I’ll admit it. I had to Google half the bands playing at this weekend’s Coachella Music and Arts Festival, a three-day event on a polo field in the Southern California desert. Not top-billing acts like Duran Duran and the Strokes, but the ones that appear on the lineup poster in tiny fonts—Freelance Whales, SBTRKT, New Pants. These lesser known bands represent a litmus test for one’s knowledge of the music zeitgeist. Recognize most of them and you’re in the know. You’re cool. We’ll see you at the Fader after-party. Look at the roster and think Joy Orbison is the long-lost son of Roy Orbison? Coachella has a way of making you feel like grandpa before your time.
My Coachella days may be over mostly because of the threat of heat stroke (dancing in the desert really is a twentysomething’s game), though my mild out-of-touch-ness can be attributed to more than age. These are odd musical times we live in that grow weirder as the Web grows worldlier and wider. Part of the reason it’s become more difficult to stay on top of music is because too many acts seem to last one music-festival season before they disappear and end up managers at Guitar Center. Music has become more ephemeral even as it’s become more accessible than ever before.
I’m not going to complain about the end of the album as an art form. Nor do I want to start a Tumblr about Swedish nü-metal bands. I just want to avoid turning into that clueless dad in “High Fidelity” who walks into the record shop for music advice. So, I entered myself into music-discovery rehab, digitally.
Algorithmic Internet Radio
I started the easy way—by giving myself over to Pandora. Like most, I simply use it as an alternative to FM radio: I type in a band I like, it plays bands I like. It’s a beautiful, magical, elegant thing that has provided me hours of musical bliss, but when it comes to discovering new acts, you can hit a bit of a wall. Day after day, songs begin to repeat on stations unless you are actively adding variety to them. Pandora is designed more to keep you within your comfort zone than to push you out of it.
Eventually I graduated to Slacker Radio, which, while not as pretty as Pandora, offers more control. You can adjust the obscurity of tracks played (popularity levels include fringe, deep, familiar and hits) and how recent or old the songs are. Duds may appear, but that’s part of the process, right? Damien Rice songs showing up on your Band of Horses station every once in a while may be twee-overload but it’s not going to kill you.
Still, even with all of that freedom, you can feel like you’re stuck in a self-imposed music cage. When that happens I make a break for last.fm, which has hundreds of genre-based stations, from broad (folk, ’60s, classical) to super-niche (roots reggae, rockabilly). It’s like exploring a music store curated by the nerdiest of music nerds.
The problem with algorithmic radio sites is that they’re overly passive and don’t necessarily play what you want to hear when you want to hear it. For that, it’s worth getting a subscription to an all-you-can-listen-to music service like Rhapsody, RDIO or MOG. For $5 to $15 a month, you can stream millions of songs on demand from your computer or smartphone. All three services also have mobile apps—you can listen to songs offline as you would music on your iPod as long as your subscription is active. These services will keep you current and help you create your own opinion of new stuff—you can listen to the latest albums the week they are released without having to buy them (or steal them).
Music Blogs & Magazines
When you need a second opinion as to whether Odd Theory is all it’s hyped up to be, it is time to hit the music blogs. The stalwarts are Pitchfork and Stereogum, but it’s also worth checking out rcrdlbl, The Music Ninja and Gorilla vs. Bear. The best way to discover new blogs (and subsequently new bands), however, is through Shuffler.fm, a website that bounces you from one blog to another, playing songs embedded on those pages along the way. There is also the Super Awesome Music Blog Finder Thingy (real name; find it at ex.fm/blogsfinder) where you enter a last.fm account and it suggests blogs that have leanings like yours.
Too much time on the Web can cause unnecessary music anxiety, however. The cure? Music magazines. They know how to make music accessible to the broadest spectrum of normal folk and not just to dudes in skinny jeans.
Still, my favorite music-discovery tool is the original one: radio. At the end of the day, a great DJ, like those on WFMU, can string together gospel, Thai pop and soul and turn you on to all of it in the course of an hour with no effort on your part—all you have to do is tune in. And, you know, Shazaam the tracks you like. So you can add them to your Tumblr later. New Pants, by the way? Totally awesome