was a place where I could go to lose myself and find something new to transport me elsewhere. I discovered LTJ Bukem there. I fell in love with Portishead on the recommendation of one of the staff members. A conversation about a Tricky single led to a date with a Peruvian poetess. My lifelong love-affair with Thievery Corporation might have started at a club in Washington D.C., but Other Music is where I bought the albums. Same for Kruder & Dorfmeister, Bent, and dZihan & Kamien. The list goes on.
Other Music played a vital role in the spread of Asian underground music in the US. I used to run a website called Desiparty and, as a sideline, wrote about music in the reviews section of the website. I asked the people at Other Music to find me the debut album by Nitin Sawhney. They were the first folks to stock Talvin Singh in New York. State of Bengal, Black Star Liner, and Karsh Kale entered into my heart from their shelves. They provided the springboard for Outcaste Records. Basement Bhangra flyers were always welcome there. I can still trace my affection for Morcheeba back to Other Music (one of the staff members said that these guys are going to be bigger than Portishead).
I have fond memories of trawling around the local record shops in my home town in my teens and twenties, back before the Internet became the means by which most people listen to music. Those trips were spurred by late-night radio shows where I’d hear songs and artists that weren’t the staple of the Top 40 charts and the daytime schedule.
I remember watching music TV programmes (Top Of The Pops, The Network Chart Show) when I was a kid and teenager, however my music tastes and purchasing habits have always been informed more by radio, particularly where the DJ/presenter could pick what they wanted to play. (I’ve fond memories of staying up late to listen to John Peel on BBC Radio One in the 80s, and Coldcut’s Solid Steel Radio Show in the 90s.)
In the 2000s, once I got broadband, I changed over to mostly Internet stations, particularly the streams from SomaFM, plus recommendations from Last.fm and Pandora Music (before the former was neutered by CBS Interactive and the latter shut out non-US listeners due to rights management.)
I also supplement with music recommendations from Spotify, and now Apple Music.
In hindsight, I would add in recommendations by friends to that list of where I get my music from. And, to make it clear what priority they all have, let’s make a list:
- Recommendations from friends and blogs,
- Internet radio,
- Streaming music platforms,
- Traditional radio.
Yes, I have been listening to more music radio over the last few months, mainly as an alternative to the news. But while the music they play occasionally brings back happy memories, the majority of the time it just serves to remind me how detached I’ve become from ‘pop’ music.
This is the missing piece of Spotify as we know of it today. The faceless algorithm does nothing to cement the moment of musical revelation in our memories. I am currently tripping on Oceanvs Orientalis, but I have no idea how I ended up finding them and liking their music. By comparison, a friend’s beau introduced me to El Jazzy Chavo. Every time I play his music, I think of the two of them and our bumpy car ride together.
I think that Spotify suffers from the same malaise that I referred to in my post about Amazon UK and their recommendations — they have all this data about my habits, yet their algorithms only pay lip service to the promise of helping me discover new stuff. Instead, much like Amazon, the focus is primarily on keeping me using the service.