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Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Music discovery should be so much better

All my life, I've been surprised it's so hard to discover great music. There's so much fantastic stuff out there, why does the radio suck so much when you turn it on?
Things have gotten better with Pandora and Spotify, but not that much better. If I listen to The Commodores and Fleetwood Mac and Derek and the Dominoes, the algorithms want to play me Hall & Oates. If I listen to Elliot Smith and PJ Harvey and Jeff Buckley, the algorithms want to play me The Decembrists. RUN AWAY!
A friend tells me that music recommendation is just really hard, that falling in love with a song requires multiple listens. Songs that I'll love on related listens don't have much of a chance of earning my love the first time; I'm bound to be disappointed by even the perfect DJ.
I'm not convinced. There are lots of times that i hear a song and i'm absolutely sure my wife will love it. And she does. The same happens frequently in reverse.
Perhaps there's a bias here because I'll try hard to see what's great about a song my wife has recommended to me. But the same holds true for friends, and even distant acquaintances: when I first heard Kelela, for example, I knew, correctly, that everyone I told to listen to her music would love it. A perfect radio station or recommendation system would already be playing Kelela for them.
I bet you could get pretty close to great results with even very naive methods. If somebody just called my 10 best friends and asked them what new music they like most periodically, and sent me anything that gets mentioned twice, I bet I would love the service! Even if I never knew my friend were the source.
That has to be automatable. Rdio's social recommendations (RIP) got sort of close to that, though they always picked whole albums, which is often a big mistake. :)
I've enjoyed the Spotify Weekly personalized playlists, but I'm finding mine unlistenable lately. I just skipped the first 6 tracks in a row! It even played me a lame cover of a song I like, which is the sort of unsophisticated algorithm behavior I expect from Pandora.
As near as I can tell, Weekly is just playing me anything that vaguely sounds like the Weeknd, a genre where the quality drops off precipitously when you don't have his talent. I have been listening to him, but also much else.
Meanwhile, other sources are a bust. I can't sit through all of the dead time in All Songs Considered. KEXP's decent Song of the Day has started to sound boringly familiar--current indie synth-pop cut from the same uninspired cloth.
I'm back to basically zero on music discovery. It's surprising that recommendation is this hard in everything except movies!
I just don't get it. We live in the best of all possible musical worlds, with stuff that 100% percent of sane humans can agree is phenomenal, like Jimi Hendrix, Outkast, the rolling stones, Velvet Underground, Aretha Franklin, Santigold, Tribe, Mobb Deep, Nas, Run the Jewels, Dylan, Misfits, Cut Chemist, Four Tet, Nirvana, Beethoven, Amy Winehouse...  why does every station I tune into need to play like the 500th best thing written in the last 6 months? As if this lame track or that lame track couldn't have just as easily been from 10 or 15 years ago? (The slowing pace of musical innovation is a topic for another time.)
Or else they're playing the most boring and dental of all the classical music ever written, as if Beethoven never wrote the late string quartets. 
I can't remember the last thing I heard on any radio station of any type that you could like actually have sex to. Honestly, I've never found a radio show that wouldn't be improved by having every 10th song be Janelle and Miguel's "Primetime". Zero of the listeners would change the station during that song, no matter how many times they'd heard it. 
What about a messenger/sms-based service that is an ongoing conversation about the music you like? You could auth it into your Spotify and it could keep track of what you listen to, ask you
questions, and come up with periodic mixtapes and albums to suggest.
It could just like a friend who really knows your taste, and applies reasonable knowledge and good taste to its selections. "Hey Ben, i know NWA isn't always your thing, but in honor of the movie i made you a mix of 80s and early 90s hip hop, with my favorite 5 NWA songs mixed in... I know you love Pete Rock and Tribe, so it's in that direction. Have you ever listened to Jungle Brothers? If you haven't, you should really listen to this album because you'll get what everyone in hip hop in 1991 was referencing!"
I insist that this is possible. There must be some way to do it!

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