The Fundamental “Why” of Music Discovery

Everyone seems to be betting big on music discovery. What if they’re wrong?


These days, it seems like everyone has an opinion of the best way to discover music. Apple focuses on human curation with intricate playlists and Beats1 Radio. Google thinks that’s all elitist nonsense and that machine learning will solve the riddle. Pandora has a proprietary algorithm. A startup that claims to be “Product Hunt for Music” just got accepted into Troy Carter’s accelerator. Hype Machine fights the good fight and scans the blogs. There are websites, there’s Soundcloud, there’s a ton of failed startups to help you find the best new indie music first.

And I suppose that’s fine, except no one has figured out what the end goal of all this discovery is, or whether that’s what people even want in the first place. There are surveys that float around stating that people stop discovering music after college, or in their thirties, or after they have kids, but the definition of discovery is never clear. Does simply hearing a song mean I’ve “discovered” it. If so, my nana is “discovering” music every time she goes to the grocery store, even though she’s unlikely to ever engage any further with it. Does “discovery” mean I have to take a next step, like seeking out more songs by an artist, or visiting their website, or buying concert tickets? If so, that filter gets awfully narrow very quickly.

“Discovery” has become to music what “engagement” has become to brands — a buzzword that means absolutely nothing. The arms race for shares on socials has gotten so out of control in the brand world that it almost doesn’t matter whether or not people are spending money on the brand — as long as the identity is strong, and people are talking, that’s what matters. In music, being on a popular playlist, or Beats1, or the top of the Hype Machine charts means…something. No one is quite sure what, though.

The removal of the need to purchase a physical good from the process is arguably the worst thing to happen to music discovery. Now, I love streaming music and would never want to return to the days of driving to a store to pay fifteen dollars for an album that may or may not be good — but at least there was a fairly easy action to signal whether or not you were interested in a band. It was an action that was available to almost everyone (unlike going to a live show, which depends on geography and ability to be free a certain evening) and it meant that you were likely to keep engaging with the band, because if you pay for an album, chances are you’re going to listen to it multiple times.

Now, we can just keep dipping into playlists and never repeating any tracks. There is an endless world of music at our fingertips, but that makes it feel totally ephemeral, and not much seems to stick. Unless we go way down the funnel and buy tickets or merch, our engagement means very little to the artist. We’re also spoon-fed content rather than having to go out and search for it, so we don’t put any effort in — we just hit the button and go, and we’re less invested because we know we’ll always be served another track in a few minutes.

But we can debate the mechanics of discovery until the end of time and never address the central question — why do people want to discover music in the first place? I realize it sounds very simple, and the answer, “to have something the listen to,” very obvious. But is that really the case?

When kids and teens discover music, it’s partly because they want something to listen to, and partly because they want a way to define themselves. The cliques at my high school were all the established tropes — the pop kids, the hip-hop heads, the grunge kids (it was the nineties), the punks, the sensitive indie kids (it was Portland). We defined ourselves by the music we liked because there were so few other ways to define ourselves — you could talk about the movies you loved or the games you played, but this was before the real rise of the internet, so options were limited.

Today kids still shape their identities around music, but they also have many other channels to help craft their personal narrative. They can emulate YouTube or Vine stars or shape themselves as artsy and hip because they watch foreign films on Netflix all the time. There’s no doubt that many kids still love music and it touches them in meaningful ways, but the level of urgency seems to be less than it once was.

Once you move out the phase when music defines you and on to the phase where your career and dating status take care of that, the need for new music becomes even more nebulous. This isn’t to say that you can’t find comfort and community in music once you hit a certain age — I’m thirty-five and wept like a baby when I listened to the latest Sufjan Stevens album — but the hunger for new tracks does seem to fade.

So is music discovery the future and driving force behind so many music startups for any real reason, or is it just an organizing principle everyone seems to agree on? “Serving you stuff you already know and like” doesn’t sound all that great, and certainly sounds like a downer in future focused startup circles. But if “discovery,” which so many people have sunk so many resources into mastering, isn’t the future…what is?


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