2019 American Music Awards

From A Stream to a Torrent: Music Journalism's Elite Talk Discovery in Age of One-Click Availability at EMP Pop Conf.

In an industry where “music discovery” has become a buzzword -- companies like Twitter and Beats By Dre have invested in high-profile products designed to help users find the unfound -- is there any real ability to wade through the almost unlimited availability of music online?

This question was tackled at the final panel of New York's EMP Pop Conference on April 19 (this year's edition of the annual pop music conference was split into five regional events, in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, New Orleans and Cleveland).

Moderated by Maura Magazine editor and former Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston, “From A Stream to a Torrent: Discovery in the Age of One-Click Availability” featured five music journalists -- freelance writers Julianne Escobedo Shepherd and Puja Patel, NPR music editor Frannie Kelley, The Revivalist founder Meghan Stabile and eMusic editor-in-chief Joe Keyes -- whose job it is to find and introduce new music to readers and listeners.

Johnston began the discussion with Twitter #Music, launched this week as a discovery tool for users, characterizing it as “top down” discovery that presents users with “emerging” and “trending” artists based on the tool's own definitions and algorithms. Shepherd asserted that the app “doesn't know me,” as it recommended Adele as an artist she might like, not very useful because she wrote the Billboard cover story on Adele. “I don't know who it's for,” she continued, “maybe my dad would like it, people who care a little bit about music.”

Turning to the topic of algorithm-based discovery versus recommendations with a personal touch, Keyes explained that “eMusic includes a computer approach to discovery, but the most effective recommendation tool is artists embedded in features about other artists as pitched by knowledgeable writers. We have a feature called Six Degrees that connects huge, well-known records with others you might not know about, and those smaller records always sell more when we feature them this way.” He added that when the Matthew E. White record was labeled simply as “Bill Withers plus The Band,” it sold like crazy. Johnston likened this approach to the old-school “RIYL” (recommended if you like) stickers in record stores.

Johnston mentioned the importance of institutional trust, one reason NPR Music has been such an important source of music discovery. Kelley, who focuses on hip-hop and R&B for NPR, noted that “there is a segment of the NPR audience that gets off on saying they don't like rap and R&B. What I'm trying to do is figure out why people are looking for something new -- is it the rush of discovery? Why does my dad, who could listen to The Band and the Boss forever, want something new?” She explained that you have to give them an emotional connection that relates to where they are in their life. “For example, if you say here's a musician who is recently divorced and dealing with the pain of spending less time with his kids, they might say 'Yeah, I'll listen to that, even if he's rapping.'”

Shepherd raised the problem of the “premiere game” of major music sites, wherein there's a rat race to be the first to premiere artists' music for the web traffic, meaning supposedly trusted sources are “putting their stamp on things they may not actually like.” She noted that labels and artists all try to premiere music on Pitchfork because it has the largest audience, “but then Pitchfork has a monopoly so that actually narrows what we can find.” Johnston noted the premiere of the new Destiny's Child song in January, which the label made the unusual decision to premiere on Mashable, a general tech site, rather than a music site. “That was a coup, an interesting and calculated choice to get the largest audience possible.”

The discussion turned to “genre supremacy,” and the challenge of discovering and helping others discover music outside of a genre that they already like, but based on those preferences. Shepherd noted that as long as seven or eight years ago she was advocating for cross-genre collaborations with dubstep artists to give wider exposure to that genre, and then when it happened with artists like Justin Bieber and Britney Spears, “they sucked.” She also blamed publications for failing to make relevant connections to their readers. “Pitchfork will cover bands with wingdings as their name because it fits their genre identity, but won't cover a band like Bomba Estereo, a HUGE internationally successful Colombian band that their readers would probably love, just because the music is in Spanish.”

Johnston then asked the panel how they themselves find new music, noting that she follows a number of trusted users on Spotify who have created “best of 2013” playlists and clicks around the songs she doesn't know. Patel, who focuses on dance music, described her own laborious process of going to clubs and hearing DJ mixes, writing down a few lyrics of songs she likes in order to Google them later, and then following those Google searches to obscure forums whose users are discussing that song or artist and then others like it. Johnston noted that treasure hunts like these are “like the new crate digging.”

The difference between that process and crate digging, of course, is the personal element of the forum users-as-recommenders. “It's better to ask the person next to you at a club what you're listening to than to Shazam it,” said Kelley. Shepherd noted that she hosts a world music show on East Village Radio, a station that plays music from a booth in the street. “You can hear the music I'm playing when you walk by, and I'm sitting right there, but instead of asking me what I'm playing, people will stand there and Shazam it. And you are not going to find these songs on Shazam.”

Johnston brought up the importance of introducing people to old music as well as new, but noted that “discovery” almost always means moving onto the next new thing. “When I edited the music site Idolator, we were always committed to helping people discover old music as well as new. But those posts that featured a Jellyfish song, for example, did the worst traffic-wise, and we had to move away from them.”

A problem with this, the panelists agreed, is that knowledge of the lineage of new music is lost. Kelley noted that the only way she can get an audience to pay attention to old music is through anniversaries, such as a current focus she's leading on 1993 in hip-hop. “People are talking out of their ass all the time about where new music came from.” Shepherd brought up a recent Twitter rant by R&B singer Solange, who decried the legions of music writers who were writing about her music without listening to the older R&B that influenced it.

Johnston then asked the panelists to name an exciting recent discovery they made and how they found it. Keyes mentioned indie band Parquet Courts, whom he found simply by clicking around on Bandcamp. “I thought, we have to get these guys for [unsigned distribution program] eMusic selects, and then within a week we were already too late, other people had found them, also just by clicking through Bandcamp.” Shepherd mentioned artist Ian Isaiah, whom she heard about after a much-lauded performance at New York Fashion Week last year, but who had no music available online -- when it was finally available, the scarcity and anticipation made it that much more mindblowing. Johnston gave the example of the Eurovision thread on music discussion forum I Love Music, which led her to Norway's excellent entry “I Feed You My Love”.

Finally, Johnston asked the panel if they use the many technological tracking and recommendation devices that current VC money is going into, such as feeds and tools that tell you what your friends are listening to. “There's something lost when you spy on your friends' music habits instead of asking them,” she added.

Keyes noted that the troubling element of the new kind of discovery is the economics, particularly from the artist perspective. “Discovery is one thing, and it's great when you find someone new through a streaming service, but then you have to support them somehow and I don't think that's happening.” Patel cited a recent study on dance music that found that of people who said they were interested in dance music, only 15% could actually name any two of the current four biggest EDM artists. “So they're interested in the music, but not necessarily in actively supporting the artists who make it.”


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