The New Music Problem

We want to know what to listen to.

Once upon a time, labels, radio and press performed this function. They drove us to the best of what was available, which wasn’t very much. The tunes were professionally recorded, sometimes boring or repetitive, but the scene was easily digestible, you could know every record available, you could find the gems.

Now we’re confronted by chaos.

The labels say to leave it to them. But unlike decades ago, labels don’t come close to signing the best of the best, they just sign what sells.

And what sells is what’s on the radio. And what’s on the radio is dance music.

So if you’re into dance music, laced with a bit of hip-hop, you’re living in aural nirvana. The system has become incredibly refined, tune into the Top Forty station and you’ll be plugged right in.

But naysayers are plentiful. In an era where more people are making more music in more genres, and it’s literally freely available, many reject the lowest common denominator cynicism of the labels and radio. They want music that touches their souls.

Touching souls. That’s a fascinating concept. A study was done to discover what generated online virality. It turns out facts barely matter, we want to share emotion. Music does this best, but we’re doing a bad job of sharing our tastes.

The problem is we’ve only got time for great. Overloaded with input, we graze for superiority in a sea of mediocrity, and it’s nigh near impossible to find.

There are tireless self-promoters, telling us to listen to their stuff.

There are fans whose taste is so eclectic, nobody could identify.

And now that everyone’s got a voice online, press is irrelevant.

What is the way out?

Matching listeners with superior tunes.

Note, this is different from any time in modern history. There were tons of mediocre tunes on the radio in the sixties and seventies. Video sold crap in the eighties. But there was a limited universe, it worked. You bought the second-rate album, played it ad infinitum and went to see the band live because you didn’t know any better.

Purveyors believe we still don’t know any better.

But we do.

The techie solution is data. This is the flaw of Pandora. Data has about as good a chance of delivering what we want to hear as a computer has of finding us a mate. Or to make it even crazier, dating sites have found out people don’t know what they’re looking for, they say they want tall blondes but they keep clicking on the profiles of short brunettes.

I didn’t make that up. That’s true. The breakthrough in online dating is showing you what you click on, not what you say you want.

But although I do know people who’ve gotten hitched after meeting on dating sites, most people are frustrated, they don’t find Mr. or Ms. Right. Why do you expect a computer to deliver the right song?

So it’s clear that recommendations will have to come from human beings.

But the dirty little secret is that recommendations can’t be tuneouts.

Contemplate this. You can only forward MP3s and links of songs that not only you like, but that you guarantee the recipient will like. That’s the mark of a great connector, he knows what you need.

But since so many people are recommending less than perfect tracks, we end up tuning out all recommendations.

But upping the recommendation game also pisses off the musicians. What we’re saying is that most players don’t get to play. That we’re not interested. There are fewer slots than there are in the NFL or NBA. At any given time there’s not a hundred tracks worthy of attention. Actually, there are barely any mass appeal tracks.

And what we’re looking for is mass appeal.

This is another secret. We want music to bring us together. We want to listen to what other people are listening to. Maybe not everybody, but the other metalheads, country addicts… And if we decide to cross genres, we want to hear guaranteed good stuff.

The more stuff there is, the less we’re interesting in hearing.

We won’t sit through an entire YouTube clip if it doesn’t grab us immediately. And we won’t sit through your song either.

Don’t shoot the messenger. Yes, it may take us a few listens to get your song, but no one is going to put in that time anymore.

The way out of our dilemma is for musicians and tastemakers to collectively recommend only the best of the best. Not the best of the week, or the best of the month, but stuff so good you want to hear it all the way through and play it again.

We live in a land of winners and losers.

Yes, there are endless niches.

But only a few will win.

Most songs on iTunes go unbought.

Most songs on Spotify go unplayed.

And no matter how much you promote them, we still won’t listen. Because we only have time for that which is incredible.

It’s demoralizing, I know.

But when I hear something that great, I want to tell everybody. And so do you.

But it’s so hard to find greatness amidst the cacophony.

That’s the music business challenge of today. Delivering greatness to those who want to hear it.

So far, no one’s taken up the challenge.

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  1. […] is becom­ing incresingly evi­dent, as ref­er­enced in Bob Lef­setz’ recent post titled The New Music Prob­lem.  Turntable may not be the ideal plat­form for sam­pling music, but its gam­ing and social […]

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  1. […] is becom­ing incresingly evi­dent, as ref­er­enced in Bob Lef­setz’ recent post titled The New Music Prob­lem.  Turntable may not be the ideal plat­form for sam­pling music, but its gam­ing and social […]

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