The Myth, Science and Craft of Music Discovery

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by: David Jennings

Marc Cohen writes a challenging post on The Myth of Music Discovery. Citing a Digital Music News report of two venture capitalists agreeing that "the next big thing is going to be music discovery", Marc says this ought to be enough evidence that it won’t be.

Having written a book which takes music discovery as a pointer to the changes in the forces shaping our cultural lives, you wouldn’t expect me to be disinterested, or to be able to avoid rising to this bait. Perhaps that’s just more evidence to support Marc’s argument. But let me try and engage with his points anyway.

Marc reports evidence that radio remains the main route to music discovery, but online channels are growing in their influence. This is now a fairly well-established trend (here’s one previous post supporting this, and another). He concludes from this:

people don’t seek to discover new music — it just happens. They don’t listen to the radio, watch TV or talk to friends for the purpose of discovering new music. This is a byproduct of the intended object of the interaction.

For some — actually I’d concede it’s the majority — this is true. But sweeping generalisations about what "people" do or don’t do are not helpful to our understanding here. There is a minority who do seek to discover music. These are the ‘savants’ and ‘enthusiasts’ in the classification I use. The thing is that a minority within this minority are quite influential for the rest of the "people". They are the first movers in the interactions from which discovery is a byproduct. And they’re proud of it. They take kudos from people reading the blogs in which they assiduously document their new finds, and from the buzz they build on social networks.

The dynamics of discovery include a whole ecology of social recommendations, automated recommender systems, happenstance and serendipity — and the interactions between all of these influences.

[Update, 26 April 2008: Marc has posted on the reaction and I have commented, so see there for further discussion.]

Marc’s second conclusion is that (commercial) radio is a kind of ad-supported music. Absolutely, yes. But then I don’t entirely follow his inference:

Since downloaded music provides a superior user experience to streaming radio, I will argue that downloaded ad-supported music will be the superior vehicle for music discovery.

The first part of this is debatable. Another time, perhaps. But the second part is curious. If one experience is superior for music discovery, doesn’t that mean that there’s more to the story than just "discovery (like shit?) happens" of its own accord, independent of the design of services or the intentions of people?

I’m not sure how the business model of music discovery services can be written off as a "myth", as Marc claims. Some models are better than others. I don’t think either radio or downloaded ad-supported music are the end of the story. There’s a mixture of craft and science involved in making the different parts of the ecology work together. From this we can knit together the possibility for stimulating, social and diverse discovery experiences.

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