One of my favourite pastimes is to listen to podcasts (yes, I know everybody does it these days), but one of the reasons I love podcasts is the meandering nature of conversational topics they can often delve into. Recently this very thing happened on the Elis James and John Robins Podcast. When answering an email about one of their song choices for the pod, the hosts began discussing how we discover new music and how that has changed since the rise of platforms such as Spotify, Deezer and Amazon Music.
This is one of the most interesting points I have heard about the modern music industry, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So, I have decided to do my own little excursion into the modern pop culture zeitgeist to understand the benefits and drawbacks modern streamers have on how we develop our music tastes.
Back In My Day…
Though only in my infantile days, I still remember when tape decks were in cars (before the introduction of the CD let alone a USB or aux cable). Back then, as a child most of my exposure to music came from my parents and family members. This would often be through car journeys or the radio stations they tuned into. I was lucky enough that they had a wide taste in music ranging from the Beatles, Busted, Dr Hook, Queen, and Dolly Parton. These formative memories gave a basis for my general tastes going forward. From my experience, people tend to like a certain type of music or artist because it has been there their whole life or they often associate it with a loved one, like one might support a football club. Because my parents listened to these artists so did I, as it was all I knew.
Growing into my teen years, my tastes were further developed from the broader field around me, friends, my own choice radio stations, magazines etc. I remember the first album I bought was as I was entering my “cool teen” years. I wanted a heavier grungier rebellious soundtrack to my life, which I classically discovered on a compilation CD of my dad’s; Eddie Stobart: Trucking Songs. While most of the tracks I had heard before from the wider world; ‘Here I Go Again’ (Whitesnake) ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ (Queen), the one I hadn’t heard was from a band called Daughtry. At the time, recently formed after the lead singer’s (Chris Daughtry) appearance on American Idol. Their alt-rock vibe was the musical independence I was looking for. I promptly found out about the band and went out to buy their latest album ‘Leave This Town’ because I particularly liked the melody of the 4th track ‘Life After You’. From there, I found other bands they toured with and collaborated with, leading me further down the soft rock highway.
In all honesty, I didn’t like all the tracks, but I listened to the album religiously because it was the only one I owned, and it was mine. This is something I know people of older generations have talked to me about. Saving up to buy a vinyl and wearing it out because you would play it for hours on end as it was all you had. It didn’t matter how much you liked it on first listen, you would generally eventually grow to love it. In today’s culture it’s so easy to skip and dismiss something before you really listen and understand what the music is trying to say, or give you the chance to connect with it, just because you might not be in the mood.
On the subject of being cool, another thing that often-steered musical tastes was design. Since the inception of the physical copy, we’ve had some incredible album covers that people have adored. As a teenager you’d pick up an album because you thought it looked cool and could show it off, then once again listen to it until you loved it. It might not have even been the album cover itself, you might have seen a cover shoot in a magazine and want to dress and base your style off band members. This is an element that remains in today’s culture, though in a slightly different form. I will touch on this later.
The New Normal…
It’s very rare that I buy a physical copy now, other than collecting vinyl and buying the new release from my favourite artists. I won’t ever buy a physical copy of somebody brand new. This is simply because it is so much easier to check them out on Spotify, Amazon or even YouTube. It costs you nothing and means you don’t have to commit if you don’t immediately like them. Whilst this in theory makes more sense, to me it robs the audience of that chance to really fall in love with an artist. Furthermore, because of algorithms and the drive to get clicks, streamers will often only suggest the top songs, so you’re not even getting the full inventory and soundscape of an artist’s repertoire. This was a point raised on the Elis and John podcast to the approval of everyone. I’m not going to touch on the monetary implications of streamers on artists, but it should be noted how little they get paid per stream compared to a physical sale.
On the other hand, the rise of streamers does allow people to discover smaller artists from across the globe they may never have found otherwise. Anyone can upload to Spotify, which means somebody in their bedroom with the right equipment can go from having 30 fans to 30,000. Streamers also do the work to try and give artists their fair share, opening playlist applications. Additionally, a regularly promoted Spotify feature is their Discover and Release Radar playlists which get updated weekly and are tailored to you and your tastes. This is a double-sided coin as they are based off your prior listening choices, so if you don’t actively go and listen to something wildly different, you will be suggested artists that are like one another (and probably a highly promoted artist by a record label). The rise in streaming playlists has also seen the decline in radio. Instead of getting a mix put together by a DJ you are now listening to suggestions made for you. These often lack diversity and the chance to discover something new. These algorithms are both a positive and negative and there’s no way around it. You have to find a way for them to suit you. As a songwriter, I make the active choice to try and listen to all kinds of music so that when my Discover/Release Radar playlists update it gives a range of different choices, but there will always be a way for them to try and direct what I want to listen to.
The same goes for social media platforms. Their algorithms are excellent for directing you to another artist you might like from your previous follows but if you truly want to find something new you have to go out and look for it. Social media, like Spotify with an artist’s top songs, will promote the most clicked/viewed post. This will often be an album cover/photoshoot, taking designs intriguing the eye to the next level. It also gives a platform to then talk immediately about these posts rather than waiting to see your friends to chat about the cool artist you just saw a post from. Instead, you can share it directly and get the conversation started. We’ve seen it hundreds of times, with people seemingly “blowing up overnight” though it often isn’t as fast as that.
The last time I bought a physical copy was Christmas last year. HMV were promoting their ‘Best of 2022 albums and artists’. As an avid music lover, I made a point to browse through the selection. For the first time in a long time, I made a choice to buy 3 albums I hadn’t heard a single track from. I simply went off the in-store recommendation and a small degree of name recognition. It paid off as I loved all 3 and could see why they had made the selection. It also reignited my love for just picking up a new record and giving it a go. However, in the months since discovering somebody new I’ve found it difficult to track down a physical copy, especially if they’re a smaller artist because producing a CD or Vinyl is so expensive. So, to try to replicate the above approach I will listen to an artist’s full Spotify discography uninterrupted with other artists. It’s not perfect but helps to form that same kind of relationship with the music.
Will it continue to change…?
In a world where everything has seemingly become easier, with suggestions made specifically for our likes, and music a free tap away, in my eyes to get an authentic experience you have to actually put in the work. Look up what’s trending in different genres, if a friend shares an artist search for them to find out why, go track down a tape exclusive EP. Realistically, it won’t change my listening habits. I’m still going to go down the easy route 60% of the time and listen to things I am comfortable with but if I am in the mood for something fresh and new, I will use these methods. As mentioned by Elis and John, modern generations probably have a wider appreciation and global access than older generations. However, there is a divide when it comes to diversity and true knowledge of bands and artists they follow and have nurtured over their lives. In a few years a new invention will probably come around to make the access and discovery of new artists even easier but as seen with the re-rise of vinyl there is always this instinct to return to past habits. Whether it’s because of the “retro” design, or there is a genuine love for the feeling of owning a personal copy, sometimes you can’t beat an album you know inside out.
If you liked this essay let me know as I want to hear your thoughts! You can also follow everything I am up to on my instagram, facebook and twitter @samnixmusic.