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How to find good new music

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Ever since my favourite music podcast died off in 2017, I’ve struggled to find good new music. The solution I’ve fallen back on is what I suspect is the default for most people: listening to whatever your music player tells you. But while Spotify has more songs than I could listen to in a lifetime, its Discover Weekly and Release Radar playlists are disappointing. As with many other areas of life – from Amazon shopping to criminal justice – the algorithms fail to live up to their promise.

The problem with the algorithms, at least in the music sphere, is that they don’t give us anything surprising. How Spotify’s algorithm works is a trade secret, but the results are obvious. We get C-side remixes of songs where we prefer the original, artists that sound like watered-down versions of ones we actually like, and utter trash that happens to be flavour of the month 1. Most of it isn’t terrible, but none of it is exciting.

Read on for how you can beat the algorithms to find good new music

The answer: introducing randomness

Over the past few months, I’ve made a concerted effort to find good new music. The most reliable method I’ve found is to break out of the algorithmic comfort zone and introduce more randomness.

This practice was inspired by a chapter in Jenny Odell’s 2019 book How To Do Nothing. Odell argues that listening to the radio now and again forces us to engage more with the music. Out in the ‘wild’ of the radio, there’s less familiarity. We’re ‘forced’ to listen to songs that sound nothing like what we usually have on.

Of course, there’ll be plenty of garbage that makes our ears bleed. But hearing a song we do like then has a ‘surprise’ element to it, meaning we appreciate it more. Anyone who’s heard a favourite song come on the radio and got irrationally excited (after all, the song was available on your phone all along if you wanted it) will know what I’m talking about.

Getting away from the algorithms also increases your chances of getting into whole new genres of music that you wouldn’t have thought to try. For Spotify’s algorithm, giving you music that’s a long way from your usual taste isn’t a safe enough bet – chances are you won’t like it, and you’ll stop listening. But new genres can be the most fertile ground for finding new music: if you like one or two tracks, that opens up tonnes more.

How to find good new music through randomness

Randomness sounds like something you can’t deliberately increase. But by getting into the habit of using the following services, you can increase your chances of finding good new music. And having new experiences might even make it feel like you’re living longer.

  1. Take some time out each week to listen to your favourite radio station. Listening online means you can skip the talking/news/ads if you like. But make sure you listen to the songs you don’t immediately like, as well as the ones you know. If you build this into an existing routine or habit, like going to the gym, you’re more likely to stick to it.
  2. Try the amazing Radio Garden website. It lets you play radio from stations all round the world. Start somewhere completely random, then come closer to home and you’ll appreciate it more.
  3. Ask friends for their artist/track/album/playlist recommendations. You can even try setting up a club where you regularly get together to discuss an album you’ve all listened to.
  4. Listen to full albums from artists you already like. Chances are you’ll find a few album tracks you love.
  5. Subscribe to the Song Exploder podcast. As well as finding new songs, you’ll gain greater appreciation of ones you already know. I particularly enjoyed the one with Dua Lipa discussing how she made one of the best pop songs of the last decade: Levitating.
  6. Take a look at what’s trending on SoundCloud, or deviate from the playlists that are ‘made for you’ on your music streaming service.
  7. If the pandemic isn’t stopping you from going to bars or nightclubs, use Shazam to find out the names of the songs you like.
  8. Try different streaming services. You might use Spotify when you’re on the go, for example, but use YouTube when you’re working at your desk.
  9. Sign up to the Pitchfork newsletter to keep up-to-date on what’s going on in the music world.
  10. Apply a low bar to the music you save in your streaming app, but keep an archive folder to reduce the cost of deleting stuff you don’t want.

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Footnotes

  1. My Discover Weekly even had the temerity to try to get me to listen to ‘Southgate You’re The One‘ during Euro 2020.