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May 31, 2003: Discovering New Music

Sometimes my ongoing quest to understand information needs ends up at my own doorstep.

Now that I've gone ga-ga over my new iPod and crammed it 3.3 days worth of tunes into it, it occurred to me that all this music is stuff I already know. After all, 90% of it is ripped from my own CD collection. Which is nice, but what about new music?

To put it in the language of information needs, I'm all set for known-item searching. I know that I've got The Band's "Caledonia Mission," and I know how to find it on my iPod or iBook.

But what about new music? I don't know what I don't know. And honestly, I've not sought out new music for years. I'm sure the music landscape has changed quite a bit in that time. So how can I find out what's out there? This is clearly a time to turn to the peanut gallery: how do you learn about new or unfamiliar music? Your local public library? An enlightened pal? A web service that uses manual indexing or collaborative filtering? Please enrich me; I can only listen to the same stuff for so long without going insane...

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Comment: ralph (May 31, 2003)

Lou, I started writing a response here, but it quickly got so long I figured it was better posted on my own site. If you had Trackback turned on, I would just ping you, but instead, I'll just have to post here and point to my rather long exploration of how I find out about new music.


Comment: Lou (Jun 1, 2003)

Ralph, great stuff; thanks! I feel kind of dumb forgetting to mention radio.

Comment: Paul Nattress (Jun 2, 2003)

Don't forget about Amazon... You can use the "other people who bought the Chemical Brothers album also bought..."

They also let you listen to a sample of some of the songs beforehand.

Other than friends' recommendations and radio, this is a very effective way of finding out about new music. People can have very similar tastes, back this up with a preview and you've got your recommendation.

Comment: Lyle, Lyle - Croc O' Lyle (Jun 2, 2003)


Check out Launchcast from Yahoo http://launch.yahoo.com/ It's powered by a recommendation system that's pretty amazing. You rate artists, albums and songs you like and it plays stuff others with similar interests like. You can also browse along "things people who like this" lines which allows you to discover interesting things.

It's not perfect, but I can say LaunchCast has seriously cut into my Winamp (MP3 player) usage in a big way. Their collection isn't all-encompassing, but it's pretty deep in the kinds of music I like - mainly classic rock, hard rock, lots of blues, a bit of country (yeehah!), oldies and a little R&B for good measure.

Let me know what you think once you've tried it for a while. It gets better the more data points you feed it -- but of course you knew that. :)

Comment: Stephanie (Jun 2, 2003)

Try the radio listings in iTunes. (Radio Paradise is a fun one.) The drawback to this is that there doesn't seem to be a way to search the music store for what's currently playing on the radio, so if you find something you like you have to scribble it down somewhere.

Comment: Edward Vielmetti (Jun 2, 2003)

Lou -

All of the CDs that we have accumulated over the years are up on high shelves or behind doors, for better not to have a 2 yr old find them. Though for a while we did rely on Saul randomly picking CDs and putting them in the boombox and hitting "play".

I've just started to get back into listening to Internet radio, especially the college stations that play a mix of stuff that the kids are listening to that would never be on my shelves. Locally we have WCBN; I'm also keeping KVRX (Austin) and WXYC (Chapel Hill) in my regular rotation.

My favorite dose of new music was the mix CD that Prentiss Riddle sent out. 20+ great new bands to my ears. I guess it helps to live in Austin.

Comment: Lou (Jun 3, 2003)

Prentiss sent me the same CD, and I've still not gotten to it. Guess it came at a busy time, but no excuse now; thanks for reminding me to have a listen.

Oddly, I'm also awaiting a mix from another oddly named person--Prentice Zinn--an old college friend.

Is there something about having such a strange first name that gives one the urge to send friends CDs of odd bands?

Comment: DonnaM (Jun 3, 2003)

Here's a tricky problem. In a music recommendation system, I wouldn't want music that's too like something I already like - I don't want a shelf full of similar things. I want to be recommended something that is similar, but just different enough ...

Comment: Jeff Lopez-Stuit (Jun 3, 2003)

Lou - don't forget the dearly beloved radio free Ann Arbor: WCBN. I used to discover a lot of wonderful new music by listening to that station.

I'm a frequent buyer of new music, and I find almost everything I purchase from listening to it, either on the radio, or live, or by purchasing CDs featuring musicians I know and love in different settings. I rarely use the Internet to discover new music, unless it's to find out about the latest recording of someone I follow.

I listen to a great deal of jazz and other kinds of improvised music, which, IMHO, makes it easier for me to discover new things, because musicians in those genres play with each other in different settings. For instance, I've been listening to a lot of CDs by Anouar Brahem (a Tunisian oudist - http://www.anouarbrahem.com/), and found out from his web site that he was featured on a CD by Jan Garbarek, so I got that too. I'm not sure that's quite as common in rock and pop music, where the musicians are either part of band, or are studio musicians.

Barnes and Noble's web site does a great job of helping me find all the recordings a certain musician may be on. For instance, if I go to http://music.barnesandnoble.com/ and enter "John Abercrombie", I get all 19 of his CDs as a leader. But then, I can click on "view all John Aberbrombie related CDs" and I can see all 72 CDs that have him as a backup player. This very search helped me now, because I just discovered that Aberbrombie played on a Charles Lloyd CD I didn't know about. B&N also has links for the entire personnel on a recording, so you can click on any of them, and see what else they recorded on.

I find this method of searching out music much more reliable and rewarding than using recommendation systems, because my ears already have some context for what's going on. Recommendation systems can't (yet) hear what's going on in peoples' heads - they can tell me what I and other people like, but not why we like it.

On the bleeding edge: you might want to check out the work being done by Bill Birmingham at U. Michigan (http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/wpb/home.html). He's been working on using style and actual sonic input as a basis for searching. I think this has a lot more potential in the long run than on recommendation systems.

My bottom line advice: put the mouse down, and go forth and listen. Like the old joke goes, talking (and clicking?) about music, is like dancing about architecture. When Lou starts dancing at his presentations, I'll check out recommendation systems again. ;-)

Comment: mich (Jun 3, 2003)

And to manage your growing collection of new music might I suggest this nifty item...


One of the developers happens to be a paragon of music info. (And my little bro.) Check it out.

Comment: elton (Jun 4, 2003)

Here are a few web sites you might find helpful:


With very little variety on radio or from the big labels, I increasingly look for music from independent or small label bands.

Most of the sites listed above offer lists of most popular downloads, some "recommended" bands or songs, and Top xx lists in categories. Garageband ranks bands according to reviews done by listeners and other musicians, and if you find a song you like, you can read the reviews and link back to a particular reviewer to see what else they like. Some reviewers even post play lists.

The main failing of most sites is that they assign all music to hierarchical categories. If I understand the concept correctly, a faceted approach would probably be much better for music.

Comment: Gene (Jun 4, 2003)

You might want to read through this Kottke thread for some good suggestions:


One poster took it upon himself to make a list of the bands mentioned:


Comment: Seth G (Jun 5, 2003)

When I'm not busing thrilling usability test respondents, I'm sometimes tracking down new tunes.

Other than direct word of mouth recommendations or a visit to Amoeba, the best thing I've seen is http://www.allmusic.com - the site is fantastic, especially from the IA perspective. Everyting is intelligently intertwined. Type in a band,song,album and it gives you full details and links to all things related.

Almost all albums are scored by an informed editor (pretty accurately too). The area you should look for is 'Similar Arists'. Can't tell you how many new bands I've found this way.

Then, fire up soulseek and download an mp3 sample. http://www.slsk.org/ - Soulseek is an ad-free, spyware-free, just plain free file sharing application.


Comment: Walter Rumsby (Jun 8, 2003)

I'm just experimenting with Audioscrobbler at the moment - http://www.audioscrobbler.com/

They have plug-ins for a variery of media players. When you play a track the title and artist is uploaded to their servers. The idea is that you can see what other music people listen to based on all this shared information. Seems like a good concept - it doesn't require much effort on the users part and is based on actual (not stated) behaviour.

I've toyed with Launch, but only having a dial-up connection it's not quite feasible.

I also relate to the comment about not wanting overly similar music. I want to be recommended stuff I haven't heard of (then I want to hear some of it if possible) and I'm kind of sick of dreaming up combinations of artists, clicking "find similar artists" and always getting "Radiohead" back in my list (maybe that's just a pet peeve).

Time-based classification of these kinds of systems would be interesting too - if 5 years ago you were into a certain genre, but have outgrown it would be great if the recommendation system recognised that.

Comment: jen (Jun 8, 2003)

Two very cool music blogs that cover a wide variety of genres:



Comment: Lou (Jun 8, 2003)

Good lord.

There are obviously plenty of ways to keep up with new music; in fact, I can't keep up with all the ways to keep up with new music.

It'd be fun to pull some of these suggestions and some personal experience together, maybe write it up for Boxes and Arrows or someplace like that. (In fact, where would such an article belong?) Maybe a summer vacation project...

Anyway, thanks for all the ideas; keep'em coming!

Comment: rik (Jun 9, 2003)




At the moment, I am really enjoying Spoon...(www.spoontheband.com) And if you like The Band, you might like recent Mercury Rev albums, on which I believe various members of the band feature...la di da...

Comment: Darci Chapman (Jun 16, 2003)

Most of my new purchases comes from stuff I hear on Echoes (http://www.echoes.org); it used to be broadcast 10-12 hours per week on my local public radio station but they dropped the show. Then it was available for a while free at http://www.musicsojourn.com/ but it has since spun off as a subscription service; Music Sojourn is still free and carries a wide range of "shows."

Echoes is one of the very few online services I'm willing to pay for; 90% or more of my CD purchases are because of songs I've heard on that show.

Comment: Dinah (Jun 23, 2003)

Hi Lou,

Like Lyle, I use Launch (http://launch.yahoo.com) and have for years now. It's basically a personalized internet radio station. Launch allows me to rate songs and plays me a mix of unrated and rated music, playing the more highly rated music more frequently. I get turned on to new music by having it come up randomly but I also stack the deck in favor of things I might like by rating bands that are recommeded to me with a 70% rating. Once they turn up, I can rate them up or down as I like and that will influence future play. Since I've been using it for years, I've now rated over 10,000 songs, albums and artists and my station has quite a unique sound. You can listen to it if you like: http://www.launch.com/music/launchcast/pvn_station/1,4207,1006526141,FF.html

Comment: Richard Soderberg (Jul 27, 2003)

Wow, thanks for all the useful comments information. Rock on. Good question, good answers!

Comment: Lou (Jul 28, 2003)

Truly great info; so many I'm not sure where to begin. Thanks all!

Comment: John Hritz (Jul 29, 2003)


I'm late to the party, but I have a few suggestions. I have a portable XMradio receiver that has a memory button that stores up to 10 song/artist memes. I also use a Olympia digital voice recorder for AM/FM in the car. Because the digital recorders have time clocks, its pretty easy to get on the radio stations website to figure out what song was playing at that time. The other reliable source is a print magazine, CMJ (College Music Journal). It comes with a CD of new artists and background information. My Tivo records Mhz, Soundstage, Austin City Limits, etc. Mhz has been a great source for new sounds and excellent musicality. Recently they've had "3", "Citizen Cope" and a latino band "Jaguars". Lastly, I'm not bashful about asking strangers who they are listening to. Once they figure out that you're not trying to get them to turn whatever it is down, I usually get two or three related bands too.

Comment: GeorgeF (Aug 21, 2003)

Donna commented that she doesn't want all the recommended music to be the "same" as what she already has. Some researchers worked with Safeway, UK, to do product recommendations & faced the same problem. Didn't just want to recommend 43 other varieties of yogurt to someone who likes yogurt. So, they forced the system to focus on what *other* product categories are popular among yogurt-eaters, and recommend those things, e.g. a special spoon for yogurt eating.

Comment: tom (Dec 10, 2003)

CD Baby is the 2nd most popular online cd retailer after Amazon and stocks CDs only from independent artists.

I also believe digital distribution services like apple iTunes offer a bright future for independent music, if the major label choke hold can be broken on online distribution. Mp3.com however closed on dec 2nd it started out as a bastion of independent music but but was eventually swallowed up by Vivendi Universal and nowhas been sold to CNET.

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