Need to know
We live in an era of absurd musical abundance. Streaming services put the (in)complete history of recorded music at our fingertips, with sophisticated recommendation algorithms that promise to tailor us the perfect playlist. More than 100,000 new tracks are uploaded every day to platforms like Spotify, Apple Music or SoundCloud. As the hip-hop innovator Kool Keith put it in a 2020 interview: ‘There’s so much new music out there that it’s just too much for the average antique person.’ It can be too much for any person, antique or otherwise. We’re saturated, inundated with the stuff. But the problem isn’t just abundance: it’s what we do with the musical riches at our fingertips.
In theory, streaming services should make it easier to find new music but, as you’ve likely discovered, they tend to keep us trapped in loops, endlessly circling through a world of familiar genres, artists and songs. The experience is frictionless, but moments of surprise and serendipity can be hard to come by. This Guide is a solution to the paradox of music in the 2020s: we have access to more songs than ever before but can end up feeling as though we are stuck in a musical rut. The answer isn’t abandoning the services, but instead learning how to use them to your advantage while opening up a wider ecology of music.
Antique persons railing against technological change is nothing new. In his essay ‘The Menace of Mechanical Music’ (1906), the conductor and composer John Philip Sousa predicted that the phonograph would lead to ‘a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestations …’ But even as late as the 1990s, when I grew up, music still felt like a finite quantity. As a teenager, I could afford to buy a new CD only every month or two. That meant giving each fresh purchase the attention it deserved. Radio, especially John Peel’s late-night show on BBC Radio 1, was a rich source of discoveries. So were music magazines, although I’d often spend months imagining how something I’d only ever read about might actually sound.
This all changed in 1999, the year that the peer-to-peer file-sharing service Napster launched, a precursor to Spotify and other streaming platforms. Suddenly, music wasn’t something confined to physical products that you had to buy (or borrow). Now all you needed was an internet connection, a big hard drive and a casual disregard for copyright laws in order to amass all the music you wanted, in the form of tinny-sounding but oh-so-convenient MP3 files. A lot has changed since then: we’ve grown accustomed to being able to listen to whatever we want, wherever we want, and paying as little for it as possible. Yet a world in which you could be listening to nearly anything is a daunting place to be. We experience what the writer and futurist Alvin Toffler in 1970 called ‘choice overload’: we fall back on familiar favourites, we let automated playlists make the decisions for us, we may even stop seeking out new music altogether. For those of us who are older, finding new music can sometimes feel like even more of a struggle.
The reality is that many of our deepest and most enduring musical loves are acquired as teenagers. It’s the period in life when we’re most adventurous and eager to try out new ideas. Our brains have greater plasticity, making it easier to absorb unfamiliar concepts. The raging emotions of adolescence also mean that we can form a deeper sense of connection with what we’re hearing. When we encounter new music later in life, it can feel like more of an effort – which it is.
If you’ve already clocked up a few decades of listening, chances are that a lot of music being made at the moment will remind you of things you’ve heard before. Don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s just a rehash, or that the sounds you grew up with are inherently better. Today’s artists have grown up with streaming, YouTube and TikTok: they are often drawing on a much wider range of influences than their forebears, and combining them in bold and unexpected ways.
However, ‘new music’ doesn’t mean only ‘music that’s current’. It can also mean music that’s new to you. Our tastes evolve as we get older: you probably know someone who was once an ardent clubber or punk kid but now spends more time listening to 1970s Brazilian music or the gentle jazz of ECM Records releases. That’s perfectly normal. You may be surprised to discover that music you once dismissed, or even outright disliked, now makes perfect sense to you (in my case, both of the above). So ‘new’ doesn’t necessarily mean contemporary.
And though contemporary music tends to have more to say about the times we’re living in, songs from a century ago may hit you just as hard. The recordings that the Greek violinist Alexis Zoumbas made in New York during the 1920s are freighted with a sense of longing that still resonates profoundly today. ‘Black Bottom Stomp’, recorded by Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers in 1926, is – for want of a better way to put it – a total jam.
So, what’s the problem? If you’re wondering how to find new music, perhaps it’s a question of access: you just don’t know where to begin looking, or how to start navigating the infinite playlists of streaming services. Perhaps it’s a problem of overabundance: there are just too many options, and what you’ve tried didn’t click. But the issue might not always be with the rapidly changing digital infrastructure of the music industry. Perhaps we’re the problem: it might be a question of how we listen. This is not only a guide to finding new music, but learning how to hear it better.
And what’s the point of it all? Obviously, you’re here because you are already interested in discovering new music. Even when everyone is listening on earbuds, seemingly closed off in their own private sound world, music can be an intense act of communion. It’s an invitation to share the perspective of someone you’ll likely never meet, whose language you may not even speak. At a time when society is becoming increasingly atomised, music can provide a bridge to different communities and cultures. Yes, it ultimately comes down to gratification – we listen to the things we enjoy. But by being a curious listener, seeking out unfamiliar sounds and challenging our tastes, we can broaden our perspective. At heart, it’s about maintaining a spirit of openness: a willingness and eagerness to be surprised. After all, who wants to be an antique person?
What to do
Take the plunge and start exploring
OK: you’ve got a few favourite albums saved on your streaming service, or perhaps a collection of vinyl records, CDs or tapes. How do you find something new?
This is where things get tricky. Music taste is subjective. Everyone has their own preferences and pet hates, obsessions and blind spots. I wouldn’t assume that the music I love is going to tickle you in the same way. Your new favourite song may be hiding in plain sight on Spotify’s Global Top 50 playlist, though you’ll probably need to spread the net a bit wider. If you’re using a streaming service, try dipping into some of the curated playlists – which focus more on particular styles or moods – or generating a playlist from an artist, album or song that you already like. (One way to do this is to simply make a playlist with one or two of your favourite albums and then let the algorithm do its work: once it has finished playing songs from the albums, it will seek out similar songs by other artists with whom you may not be familiar.) Online radio stations can also be a great source of music. NPR’s New Music Friday podcasts, Norman Records’ weekly playlists and The Quietus Music of the Month features are good places to catch up on the latest releases. The latter recently introduced me to ABADIR, an Egyptian producer of transportive electronic music, and Emergence Collective, a British improvising ensemble steeped in the influence of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich.
Once you’ve dipped in, there are countless other places you could start exploring: the most important thing is to start. Perhaps you noticed a song on the soundtrack to a film? Hearing the Red Krayola’s ‘Born in Flames’ on the soundtrack of Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film of the same name led me to go searching for live clips of the band on YouTube. One click later, following the recommendations of YouTube’s algorithm, I was watching the spectacularly unhinged Scottish post-punk group Dog Faced Hermans, and wondering how I’d managed to last so long without them.
Taking the plunge can feel daunting, and it’s easy to get discouraged if your first few incursions into unfamiliar waters yield limited returns. However, the process of discovery can be more fulfilling in the long run than letting an algorithmic system decide everything for you. If you persevere, you’ll be able to enjoy a richer variety of music and get more out of what you’re listening to.
But keep in mind: it’s not enough just to find music. In some ways, that’s the easy part. The hard part is learning to get more out of it as a listener – to uncover, hopefully, what’s really novel and exciting about ‘new music’.
Whatever you listen to, listen better
In his essay ‘The Conquest of Ubiquity’ (1928), the poet and critic Paul Valéry wrote that music ‘is of all the arts the most in demand, the most involved in social existence, the closest to life, whose organic functioning it animates, accompanies, or imitates.’ Music is one of the rare art forms that we can enjoy while doing other things. In fact, for most of us that’s probably the default option: we use it to set the mood, rather than giving it our undivided attention. When was the last time you sat down and just listened to an album, without reaching for your phone, a book or some other distraction?
Sometimes, it’s just a question of focus. Let the music you’re listening to occupy the centre of your attention. Closing your eyes helps. Remember the words of the composer Philip Glass: ‘The problem with listening, of course, is that we don’t. There’s too much noise going on in our heads, so we never hear anything.’ Some activities leave us with more bandwidth to pay attention to what we’re hearing, which is particularly important when listening to music for the first time. Reading, studying or doing other things that require intense focus probably isn’t the best time to be auditioning new music. On the other hand, car journeys, long walks and household chores can lend themselves better to soaking up fresh sounds.
There are also things you can do to improve the listening experience. Investing in a good set of headphones or speakers will make a difference – as will proper speaker placement. You should opt for lossless and hi-res audio where available. Even if you don’t think you can hear the difference, on a subconscious level you probably will. Purists will tell you that everything sounds better on vinyl, but don’t let that put you off enjoying music in whichever format works for you.
Lose your hang-ups and take some risks
Are your expectations about yourself holding you back from finding new music? Music can be intensely tribal. Especially when we’re young, it’s a way of defining ourselves. We bond with friends over the songs we love. We shun certain artists or genres because they’re not for our kind of people. We gravitate towards songs with lyrics in a language that we understand, or sounds rooted in the scales and harmonic systems of the culture we grew up in (although today’s listeners seem increasingly happy to venture outside their comfort zone, which is a trend to be applauded).
These affiliations are a vital part of our development – and sharing the music we love with others is one of life’s great joys – but they can be limiting. It took me years to get over some of the prejudices I’d picked up as a teenager: I thought progressive rock was inherently bad, assumed Kate Bush wasn’t for me (what was I thinking?), and believed that Steely Dan represented the nadir of Western rock music. Try not to let your preconceptions about music stop you from hearing it properly. Take risks. Listen to the ecstatic sounds of Mauritanian wedding music, the slippery sonics of musique concrète, or the burgeoning indie-rock scene of the Philippines.
Be more intentional with what you choose to listen to
When there’s so much that we potentially could be listening to, one of the hardest things is to listen with purpose. Try to pay more attention to what you’re listening to, and why. This can be as simple as deciding what song or album to play next, rather than cuing up an automated playlist. It’s a question of intention, and learning to take control of what might otherwise be a purely passive process.
Stop and take a moment right now to think about songs, artists or genres you might be curious about, but maybe haven’t yet started exploring. Curated playlists are a good entry point to explore new genres or the discography of an artist you’re unfamiliar with; Rate Your Music – an online database featuring millions of user reviews of albums – is also handy for getting an overview of different genres and artists, and discovering what the consensus favourites are. Rather than grazing widely, be more methodical. Try working through a musician or a band’s entire discography – you might be surprised how much you like some of their lesser-known work. People whose knowledge of Kraftwerk starts with the iconic Autobahn (1974) are missing out on the remarkable, open-ended music of the group’s first three LPs. Another option is to try digging into a few well-regarded albums from a particular genre: take a crash course in funk, fado or free jazz.
Be patient and savour the process
An infinite smorgasbord encourages bingeing. Streaming (or having a massive collection of records, WAVs or MP3s) can make us shallow and promiscuous listeners, never sticking with anything for long enough to get to know it properly. You’ve probably listened to favourite songs countless times, in many different settings. Any new suitors for your affections aren’t going to compete unless you give them a sporting chance. That’s why it’s so important to allow yourself time to digest what you’re hearing, and – I can’t stress this enough – make sure that you revisit music. Repetition and familiarisation are the key to unlocking the nuances that make a new song shine. Also, and this may seem self-evident, but try to keep tabs on what you’re listening to. Take notes. Make playlists (or Excel spreadsheets, if that’s your thing).
First impressions are important, but they can also sometimes be misleading. If something sounds instantly appealing, that may just be because it resembles music you already know, and the lustre will soon fade. When venturing into unfamiliar territory, it takes longer to get your bearings. There are albums that took me months, or even years, to get to grips with, including Diamanda Galás’s doom-laden Plague Mass (1991) and Miles Davis’s sprawling Get Up with It (1974). With some, like Roland Kayn’s nearly 14-hour opus, A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound (2017), I’m still trying. (This is a good reason for actually buying music: it supports the artist, but also gives you a greater incentive to stick with something.)
There’s no golden rule for when to persevere and when to move on. If you really don’t like something, you don’t have to torment yourself, but if you feel like maybe you just aren’t getting it, give it another chance. Remember that the same piece of music will hit you in different ways depending on the setting, your mood or whether you’re listening on a high-end stereo or your phone’s speaker. I love the Japanese noise duo Incapacitants – two salarymen who make a righteous squall using a tangle of guitar pedals and electronic gear – but I wouldn’t listen to it first thing on a Saturday morning.
Contextualise the origins of the music
There’s a lot to be said for listening to music with open ears. But context – knowing something about where that music came from, who made it, how and why – can also deepen your appreciation. You don’t need to speak Arabic to marvel at the vocal power of the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. But her epic live recordings make more sense if you understand the meaning of the words and the call-and-response nature of traditional Arabic song, and know a little about Egypt’s turbulent 20th-century history and the place she occupied within it. Her signature song ‘Al-Atlal’ (1966) – with its lines ‘Give me my freedom, set free my hands’ – became a rallying cry for Arabic audiences after the humiliating defeat of the Six-Day War in 1967.
This is also the information that tends to get lost when you’re streaming. It’s worth taking the time to look properly at artwork, read lyrics or seek out interviews or podcasts to find out what an artist has to say for themselves. I listened obsessively to Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut album for a few months as an impressionable 14-year-old, but somehow never realised that the band’s Dave Grohl had written and recorded the entire thing by himself. Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977), the most baffling album in his discography – and produced by Phil Spector – makes a lot more sense once you’ve read about the chaotic nature of its creation.
Watch live music
Seeing someone perform their music live can be a revelatory experience, unveiling depths and nuances that you could never appreciate just by listening to a recording. It can deepen your appreciation of music you already know, or provide an unforgettable introduction to an artist you’re hearing for the first time. Sometimes, concerts can turn out to be a crushing disappointment, but that’s a risk that any self-respecting music lover should be prepared to take.
Don’t just focus on big-name touring artists, either. There may be a vibrant local music scene in your area, and they’d probably appreciate the support. Living in Tokyo, I’m spoiled for choice, although it can still take an effort to sniff out the more interesting shows. Some of the best gigs I’ve seen over the past year were in tiny venues with only a couple of dozen people in attendance, like an improvised session involving the trumpeter Susana Santos Silva and the cellist Tristan Honsinger (just a month before the latter’s death) that was full of quickfire exchanges and punctured by moments of improvised poetry and absurdist comedy.
When you’re looking for fresh inspiration, music festivals are often a good opportunity to discover artists you haven’t heard before, and they also present a low-risk way to check out acts you’d never consider going to watch normally. Try it: you might realise what you’ve been missing out on.
Go out and dig through the racks
Streaming is just one of the points of entry when you’re looking to discover new music. Physical media has been enjoying a resurgence, and formats once thought obsolete – vinyl, cassettes – are back in vogue. The beautifully packaged releases of cassette labels such as Slovakia’s Mappa Editions are distinctive physical artefacts. Third Man Records, the label co-founded by the musician Jack White, has even revived the lost art of recording direct to acetate. Record stores no longer seem like a dying breed, even if they’re facing stiff competition from online marketplaces like Discogs. A visit to a well-stocked shop can be highly stimulating, regardless of whether you end up buying anything: just flicking through the racks might spark ideas and lead to new discoveries.
In Tokyo, I’m lucky to live near some of the world’s best record shops, but you often won’t have to look far to find a quality vinyl boutique. Elsewhere in the world, independent stalwarts such as Amoeba Music and Rough Trade are still going strong. When you’re listening purely online, music can start to feel like an abstraction. LPs, CDs and tapes turn it into something tangible, and often come with artwork that provides a vital part of the overall package. Bear in mind, too, that there’s a lot of music that never made it online – let alone on to streaming services – but which can be found on physical formats if you look in the right place (try Discogs or eBay if you don’t live near a good retailer). And yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to buy something just because you like the cover art. It’s often a good indication of how something will sound.
Back in the online realm, internet radio and DJ mixes can be rich sources of inspiration. As they’re complicated by the idiosyncrasies of personal taste, they’re more likely to throw up unexpected choices – just remember to take notes if you hear something you like. I’m a big fan of the online radio platform NTS, which has a massive and well-organised archive of shows, many of them presented by established artists and DJs, that stray into wildly esoteric territory. Exploring the canon is another option: it takes only a quick Google search to find exhaustive lists of the finest songs or albums for a given artist, genre or year, whether you’re looking for the greatest Detroit techno tracks, the best albums of 1971, or a ranking of every Taylor Swift song. AllMusic and Rate Your Music are handy online resources for getting an overview of an artist’s discography and pointers on where to start, while Discogs is the place to go when you just have to know who produced that rare B-side from 1983.
Key points – How to discover new music
- Take the plunge and start exploring new sounds. You could begin by dipping into the curated playlists on your streaming service or follow the recommendations of an online radio station. Perhaps you noticed a song on a film soundtrack? Look it up on YouTube, then go where the algorithm takes you. Persevere, and you’ll be able to enjoy a richer variety of music.
- Whatever you listen to, listen better. Rather than just using music to set the mood while you do other things, give it your undivided attention. Close your eyes. Invest in some good headphones of speakers. Or, if you must do something else, then use car journeys, long walks and household chores to soak up fresh sounds.
- Lose your hang-ups and take some risks. Music can be intensely tribal. You might have shunned certain artists or sounds when younger, but now it’s time to get over those self-limiting prejudices, and explore music from other cultures and in other languages.
- Be more intentional with what you choose to listen to. This can be as simple as deciding what song or album to play next, rather than cuing up an automated playlist. Instead of grazing widely, listen with purpose and be more methodical. Work through a musician or a band’s entire discography – you might like some of their lesser-known work.
- Be patient and savour the process. Repetition and familiarisation are the key to unlocking the nuances that make a new song shine. Keep tabs on what you’re listening to, take notes, make playlists. If something is immediately appealing, it may just resemble music you already know. When venturing into unfamiliar territory, it takes longer to get your bearings.
- Contextualise the origins of the music. Knowing something about who made that recording, how they did it and why can deepen your appreciation of the music. It’s also worth taking the time to look properly at artwork, read lyrics or seek out interviews or podcasts to find out what an artist has to say for themselves.
- Watch live music. A live performance can be a revelatory experience, unveiling depths and dimensions that you could never appreciate just by listening to a recording. Music festivals can be a good way to discover artists you haven’t heard before. And don’t just focus on big-name artists – there may be a vibrant music scene in your area, and local artists would appreciate the support.
- Go out and dig through the racks. When you’re listening purely online, music can start to feel like an abstraction, but LPs, CDs and tapes turn it into something tangible. A visit to a well-stocked shop can be highly stimulating, regardless of whether you end up buying anything: just flicking through the racks might spark ideas and lead to new discoveries. And yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to buy something just because you like the cover art. It’s often a good indication of how something will sound.
Make streaming services work for you
Streaming services are cagey about how their recommendation systems work, but one of the core components is what’s called collaborative filtering. In effect, this makes suggestions by comparing users who have similar tastes – the algorithmic equivalent of having a hip friend who likes the same types of music as you. However, there are many other factors at play. Spotify, for instance, also analyses raw audio data and text-based information about songs to make recommendations. The result of all these thousands of data points intersecting is that streaming services are extremely good at giving you just what they think you want. It’s an experience that aims to be smooth and effortless, but genuine surprises are harder to come by. You probably won’t know you like Sacred Harp singing or the feverish sound of Tanzanian Singeli until you hear it.
There are good reasons not to use streaming platforms, based on how poorly they compensate many artists, but the reality is that they have become the default mode for listening to music in the 2020s. The trick is to treat them as a resource, rather than a concierge. Their recommendations will typically be only as interesting and varied as the music you’re already listening to, but if you start becoming more adventurous in your selections, the algorithm will take note. Make a concerted effort to listen to songs or albums that you’ve seen recommended elsewhere. Seek out curated playlists, and cherish the good ones. If you aren’t sure where to start, try Herb Sundays, which posts weekly playlists with a different curator each time, or explore the wide-ranging playlists of the novelist Teju Cole or the music critic Andy Kellman. When you hear something that grabs you, try exploring other work by the same artist, or similar albums, and see where it takes you. At the same time, it’s worth venturing outside the ecosystem of whichever platform you use. Identical search terms will yield strikingly different results on platforms such as YouTube, SoundCloud or Bandcamp. For some real wild-card suggestions, try Gnoosic or Every Noise at Once.
Practise active listening
Active listening is a more analytical approach, for when you want to get deeper into the music. It’s how professional musicians and studio engineers tend to hear things, but it’s a skill that can be cultivated with practice. While listening in optimal conditions – preferably alone and without distractions – see if you can isolate the individual voices, instruments or sounds within the piece. How do they fit together? Where do they sit in the stereo mix? How would you describe the texture of the music? Does it remind you of other things you’ve heard before? How does it make you feel? Music theory is helpful here, but it’s not essential. I’ve found that people without any formal education in music are often better able to hear connections between seemingly disparate artists or pieces.
Links & books
The vast database of Rate Your Music is particularly helpful when you’re looking for an entry point into an artist or genre, or seeking recommendations on what to listen to next. I’ve also made some terrific discoveries via recommendations from artists I follow on social media, or discussion threads on Reddit. If you don’t already do this, ask your friends what they’ve been listening to, and share some of your own recent discoveries.
Dedicated music magazines and websites are becoming increasingly rare, sadly, but there are still a few good ones out there. Pitchfork has become the tastemaker of 21st-century music in the way that Rolling Stone was for an earlier generation. Their lists and guides are great resources, and even better for starting arguments online. Also, I’ve lost track of how much quality stuff I’ve been turned on to from reading The Quietus. In print, Mojo and Uncut cater to the nostalgia-prone, and The Wire remains a bastion for more experimental fare.
The online platform Bandcamp offers an experience more akin to browsing through a record shop – including the ability to buy music directly from labels and artists.
The online radio station NTS is a constant source of wonder. If you’re looking for a continuous stream of music without any chatter, try the Infinite Mixtapes section.
The YouTuber 12tone’s video ‘How to Listen to Music Like a Pro’ (2020) is a good introduction to active listening, from someone who really knows their music theory. For a less academic approach, try the video ‘How I Listen to an Album’ (2019), in which the Needle Drop, YouTube’s most influential music critic, breaks down his working process.
The book Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty (2016) by Ben Ratliff is an excellent primer on how to navigate the streaming era, by cultivating what the author calls a ‘strategy of openness’.
The book Perfecting Sound Forever (2009) by Greg Milner traces the evolution of recorded music – which might sound like an arcane topic, but it’s a book with the ability to change the way you listen.