One of my favorite holidays, Record Store Day, is fast approaching. The event, taking place this year on April 20th (it is held yearly on the third Saturday in April), is an event designed to raise support for brick and mortar retail stores. The day features special edition album releases, special events, and features participants from around the world (although it primarily focuses on US locations). As artists, stores, record labels, and other interested parties participate, they help to build support for the notion that consumers should think local as they shop for music throughout the year. The first step in this process, however, is finding new music that warrants a purchase. To honor the occasion, I’ve put together a handy guide for anyone who might feel a little out of the loop on the music discovery process or stuck in a musical rut: Disclosure: I have intentionally left off a few other paths to new music, partially for the sake of brevity and partially because I felt they were more or less covered extensively elsewhere.
- Last.fm – One of the true gems of the web that I feel is constantly undersold (and tends to get overshadowed by Pandora and Spotify) is last.fm. The primary function of last.fm is as an add-on to your music listening app of choice. You download the ‘scrobbler,’ and it runs in the background of your computer, keeping a running list of your listening history (by way of Spotify, iTunes, your iPod, etc.) along the way. This is a great way for you to see your (or your friends’) listening habits in an organized way. You can look at your most listened artists and tracks of the week, month, half year, year, or all-time. The data isn’t limited there, however – last.fm also has a myriad of experimental ways to organize your music and help you find new artists and tracks in their playground. OK, so that is all simple enough, but how will this help you to make new discoveries? The key to this is once you begin sharing your music and letting your library accumulate, last.fm will show you listeners with high ‘compatibility’ to you, musically. These users are called ‘neighbors.’ With one click, you can begin listening to any neighbor’s ‘library radio.’ Inevitably, even the most compatible neighbors will have some artists that fall outside your listening history. They key is that these users generally do have the same taste as you, so it’s easy to understand that they can lead you to some great finds. Similarly, last.fm also creates automatic ‘radio’ stations for any single track, album, or artist. So, all you need is any example of the type music you like to begin finding new artists to check out.
- Independent Radio Online – OK, so your favorite local station has been destroyed and turned into an all-Black Eyed Peas station. What now? Fear not, because many great stations still exist around the globe. These stations almost universally have taken advantage of new technologies to offer live streams across various services (directly on their websites, on Apple TV/iTunes, and on phone apps, to name a few), so they are highly accessible. These stations often do a great job of having not only features of some buzzed-about new artists, but also varying specialized shows if you have a niche genre interest. Two of my favorite stations out there are KEXP in Seattle and KCRW in Los Angeles. These stations will generally put up the artist name and song title, so as you find new artists, you can make note and look into their full catalogs later. Also, these stations will often run promotional contests to get you to connect with them and their associated artists via social media which are often worth the minimal fuss.
- Find Trusted Record Labels – This one may seem like a cumbersome process, but it’s actually one of the most reliable paths to the best discoveries. Put simply, many of the artists that ‘break through’ in any given year started out on a small label. These smaller labels take painstaking care to curate a small collection of artists that they believe in from a long-term perspective. Fan of Arcade Fire? They started out on Merge Records. The Lumineers? They are still on Dualtone Records, a folk-leaning label. Girl Talk is on Illegal Art, Passion Pit started on Frenchkiss, Modest Mouse began on K Records, and countless others began on Sub Pop. Although labels generally do have a variety of artists, if they have one act you really love, chances are they’ll have another. Once you find one that you like, follow them on Facebook or Twitter to have artist recommendations delivered right to you.
- Shazam – Having helped to identify over 5 billion songs to date, Shazam has become somewhat of an essential smartphone app. Shazam eliminates that frustrating moment when you are in a cafe, watching a commercial, or at a party where you hear a song that you like but don’t know how to track down the artist. Open the app, let it listen to any track for a few seconds, and soon you are provided with an artist, song title, album, and various ways to purchase the track. This simple application is a great way to compile a list of artists to check out at your leisure and share with others. Two years ago, Shazam partnered with Facebook to allow users to see what tracks friends have recently identified, thereby creating a personal network of tastemakers.
- Follow Innovative Live Music Sites – One of the great developments over the past decade or so is the growth of sites that focus on providing artists with new mediums for presenting their music to the world. Daytrotter, NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, Blogoteque, The Onion A.V. Club’s Uncovered Series, and many others are offering performances by some of the most creative, captivating artists around in unique live settings for listeners to check out. Below is one of my favorites from Blogoteque, featuring Phoenix performing “1901” below the Eiffel Tower.
- Bonus Tips: Other paths to discovery that I didn’t get the chance to go into here:
- Live music venues – Periodically check a site like Pollstar for local concert listings and see where the kinds of artists you like are playing. Much like the smaller labels mentioned above, venues have curators that book shows consistently (sometimes consistently bad, sometimes consistently great).
- Look at the openers for your favorite bands’ tours – Although bands can be thrown onto a tour for a number of reasons, they are often paired with a headliner with a similar aesthetic and/or potential fan base. Using Google, Facebook fanpages, YouTube, and other social means can help you to see if openers hold any appeal for you.
- Music Blog Aggregation Sites – Hype Machine and Elbows are sites designed to look at trends across thousands of music blogs, see what trends exist and who is gaining notoriety.
- Music News Sites and Blogs – Don’t lose faith in music news in a slightly more traditional sense. There are some great writers and periodicals still out there, and quite honestly, they often provide the most direct line to new music discoveries. Paste and Pitchfork, alongside blogs like I Guess I’m Floating, You Ain’t No Picasso, and I Am Fuel, You Are Friends offer a steady stream of musical finds.
The Ultimate, Super, Unbeatable Pro-tip in Music Discovery: Get Social Offline
Of course, another great way to jump right in is to go down to your favorite record store and ask an employee. Many of the staff are there because they have a passion for sharing music with others and would love to help you on your search. If you’re a fellow resident of Massachusetts, you can check out a listing of some great record stores right here. All others can use the map here. Happy Record Store Day!
I leave you with a playlist from last summer of both new and old music to get you into the warm weather spirit: