Finding new music in the algorithm age

Six people working in the music world tell us how they do it.

Personalized recommendations, sponsored playlists, and the dominance of streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music have changed the experience of music discovery for all of us. Whereas magazines, zines, radio, and something called MTV once offered diverse avenues of exploration for music fans, followed by the heyday of music blogs and music piracy websites like Napster, the algorithm now looms over everyone. There is considerable reason to worry about what that means for up-and-coming artists without major label connections, as well as the landscape of popular music as a whole.

But what are the alternatives? Six people working in and around music told The Outline how they actually find out about new music.

Listen to the interviews with Jen Malone, Marcus Moore, Delaney Motter, and Lauren Rearick for additional tips on The Outline World Dispatch.

Jen Malone — co-music supervisor on Atlanta on FX

[My music discovery is] really all over the place. Of course there’s Spotify, but also SoundCloud. Fam [Udeorji], my co-music supervisor and I, are on SoundCloud a lot and we’ve licensed a lot of those bands. That’s where, in the world of hip-hop and rap and trap, they’re putting their mixtapes up and their songs and records up as opposed to on Spotify.

I rely on a lot of my network in Atlanta. They feed me music, managers, lawyers, artists themselves, people that they are collaborating with. I actually found some new artists just going through Instagram Stories where they will play 30 seconds of a song and it’s like oh, that’s interesting and I bookmark it. Once a week, I’ll go through and listen and if anything is interesting or can work I definitely go and pursue getting music from that artist. From being a supervisor, I also work with a lot of licensing companies and record labels and publishers. They’re also always feeding me new music from artists all over the world.

“I rely a lot on my network in Atlanta.”

I do find artists through Spotify for sure — finding friends on Spotify, following their playlists. [If you’re] not a music supervisor, I would definitely say Spotify is a great place to find new artists, just kind of going down that hole of related artists and stuff. That’s always a good place to start.

Lauren Rearick — founder of the music blog The Grey Estates

I’ve always read different websites and kept up with sites like the Hype Machine, back when blogs were bigger. Probably one of the best ways I’ve found is searching through Bandcamp on different tags that I know I’m interested in, like garage rock. Some bands go by the tag dreampunk, which I like; I like to follow the riot girl tags or punk. I’ve also gotten really into following different users on Bandcamp to see what people are buying. I’ve also gotten into Spotify Discovery and just checking out what the release radar has, but then I also just follow a bunch of different web sites and different musicians on Twitter to stay updated on what they’re doing and what they’re listening to, too.

“One of the best ways I’ve found to keep up with new music is just finding websites that I like.”

There are sites that are doing a really good job of highlighting smaller acts and up and coming acts. One of the best ways I’ve found to keep up with new music is just finding websites that I like — even bigger ones like Pitchfork and Gorilla vs. Bear — and staying on top of what they’re covering, and then going from there. I also really like YVYNL, it’s been on Tumblr for a while. There’s also Various Small Flames over in [the UK]. But one of my favorite ones is probably The Alternative.

Hua Hsu — Staff Writer at The New Yorker

I found music when I was a teenager mostly through magazines and zines, radio, and word-of-mouth from friends or friends of friends. I went to college in a town with a lot of great record shops, so recommendations (whenever I worked up the courage to speak with the clerks) were really important, too. I remember being really interested in lineages and histories, so I was always trying to listen my way backwards from the artists and scenes I liked.

I was slow to streaming, so I find new music mostly through websites and magazines, friends, and occasionally record stores. I spend a lot of time on Bandcamp, too, looking at what other people who’ve bought the same stuff as me are checking out.

“ I was always trying to listen my way backwards from the artists and scenes I liked.”

Keeping up with new music, it’s certainly harder than it once was. It’s exciting how easy it is for people to make something and put it out into the world. But it’s more of a challenge figuring out which wormholes to disappear into.

Dr. Demento — host of the comedic music radio show The Dr. Demento Show

I’m still interested in new music, but at age 77 I’m frankly not as driven to discover it as I was for several decades in the past. I don’t subscribe to music discovery algorithms or read a lot of new music blogs (as I definitely would have if those had been available when I was 20 or 30 or even 50). I don’t reject new music out of hand, or totally refuse to even sample it, like a lot of my contemporaries (not all) do. I’ll read about something online (or in the L.A. Times, which still employs people to write about new music, at least part-time, and makes an effort to help people like me discover new stuff). But when it comes to listening purely for pleasure, I’m more likely to go for something at least somewhat familiar.

“I get a dozen or more submissions each week on average. I listen to everything that people send or suggest.”

Since 1970, I’ve been writing and hosting The Dr. Demento Show, a weekly program of “mad music and crazy comedy” known for having introduced the world to “Fish Heads,” “Dead Puppies (aren’t much fun),” and the works of “Weird Al” Yankovic, whom I discovered when he was 16. Since my show is a fairly unique outlet for people who create that sort of thing to get some exposure, I get a dozen or more submissions each week on average. I listen to everything that people send or suggest. There is a web site called the Funny Music Project. which is sort of a clearing house for new funny music. The admins have pretty good taste (or at least taste that corresponds with mine) and a lot of the new sounds heard on my show come from there.

Delaney Motter — founder of music blog Phluff Online

Most of the time a lot of it is just word of mouth, talking to my friends who are also into music whether they’re other journalists or they’re a fan. Going to shows is a really big thing, too. I used to try to go to as many shows as I could. Now, I definitely tend to limit it more just because I’m also a student who works and has limited time. I go to shows that I either know most of the bands or I know one band in particular that I like a lot, and then you just kind of hang around for the others. That’s how you end up finding a bunch of new bands that you hadn’t heard of before. Music I find on Spotify generally tends to stay there really. Not a lot of bands that I find on Spotify I end up really loving. There’s still stuff that I’ll listen to, but I’ll listen to the one song that was recommended to me rather than really getting into a band.

“I also just really encourage people to start going to shows if that’s not a thing they’re used to.”

I definitely recommend Spotify to people who aren’t used to the music community, just because it’s a really good equalizer. It’s not really the best tool for me, but that’s because I work in this area and understanding of what I like and don’t like whereas a lot of people who aren’t in music social circles or career circles [are] not maybe as well acquainted with their own taste. But I also just really encourage people to start going to shows if that’s not a thing they’re used to. It’s amazing how quickly people find what they like just by going out into the real world and engaging with music.

Marcus Moore — Senior Editor at Bandcamp

I’ve always been a voracious music nerd, and so even before I started covering music in the D.C. area I would go to a lot of different shows, whether that was going to the 9:30 Club to check out the local showcase or going to LIV to check out an open mic. I’ve always approached music discovery from a journalist mindset anyway, even if it’s something that isn’t necessarily in my wheelhouse, be it synth wave or whatever. I’ll just go and stand in the back and let that sort of define what else I would look for musically. I grew up as a rap head, so I would say, oh look at this rock show, let me go check this out. Or, let me go check out this punk show. I’ve found that in listening to punk and listening to jazz and all this, it helped me discover a lot of the hip-hop that I’ve grown to love. I would check out those sounds and find that oh, this punk song sounds just just like this rap joint I like or whatever. Back in the day, I would check out about four to five shows a week. Now if I check out four to five shows in two weeks, I feel like I’m doing good.

I work full-time at Bandcamp as a Senior Editor, so a lot of my job is to do some crate digging and see what’s coming out or see what’s already out there that we want to revisit. A lot of my discovery online these days is strictly through Bandcamp, so I know what’s coming out. Thankfully, as a music journalist I get a lot of music really early. A lot of the music that I either cover or really like, nine times out of 10 it’s been in my email before the album even came out. At the same time, I definitely check into SoundCloud because I feel like SoundCloud has always had a grip on the best up and coming rappers. “Soundcloud rapper”, that’s a term that we all like to make make fun of now, but SoundCloud rappers tend to be the next wave.

“There’s nothing like that old school discovery of just going through the stacks and either picking something based on the cover art, or picking something based on a single that you like and then going down that rabbit hole.”

Honestly, I don’t think Spotify and other music discovery algorithms are the way to go. It’s one thing to try to suggest, based on an algorithm, what a person will listen to next. But there���s nothing like that old school discovery of just going through the stacks and either picking something based on the cover art, or picking something based on a single that you like and then going down that rabbit hole. A lot of relationships I’ve built over the years has come from just being in the record store all the time and seeing and knowing the owners and then them coming back saying, “Oh well you like this jazz record, you need to check out this other spiritual jazz record.” That builds genuine relationships with actual people. It’s difficult to do that with a robot. I see why I see companies are doing that, but I ultimately don’t like it because you take the soul out of discovery music.

Study the liner notes. Discover who’s actually on these records. Yeah, you can like “insert mainstream artist name” but do a little bit of research, either Googling, going through the liner notes to see who played what instruments or see who produced. I guarantee that will lead you to other artists that people may not be talking about, or you’ll discover other acts that are still on the come up that maybe need that cosign or maybe need more ears. That’ll lead you down different paths to music.

At the same time, I also think it’s the responsibility of people who are really deep into the music to talk to their friends, spread the gospel about artists that we really like. If there’s an underground act who you really really enjoy, I feel like it’s your job to tell your friends and tell your best friend what’s so great about them or why they should be listening. That’s old school. That’s just how the gospel of the music spreads. And if we don’t do that, we’re going to have algorithms telling us what we need to be listening to. That is ultimately a bit more divisive than it is helpful.