You’re terrible at discovering new music and you’re only getting worse

Ever felt overwhelmed by choice? You’re not alone.

The internet is a wonderful thing that puts a world of information and content right into the palm of your hand. You’ve probably heard that before. But — when was the last time you accessed the entirety of human knowledge? Definitely never.

That’s the thing about the world today. All of the world’s information is at your fingertips, but we are still limited by our capacity to consume it. So what should you consume?

The second great innovation of the internet, after the internet itself, was the development of a way to index and search the internet. Google’s (Alphabet’s?) core business is still search. Search is the powerhouse that allows Google to indulge their wilder flights of fancy.

The way search has worked and developed has generally been to use popularity as a way to signpost what people want to see. Thus, if something is popular, the major indexers direct more people towards it, making it more popular. Popularity compounds upon itself once the ball gets rolling.

The content that get the ball rolling are often produced by those who have the resources to do so. Content providers who control the traditional lanes of access still often determine what’s popular.

Here’s a graphic that appeared in The Economist recently:

This shows the effect of compounding popularity. On the left, you can see that the vast majority of songs never sell more than 100 copies, and a big chunk of them don’t even sell more than one. There’s a huge ecosystem of music that never gets the ball rolling. On the right, you can see what a large chunk of revenue the top 1% and the top 10% of films take up. Again, there’s a whole ecosystem of films that don’t get a share of the pie. Those trends are going in the wrong direction.

This is likely a consequence of a psychological phenomenon called overchoice. The concept has actually existed for a while and is a well-covered concept in the field of consumer research. In the past, companies have taken advantage of this by utilizing packaging or strategic shelf placement to take advantage of human biases when overwhelmed by choice.

The internet has only served to exacerbate the overwhelming number of choices we have as consumers and driven us more towards our baser instincts. One of our baser instincts is a herd mentality. Thus popularity compounds itself.

On two fronts our instincts drive us further down the road that leads to charts like the one above. One, multitude of choices need indexing and the method we apply gives certain outlets easy control of what becomes popular. Two, our natural biological instincts compel us to allow that popularity to compound, an instinct that is exacerbated by that overwhelming choice.

The internet is not going away, so the options will always be there. We will continue to drive down the road of the so-called “blockbuster effect.”

But is there another way?

Well said! How do we make that happen?

One movement is towards algorithms. Algorithms let computers use what it already “knows” about your tastes and use it to inform your discovery of something new. For example, Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” playlist. Guess what? It doesn’t really work that way. At one point the algorithm did do its job, and it was panned because the music it suggested was too unfamiliar. Once Spotify started introducing more familiarity to the algorithm, it became successful. Thus compounding the popularity problem.

Another solution is to use curated playlists from podcasts, internet radio, etc. to inform your music choices. It’s a better method because these people spend a lot of time finding music and delivering a good product. But at the end of the day, you’re really just pushing away the responsibility of curation and completely trusting someone else. How do you really develop your own tastes? Turns out, these DJs might help inform our solution.

Allow me to present the solution:

You’re already doing it.

What? Yes. Yes, you.

If you’ve gotten this far in the article and you didn’t know this already (hopefully you didn’t just click this because it smacked of familiarity because that would be very ironic), you’re already more well-informed. That’s actually one of the key things necessary to overcome: natural psychological biases. Acknowledging your biases and actively trying to combat them is important. It’s harder work, but nobody said there wouldn’t be effort involved. Instincts come easy, original human thought does not.

Check your biases (which is good advice in many other facets of life, but I won’t open that can of worms), become an active participant in discovering new things. Beyond that, I don’t have any better advice or tips, but it’s worth trying out.

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