Discovering Music in 2009: The New Tools

MTV doesn't play music videos. Magazines are dying. Radio is all about the $$$. It's no secret the old modes of music discovery have been thrown out the window. Thankfully, new music-finders are here:

I think anyone reading this understands that the internet is the new trading post for artists, listeners, critics and salesmen. It's impossible to avoid some of the marketing campaigns carried out on MySpace and YouTube, but mostly music's move to the internet gives listeners more power to develop their own tastes, for better or for worse. You can turn to MP3 stores, recommendation services, internet radio and podcasts, MySpace—and even personal music blogs and forums that'll help you "sample" pirated music. Here's my take on each method of discovery and the relevance it has to listeners:

Recommendation Services

The Pandoras, Rhapsodys and Last.fms of the world are nice, because they do most of the discovery work for you, without pushing some corporate agenda on you behind the scenes (...ahem...Clear Channel). Even better, these services cater their first song selections around your initially revealed tastes, and as you give the software feedback as to what you like and don't like, they continue to refine and improve their artist recommendations. Zune's Mixview also provides a similar service, visually recommending similar artists and songs to those already in your library.

But my problem with a service like this is that you don't necessarily get music that's really new or groundbreaking. Sure, it might be new or exciting to the casual music fan, or just someone who spends all their time listening to these services, but for the true junkie—okay, maybe "music snob"—it's hard to really be wowed by any of these services. We've seen and heard most of it before.

MP3 Stores

Sometimes looking for new music to actually buy is a great way to discover new stuff. Whenever I stop through the legendary Amoeba Records in SF to buy actual, real CDs and vinyl, half my stack is full of stuff I'm completely unfamiliar with. The same holds true with MP3 stores.

Whether it's the monoliths like the iTunes and Amazon mp3 stores, or smaller music peddlers like Boomkat, Bleep, Beatport or Juno, most of these stores not only let you click through and listen to all the 30-clips you can handle, but they have tons of recommendations in the sidebars, allowing you to explore similar artists and sounds. The only problem with this? If you don't want to buy all these tracks, hunting them down again is a drag. And in the case of some of the more obscure stores, you might not find the songs anywhere else.

Internet Radio and Podcasts
The beautiful thing about radio in its prime was that, top hits and genres-aside, you never knew what you were going to hear at any specific moment. That unpredictability has an addictive quality to it, and internet radio preserves that spirit to a degree. Though not as popular in the era of the iPod, I still tune in to internet radio stations when I'm feeling bored with my music collection.

Two of my personal favourites are KCRW out of LA, which sticks to indie and the non-top-40 pop hits, and Rinse FM out of London, which has a current rotation of DJs spinning Grime, Dubstep, House and whatever other electronic genres are currently bubbling over there. My favourite thing about these two stations are that they put the content above all else—playing music they like, and not necessarily music that will sell. (On perhaps the complete other end of the music spectrum, Wilson recommends similarly free-minded stations WFUV in New York, and KEXP in Seattle.)

The risk you run in your path of discovery, however, is that if your ears are at the mercy of the DJ you're listening to on internet radio, and if you don't like their taste, hard luck.

MySpace and Twitter

This is what I sort of view as the great democratic project in music. The complaint while the internet was in its infancy was that big media and big corporations had too much influence over what music made it, and what didn't. Obviously that's all changed, in large part to MySpace.

As a social media service at large, MySpace is an eyesore and an abomination. But as a place to discover new music, believe it or not, it's an invaluable goldmine. Big artists, small artists, fat artists, skinny artists—hell, your mom—all have the same basic framework at their dispersal to reach the masses when they're using MySpace. Here you can find your favourite established artists sneaking new tracks up on their page, you can find work from newer artists who have no official releases out, or you can stumble upon that completely random, brilliant band of 17-year-olds from Pawnee, Oklahoma throwing out avant-garde acid pop.

But the best part, is that you can click around their grid of friends, who most of the time are other musicians, and you can get lost in musical worlds you didn't know existed. I spent eight hours doing this one night last winter, and found enough new artists and styles that kept me interested for the rest of the year.

On the Twitter side, it's mostly just good for gathering names and news, but the fact that more musicians, writers and other people of interest are using the service to jot down thoughts means you get to see what they're into at any given moment. People ranging from The Root's ?uestlove, to The New Yorker's music writer Sasha Frere-Jones, to Diplo all twitter frequently about the new music they're digging at the time.

The Online Music Media

The big music magazines, like Rolling Stone and The Source, went from influential and respected in their prime for their great taste and writing, to walking punchlines later on for their willingness to make a buck at the cost of content. What this did was open the door for music blogs to jump in and give readers a new place to figure out what's new and good in the world of tunes.

Most of the bigger/more general music blogs (Pitchfork, Stereogum, Gorilla vs Bear) will never be the first ones to break a new artist, but they will be quick to tell you when known artists have new works available or coming out soon. Smaller, niche blogs (The Fader, Xlr8r, Valerie), however, will cultivate their sites like boutiques of taste, and always look for what's next in music, as opposed to what's now.

Filtering through sites like this takes a decent amount of work, however, and is for the dedicated music fan. Lesser enthusiasts need not apply.


The Somali method is for the most hardcore of the hardcore. People who don't want to wait for the media to tell them what's what, and would rather just "sample" it for themselves, hit the internet hard and heavy for albums that leak weeks, sometimes months, ahead of their release.

"Sampling" these albums is not for the faint of heart. It takes a general sense of music knowledge, music news, ability to follow the right websites and some technical know how. Bittorrent (and once upon a time, Oink...RIP) is a hotbed for many music leaks as they hit, but since it's tough to mask your IP address if you're not in a private community, it's easier to "sample" the same album using RapidShare, MegaUpload or Mediafire. (In case you're wondering, avoid RapidShare at all costs, use Mediafire whenever'll save like 5 years of your life).

Generally the best place to "sample" these links to new album leaks are in the threads music-related forums. This could be a forum for an artist, a record label, a genre, or just music in general, but people always start an upload thread full of links for you to troll.

There are also blogs and sites that keep track of the latest leaks. Bolachas Gratis is probably the most famous of the bunch, famously hopping from blog service to blog service, finding a new home to post links to albums for you to "sample." aims to do something similar, while there's another site, Did It Leak, that just lists albums it's seen floating around the internet. They even have a Twitter feed.

These days, once you have an album title, its as simple as visiting Google Blog Search, MAYBE typing an album name in the search bar in quotes, and MAYBE adding a 2009 and "+rar" or "+zip" to the search string (NO IDEA what those mean!). Search around for a few bit blogs that may have a link, and bam—new music to "sample".

This is undoubtedly the best method for pure discovery, because it lets you chase down the latest and greatest in music without being tainted by anyone else's opinion or tastes. But it also requires an obsessive, nerdish approach to music fandom that may have ramifications on your social life. Not to mention a total disregard for the economics of the music business, and for the needs of artists to be remunerated for their work. So, you know, proceed with caution.

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