Discovering New Music: The Joy of Playlists
Once upon a time, discovering music was simple. You went to the record store and riffled through the racks of vinyl, arranged under simple-to-grasp categories – genre terms like “rock” and “pop”, “country” and “jazz”.
Today, thanks to the digital revolution, the choice is so much greater, but so is the potential for confusion. Visit a website like Bandcamp.com, a place that “makes it easy for fans to directly connect with and support the artists they love,” as money can go straight to artists. On a similar note, for that matter, just go to one of the older-generation online music services like the venerable iTunes. The first difficulty you have is that you can’t possibly look at every album the way you could in that record store.
Sure, you can browse, but you might miss what you want. You turn to the search options and find that, for sites like Bandcamp, you can search via the use of tags. Scores and scores of them, classifying music into ever narrower niches. If ukulele doesn’t do it for you, there’s always goregrind; you could try a little shoegaze, or maybe some harsh noise wall. Math rock, anyone?
The problem, which for most of us is also a familiar one from online experiences like retailing or streaming video platforms, is that the sheer quantity of stuff makes it difficult to find what you want. Unless you already know exactly what you’re looking for, you’re drowned in choice.
The solution, of course, is a curated or custom-generated playlist: a digital-tech twist on the old-fashioned recommendation from a friend (or the store staff), the mixtape for the 21st century. Curated playlists are made by real people, custom-generated ones are produced by software based on your preferences, and they’re all packed with potential for discovering new talent as well as older tracks you’ve not encountered before.
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You can find purpose-built playlists online for anything from knitting to cooking to sleeping in a railway station. There are celeb workout playlists, like Katy Perry's love of Jamie Foxx, and playlists compiled by musicians themselves ranging from Snoop Dogg to Rihanna. To an extent we have known that audiences have always looked to musicians to curate and mix up music to show their preferences, influences and recommendations.
There’s so much more in this emerging world. Even professional poker players carefully choose their poker playlists to enhance their performance at tournaments. Various participants prefer calm, while others look for energy; the idea is to help them concentrate on the mental task at hand and, perhaps, aid in bluffing. Specialized playlists also include movie scores and tracks of innovatively-produced vinyl. These occasion-specific playlists are put together by music writers and connoisseurs of both professional and amateur persuasions. For instance, plenty of playlists consisting of Christmas songs exist to deviate from the Wham! and The Pogues classics.
As an example on Playlists.net, you can select from a range of themes and moods to appeal to want you're looking for. Some of them innocuous enough (“Piano: 50 beautiful pieces”) and some a lot more challenging. Choose the “Angry” mood theme, then the artist “Scary Kids Scaring Kids” playlist, and you’ll be presented with 102 tracks over five hours -- from My Chemical Romance to Anarbor. If you don’t feel "Angry," of course, you can opt to be "Intimate," "Futuristic" or just "Happy;" choice is what it’s all about.
Working in a similar fashion, Mixcloud unusually also includes radio shows, podcasts and DJ mixes on top of the music. Mixcloud offers an exceptionally wide range of searching options, such as checking out local music, as well as tech add-ons like the utilization as AppleTV. The company and its counterpart Soundcloud also provide many facilities for creators of music. In the case of Mixcloud, you can use Mixlr to stream live and host your content immediately on Mixcloud itself, or you can employ Cross DJ to export a mix and automatically publish the tracklist.
Circling back to Playlists.net, a smart feature, that allows the combination of curated playlist with the “you may also like this” recommendations familiar from online retail, sees the ability to generate your own simply by naming up to three artists and the desired number of tracks. When claimed to like Coldplay, Van Morrison and the Sex Pistols, we were recommended to listen to Ed Sheeran and the Ramones.
It's a way to surprise your ears
If you prefer a serendipitous route, many services will also dish you up regular lists. Playlists.net has its own Playlist a Day app, like most of these offered on iOS and Android apps, while the famed Spotify has its Discover Weekly: a custom-built for the individual user and delivering two hours of music every Monday morning.
Among the other major names, anyone in the U.S., as well as Australia and New Zealand, should check out Pandora. Pandora uses a “thumbs up/thumbs down” test to learn which tracks you liked and which it should recommend next. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, Pandora isn’t available anymore.
There’s no substitute for a live act often time though, but when the weekend’s music venue has to be your lounge, curated and custom-generated playlists are a great way to ensure a well-balanced sequence of sounds that matches your tastes and brings a few surprises too. If you’ll excuse us, we’re just going to pretend to be simultaneous fans of the Mozart Festival Orchestra, Nightmares on Wax, and The Monkees just to see what happens... How did it get “West Side Story” out of that combo?
What are your thoughts on the new age of playlists?