Delivery Systems

I was hanging out for a couple of hours on Turntable FM, racking up invisible approval points awarded to me by anonymous cutesy avatars when I realized how my music consumption game was constantly changing. Turntable FM is just one method of interacting with similarly minded music fans and, I found out, discovering new songs. I get this question a lot: How do you find new music? More and more, it has come about through the dozens of music social media sites.

That's something big for me that's changed right under my nose. I forget a lot about how quickly things change, because my generation came into being at the tail end of analog technology, and we're conditioned to believe that things had always been this fast paced. We're the ones that got to see pre-paid plastic Nokia-bricks become widespread and then give way to touch screen iPods. It's not just that the old ways are dying, it's that the new ways have a increasingly shorter lifespan, and it's most evident to me when it comes to each new social music craze.

The rise of Turntable FM is just more dirt on the grave of radio. Kids in middle school don't need to turn on the radio at all — after school, they're pulling up songs on YouTube. There are so many radio replacements these days, all with different delivery nuances, that old radio model seems absurd. On some level, I can understand the Tom Waits point of view:

Everything's so compartmentalized now with all this satellite radio. It bugs the shit out of me. But I like Bob [Dylan]'s Theme Time Radio Hour though. That was really how radio used to be when I was a teenager. You had disc jockeys who were literally able to pick a theme... Talking about genre overlap and mixing, the vocal styling on the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There"... he was doing Bob Dylan. Because, at that time, "Like a Rolling Stone" was a big hit. And it was on the airwaves alongside everybody else that was happening at the time. It was a really beautiful thing. Culture is a living thing. It has to be allowed to be exposed to things without it being an accident.

There is a sort of curatorial expertise to the traditional radio DJ. They exercise editorial judgment, and that has led to things like Jed the Fish getting the Goo Goo Dolls on Top 40. (I know this is not a stellar, sea-changing example, but it's the only one I can remember from an MTV doc I watched as a kid) It also forces the mass listening audience to give a shot to things they normally wouldn't. But modern radio DJs squandered that tradition long before the download culture and blogs blew; today, it's rarely more than pre-programming and Billboard reflections and major label pushes. At the same time, there's so much more music, the information market is wide open, that the old model can't do it justice. Without commercials, a great DJ will give us around 12 to 15 songs in an hour. Who knows if they're any good. In today's social music platforms, I can find that many songs I love in half the time.

The aforementioned Turntable FM is the current big thing, as far as I can tell. Artists like Wale use it to open their shows, albums are getting officially premiered there and it's raising butts of money. The way it works is this: a bunch of avatars inhabit a room that is manned by 5 DJs who pick songs out of a DMCA-compliant yet comprehensive database of songs. Songs are approved or disapproved by the crowd, giving points to the DJs, which gives them access to weirder avatars. The best thing about this chat room style game system is that it builds community quickly. It's very easy to strike up conversation or debate about music if you're in a good room.

I was kind of down on the Turntable FM concept at first because, as a Blip FM user, it infuriated me that you couldn't play music exactly when you wanted to. It was more like radio in that you were forced to listen to things you didn't want to. No skipping, no freedom of choice, just waiting your turn.

But what you lose in power hungry narcissism you gain in peer approval narcissism. You watch icons start to bob their head just after the hook kicks in. You watch them come around and like your music choices and, by extension, you. Because let's face it: these sites are mostly designed to validate your music taste. There's something built into avid music enthusiasts that wants to share and be appreciated for their discerning record collection. Finding likeminds and new music is just a bonus.

Blip FM on the other hand, which I have enjoyed for a couple years now because it's something to do in the background, took Twitter's original layout and made it all about tweeting (or in this case, blipping) songs. Using a Hypem-like system, drawing from music blogs & later YouTube, it was a place to pull up songs and listen to other feeds. Everyone was treating is as their own radio station or music journal, and you could pretend that your 1000 listeners were digging it at that very moment (in reality it was probably less than 3.) At the same time, it was useful for quickly pulling up any song instantly, just out of impulse or curiosity. I would be reading an article that would make mention of a Jimmy Scott song, and Blip FM allowed me to pull it up before I continued.

Of course, eventually the industry noticed that this was probably not legal, and Blip FM took out blog crowdsourcing and chose to integrate with Grooveshark. Which is great for top 40 songs that don't normally get coverage on music logs and deep cuts from top indie bands, but bad for everything else. With integration constantly lagging behind the rate of new and exciting music that people want to share, it seems Blip FM is on its way out before it really got to explode.

Then there's this Spotify shit, which is nuts. It's feels far too powerful and convenient for a free service that it almost feels illegal. The commercials are less intrusive/annoying than Pandora and the selection is almost all-encompassing. It's hard to find music that's not on Spotify and the fact that we're streaming albums the day they come out feels like a cheat code. I know, I know, torrents and leaks, we're all hip to that, but somehow they've made a system that's even more convenient for taste testing than piracy.

Admittedly, this is during Spotify's initial 3 month trial, and once out of that stage your minutes of music are put on a monthly time budget. Still, it's definitely a service that I'd like to pay for if I had the disposable income, especially if I intend to ramp up my music reviewing portfolio. It's an immensely useful place to go for checking out the discography of a band. Because while I love Mates of State, I really only have two of their albums, and Spotify allows me to study their entire musical arc over the course of a few days.

Then there's Last FM, an asset of CBS Interactive, and a weird little holistic image of your entire music taste. Although it does the awesome thing of making everything you've ever listened to streamable via their app & website, I almost never use it for that. When people as me what Last FM does, I tell them it does a lot of useful things with your listening data. It generates a concert calendar for every band I've heavily listened to, it recommends me music that I definitely haven't heard yet. Whereas something like Pandora, which is sophisticated and nice, will recommend you songs too, Last FM is less predictable. Despite all the algorithms behind it, Pandora seems to trend towards the same songs or the same bands with very few left field surprises.

As a temple to your own taste, Last FM is also just interesting to gawk at. I know I love a band when my Last FM playcount reaches 200+ in under two weeks. I know, factually, what my favorite song is because it's been keeping track of my plays for five years, from my iTunes to my iPod to any of the sites I listed above. It's not much of a social tool, but it's a damn amazing data aggregator.

All of this is very weird to look at in the big picture. While most people pick one or two sites to stick to, probably Pandora and Spotify chief among them, it's interesting to look at them as facets of a music fan's Swiss army knife. There are community-based tools, data-based tools, instant streamers or customizable feeds. The versatility of our music consumption has changed radically — and these sites only blew up in less than 10 years. The question is no longer, "How do you find new music?" because once you're aware of your many options, how can you not run into new things?