The Difficulties of Discovery: Bumping Into New Music Can Be a Circuitous Task

(Xm Satellite Radio)
By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006

Time for Serendipity Showdown, in which old-fashioned radio descends into the pit of battle against satellite radio, music blogs and online music-discovery engines to determine the best way to find new sounds.

Throughout the Top 40 era, radio held sway simply by playing the hits. With the FM revolution came a flowering of new formats, which introduced music that listeners would never hear on hit radio. But the Internet era brought radio a slew of new competitors and a theoretically infinite menu of musical choices.

No matter how many songs are on their iPods, though, listeners often grow tired of the tunes they've chosen to put on their digital players. That phenomenon allows radio executives some hope about their future: For now, at least, despite the proliferation of new technologies, old-fashioned broadcast radio remains music fans' primary vehicle to discover new sounds.

Although 61 percent of people in the 35-to-54 age bracket say they go to traditional radio to find new music, only 35 percent of those ages 18 to 34 use radio for that purpose. According to a study by Bridge Ratings, a California company that conducts research for the radio industry, younger listeners are more likely to learn about new tunes from friends via online sharing, via Internet radio or on one of the new online music networks.

So I put the various media to the test: Which would prove the most alluring and efficient way to discover unknown sounds?

Radio, stuck for a couple of decades in a calcifying set of heavily researched formats, remains the cheapest and easiest way to hear the most popular tunes in the land. But a generation of listeners whose MP3 experience leads them to more eclectic tastes often finds radio formats too restrictive. Radio responded with new formats known variously as Jack, Bob or Dave, that combine well-known and second-tier hits from the 1960s through the '90s with a smattering of current rock and pop songs. By scrapping deejays and mixing up the decades, these stations hope to capture some of the spirit of an iPod shuffle.

No Washington area station has adopted the pure form of the format, but WRQX-FM (Mix 107.3) comes closest, with a blend that purports to include the best of "everything." But the station's definition of "everything" turns out to be awfully narrow. In one three-hour stint, I heard nothing more exotic than Lisa Loeb, Ashlee Simpson or the Goo Goo Dolls. There wasn't a single song played that I hadn't heard before and the closest the station came to offering a rediscovery was Kim Carnes's "Bette Davis Eyes," the 1981 hit that turned out to be just as annoying a quarter-century later.

Over on pay satellite radio, the selections are more varied. With dozens of music choices on XM or Sirius, I could stick to the hits by listening to channels designed to mimic hit radio stations of the 1960s, '70s or '80s, or venture into more narrowly defined terrain.

On XM's Fred channel, I took the nostalgia train back to Debbie Harry's "Rapture" and moved along to Iggy Pop's "Blah Blah Blah" and the Cure's "Club America." But satellite radio is highly segregated by format, and only Sirius's Shuffle channel moves randomly -- and clumsily -- from rock to country to hip-hop and beyond. XM's Fine Tuning channel offers a more intelligent eclecticism, shifting from Celtic music to U2 to Tangerine Dream to Philip Glass. But although there are new artists to discover here, the overall sound is too bland; the selections are made to create a consistent aural ambiance rather than a surprising mix of genres.

To find true serendipity, it seems, it's necessary to tap into a more daring intelligence. Online music lovers are using blogs to display their own collections, and although each individual blog can be anything from stultifying to magnificent, blog aggregators give adventuresome listeners an easy way to explore.

At http://hype.non-standard.net , the Hype Machine connects to dozens of music blogs, ranking tunes by how often listeners click on them. It doesn't take much to create a hit on the Hype Machine; a few dozen listeners can take a song such as the Delgados' 2004 version of the Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky" and put it into the top 25. But the winnowing process nonetheless leads to some interesting tunes -- within those genres where early adopters tend to hang out.

The songs that bubble to the top on the Hype Machine come primarily from within the boundaries of indie rock, dance music and hip-hop, with a bit of pop. It's possible to follow links from aggregators to individual music blogs or to listeners' MySpace pages and find rich troves of new sounds from the clubs of New York, the streets of Brazil or the vaults of classic jazz labels, but it takes time and a willingness to comb through lots of really bad stuff.

The Hype Machine hit list led me at random to Caetano Veloso's "Irene," a typical gem from the Tropicalia movement of samba-influenced rock, funk and soul from Brazil in the 1960s, and when I followed the link to the blogger who posted that tune, there were plenty more of that ilk. But that's the rare success; most links take you to typical blog fare, where messages to personal friends crowd out the occasional musical gem.

If you want your serendipity a little less random, the answer is a music recommendation system such as Pandora.com or Last.fm. Both use algorithms based on the same idea as the Amazon.com service that suggests books based on what you've already looked at. Pandora lets you create as many as 100 stations; you type in the names of artists or songs that serve as the foundation, and the software -- guided by dozens of Pandora staffers who catalogue tunes according to about 400 musicological attributes -- builds a station with sounds you're likely to favor.

For example, when I programmed a station with some old school R&B (Harold Melvin, O'Jays, Stylistics), Pandora served up "Patches" by Clarence Carter and "Heavy Love" by David Ruffin. Ask the site why it's delivering the music it is, and you get very specific reasons: It found tunes that matched my original choices in exhibiting "classic soul qualities, gospel influences, major key tonality, and mixed acoustic-electric production," the software informed me.

Sometimes, Pandora is too literal; it feeds you songs almost identical to those you plug in, acting almost like a radio station's music testing does -- giving listeners only what they are almost certain to like and not enough that's surprising.

You can, however, work the machine to be more adventuresome by creating stations with a more eclectic foundation. When I started a station with Prince, Van Morrison, Randy Newman and Steely Dan, the machine delivered Bjork, Phish, Kraftwerk, Counting Crows, Elvis Costello and Death by Chocolate. When Pandora came up with Kiss's "Nothin' to Lose" on this station, I inquired how that could happen. Answer: The songs shared "basic rock song structures, a subtle use of vocal harmony, acoustic rhythm piano, and major key tonality." Well, yes, but still, no thanks.

Listeners can fine-tune their stations by rejecting Pandora's offerings, up to a limit of six tunes each hour. It's easy on Pandora to narrow your station so tightly that you don't learn anything new, but it's also possible to work the machine to keep serving up tunes you've never heard before, songs that are not bad at all.

In the Serendipity Showdown, if you're willing to put in the time, Pandora delivers.


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