To discover (music) is human: A rebuttal to Mr. Howard and Forbes.


“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Weekday mornings I wake up listening to the Breakfast of Champions morning show on MIT’s venerable WMBR. Every morning I hear something new. And at least a few times a week I hear something new I really like. I make mental notes and later, at the office, I fire up Spotify (or MOG), locate the songs I heard earlier, and add them to a playlist. I then use these newly found artists and songs as seeds for radio-style streaming—where I then discover even more new music. The stuff I really like I try to find on Bandcamp so I can download quality files (and give the artists a few extra pennies).

Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

This is hardly abnormal behavior. I therefore can’t help but view George Howard’s post for Forbes—Why Music Services Are Wasting Time Recommending New Music—as one of the most unimaginative (and inhuman!) takes on music discovery I’ve ever read.

Forget unpopular, Mr. Howard, your points simply lack merit.

1. “This shouldn’t be surprising; we’re not really predisposed to want anything new.”

Huh? Mr. Howard trots out the classic Henry Ford line: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It’s a common tool in the marketer toolkit. But Mr. Howard misapplies the idea to music and has put the cart on the wrong side of Ford’s horse. Instead of saying we don’t want anything new, it’s more accurate to say that we often don’t know what new music is if we’ve been listening to nothing but REM for 20 years. Like the Ford scenario, once people are shown something new, they will flock to it—if it scratches an itch. It’s sometimes hard to know what we want. That does not mean we don’t want. I had no idea I needed to tell anyone that would listen about The Avalanches’ Since I Left You album until I discovered it a few weeks ago (some 14 years after its release).

And Mr. Howard ought to remember another classic marketing idiom: “The best way to kill a bad product is great advertising.” Yes, an artist’s cajoled network may become valuable early adopters and ultimately advocates and marketers on their behalf. But if the music isn’t any good, nobody will listen. Part of what makes online music discovery so pleasing is that it removes marketers from the equation—greatly improving the signal to noise ratio.

2. “Why bother with new music that approximates something you already like when you can just stick with something you know you like, and thus reduce any risk of being disappointed.”

Wow. Should we all be riding horses on this vanilla journey? And eating the same thing for dinner every night? There’s a stunning lack of imagination on display here.

Leading up to his point, Mr. Howard states that constant contextualization creates unreasonable standards. But If you’ve ever used an online music discovery service—or listened to an independent radio station—you know the metadata re: this artist is “sort of like [X], but with a bit of [Y]” is not typically a significant part of the experience. Technology (i.e., The Echo Nest) and humans (when it comes to quality terrestrial radio and services like Pandora) formulate the connections between artist A and artist B behind the scenes. Listeners are, in fact, more or less free from the contextualization process that Mr. Howard sees as such a massive roadblock.

3. “Quick: think about your favorite band/song. Chances are it’s an artist/song that you formed your affinity for during your teenage years.”

Nope. But, yes, there are indeed a lot of people like this. Many friends listen to few things outside of the late 80s/early 90s indie rock cannon. But it’s not everyone! Are chefs content to prepare the same favorite dish every day? Do artists only visit their favorite museum? Do hikers crave the same trail over and over? Of course not. Human nature is to explore and seek out new experiences.

And there’s a need to try and push culture forward. Standing pat may (unfortunately) be too common, but it doesn’t mean services that support music discovery are wasting their time! The people that seek out my band’s Facebook page to tell us they discovered us on Pandora—they’re real! (And they buy albums!) But once again, it sounds like Mr. Howard is telling us we would all be much happier with a larger stable of horses.

Whoa Nelly!!!

4. “So much time and energy is being wasted by music services trying to compel people to break out of their listening habits and try something new, when people don’t want to do this, and, in fact, appear to be hard-wired to not do this.”

Really? Humans are hard-wired to explore. Period. If some are stuck in their music habits and can’t be bothered to listen to anything beyond the REM they fell in love with as a teenager, fine. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a population of people looking to find something new. To explore and discover. These people have imaginations! And they see technology as means to help evolve and disrupt habits—not maintain old ones.

Thankfully such technology exists. As do real-deal DJs curating quality musical experiences each and every morning.

There’s an audience too.

And that’s just horse sense.

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