I recently read a fabulous article about how we discover new music. The article was written by Jeremy D. Larson and featured on Pitchfork.com. Larson’s key premise suggests that for many people there is a certain point in life where most music becomes something to remember rather than something to experience, with the act of discovering new music giving way to routine ‘life’ activities.
Larson described the way our brains work in recognising music, and that we find comfort and joy in recognising music that we are familiar with. He called it “ … a positive-feedback loop … we love the things we know because we know them and therefore we love them”. Larson explained that music we know provides solace, and particularly so in the troubling times the world is currently facing.
This paragraph about discovering new music was perfectly written:
“The act of listening to new music in the midst of a global pandemic is hard, but it’s necessary. The world will keep spinning and culture must move with it, even if we are staid and static in our homes, even if the economy grinds to a halt, even if there are no shows, no release parties, and even artists sink even further into the precarity that defines a career as a musician. The choice to listen to new music prioritizes, if for one listen only, the artist over you. It is an emotional risk to live for a moment in the abyss of someone else’s world, but this invisible exchange powers the vanguard of art, even in times of historic inertia.”
Reading this article a couple of times led me to examine the ways in which I have discovered new music and continue to do so. I spent days thinking about it and took plenty of notes. I have attempted to describe some of these discovery methods. But, I’ll ask the question here to get you thinking too: how do you discover new music??
Chance can play a big part in discovery. When I was ten years old I won a copy of a record that was a compilation of popular songs at the time. That record featured the song ‘Cold, Cold Change’ by Midnight Oil. I was absolutely blown away by this song, which set me off down the path of becoming a dedicated fan of the now legendary Australian band. [As a quick aside, some 28 years later, my employment circumstances provided an opportunity to work closely with Peter Garrett. To say that that situation was surreal would be an understatement!]
Undoubtedly, word of mouth is one of the key ways to be introduced to something new. I’ve lost count of the great records recommended to me by friends, family members, colleagues, and even strangers on email chat groups. A quick example. Back in 1982, a classmate loaned me a cassette of Iron Maiden’s ‘The Number Of The Beast’. It was simply stunning. It was heavy, rhythmic, melodic, rebellious and totally wild. I was gobsmacked and loved it immediately. That was a life changing moment for a 13-year-old!
When I was in my mid teens growing up in Melbourne, I discovered alternative radio. It was an eye opening (or perhaps ear opening) experience to learn that there was another whole world of music that existed outside of the narrow confines of commercial radio. My journey of discovery of new music essentially began here, and I have always been forever grateful for 3RRR and 3PBS radio stations. This was the turning point for me. I explored everything and refused to be spoon fed by major labels and commercial empires trying to flog “radio-friendly unit shifters”.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I still loved bands that were major-label, commercially-successful products. I bought my first record when I was six (The Sweet), saw my first concert at 14 (Men At Work) and acquired a rather expensive hi-fi system at the age of 15. I just loved music! I was into Australian bands like Oils, Cold Chisel, AC/DC, INXS, Hoodoo Gurus and Spy V Spy. I bought records by Springsteen, U2, The Police, and Dire Straits, amongst many others. I had a steady diet of Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. [Another aside. My long-estranged uncle got me into Tull at the age of 13, for which I am eternally grateful. Oh, and he taught me to drive his ute on the farm!]
However, with the opening of the eyes and ears, I got into all sorts of stuff like punk (Stooges, Ramones, Hard-ons, Permanent Damage), power pop (Big Star, The Stems, Posies), psychedelia (The Moffs) and multiple assorted indie rock acts (The Johnnys, Beasts of Bourbon, Celibate Rifles, Cosmic Psychos). I was hooked. Having the good fortune to grow up in Melbourne, I had access to a vibrant live music scene and I took advantage. During my late teens and into my early twenties I saw dozens of bands live in pubs and a few bigger venues, often being out several nights a week. Recently, someone asked how many bands I have seen live. Over a few days I put together a list of 270, but there must be scores more that I’ve simply forgotten. That figure must be north of 350!
Plunging into the world of alternative music, I discovered fantastic music stores like Gaslight, Polyester, and Sister Ray, amongst many. Metal For Melbourne down in Banana Alley was a favourite. The key hangout was Au Go Go (which was also a significant label releasing independent music). I will always remember the day I wandered into Au Go Go, chatted to owner Bruce Milne and bought myself a copy of the Hard-ons LP ‘Dickcheese’. Bruce simply smiled and said “that’s some great fun rock ’n’ roll!”
Developing a relationship with your friendly record store owner is a key way to gather intel on new music, and was of utmost importance in the pre-internet days. Store owners can get to know you and pick up on what you might be keen on. I have often become interested in an album/band simply because it was being played in the shop. I became a big fan of the band Sleep after hearing the ‘Holy Mountain’ record in Impact Records, not long after I moved to Canberra.
Impact closed but Landspeed Records opened, and is still going strong! Come to think of it, it is probably still in existence thanks to my significant cash injections over the years! I’ve been mates with Blake at Landspeed for a long time, and we’ve often chatted about new records. In more recent times, there’s been a white board on the wall beside the counter which features the month’s favourite records as picked by the staff.
Over the last few years I have done most of my new music research online. It frustrates me when I hear people say that there is no new and interesting music around nowadays. But all you need to do is look! In fact, there is so much new music to choose from that sifting through it can be somewhat overwhelming. It takes just a little time and effort to go and investigate sources of new music that you might be interested in. You might discover your next favourite band.
There are many dedicated music publications online that regularly feature new music, ranging from the old school, global publications like Rolling Stone to specific or obscure genre/scene/community publications. Metal, punk, techno, country, classical; you name it, you can find it! As an example of just how many outlets are online, one particular blog post provides an overview of 35 music magazines and publications to keep an eye on in 2020. Online platforms such as BandCamp, Spotify, Sound Cloud and YouTube provide an opportunity for people to listen to music without having to purchase something blindly.
My more recent routine of looking for new music centres on subscribing to a handful of publications, blogs and record labels that provide daily or weekly summaries of new albums. In addition, I have a good look through monthly lists, like those published on the Doom Charts heavy music blog. Importantly, many publications promote their six-month and end-of-year ‘best of’ lists. These can be a treasure trove of gems that I might have missed. The self-titled record by Better Oblivion Community Centre was one of my favourite records of 2019, which I only picked up on in a couple of end-of-year lists. It introduced me to the music of Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst and sent me off down those rabbit holes for further discovery!
It has always bothered me when someone looks scornfully at me when I play something unknown to them. This is often followed by “can you just play something we know”. I have a friend, let’s call her Elaine, who isn’t at all interested in experiencing anything new. “What’s this?!” Elaine will ask with a certain level of contempt in her voice, as if it almost might be detrimental to her health. I just don’t know how to reach her, to tell her that there is another world out there awaiting discovery. There is so much wonderful music in this world and life is far too short to play Guns ’n’ Roses over and over again. Elaine appears to be happy though I guess.
Worse still, many years ago I met a new starter at work who, during an icebreaker conversation, admitted that he didn’t like music. I was shocked, puzzled, bewildered. You could have knocked me down with a feather. I had so many questions, but my self-protection mode kicked in and I essentially avoided him from then on. How can a human being not like music, not be moved by a heart-rending melody or a supremely uplifting chord change? I will always carry in my mind this quote from The Merchant Of Venice:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
Thanks for reading. And do take the time to read Larson’s article. The story behind Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ is highly amusing.
Originally published at http://eclecticantics.com on August 14, 2020.