Man vs. Machine: Has The Way We Choose Our Music Changed?

I was buying CDs in the store for years before we entered the digital age of music distribution. I might be a dinosaur though because I still, on occasion, visit the store to purchase a full-length CD (usually the ones that I want to listen to all the way through). The satisfaction of struggling to peel back that horrible tape from the CD’s case is priceless.. followed by the satisfaction of plopping that same CD into my computer to rip onto iTunes and then conveniently place on my iPod for consumption. I rarely go back to consult the CD’s liner notes or artwork, so why I even bother with this whole buying-it-in-the-store charade, I am not sure. Maybe it’s for the occasional bonus DVD that record labels use to try to lure fans into buying the real thing—in all honesty it’s probably more an act of nostalgia than anything (young people can have nostalgia too, right?). Rather than extrapolate as to why I do what I do, I’d rather investigate a more interesting question: has music discovery changed for me now that I live in a mostly online music world? Are my motivations for listening to a particular artist radically different than they were when I found new music in the past?

Music discovery is different depending on a person’s favorite styles and how easy it is to find music that is relevant to them, whether it’s in the store or online. In the past, most retailers limited their selection to the “hits”, leaving the average music consumer with a fairly limited selection of what society deemed good music (i.e. what is popular or what record labels thought should be popular and available for the mainstream). However, before online distribution, there still were ways to discover new and exotic forms of music. The more adventurous type would go explore their favorite independent record store or even a second-hand music shop. Nowadays, instead of going to Walmart or browsing the top songs on iTunes, we might leave the mainstream by creating a specialized online radio station catered to our tastes or read the blog on our favorite niche music site for the latest obscure (insert name of new underground music genre) band. The average person might still be confined to the hits, although maybe with some occasional exploration away from popular music if they happen to stumble across something new on their social networks or Youtube. I’m not quite sure whether the way I discover music is different as a consequence of the ease of finding new music online, or because my musical tastes have diverged to the point where I need more than one mechanism to discover new music.

I still find myself looking for recommendations from friends for music or searching for artists I already know about. Whether I find out what my friends are listening to via social networks or by talking to them in person, the source of the recommendation is essentially the same. What has changed is that sometimes I try to fill the void in my music catalog by referring to online recommendation engines. Music recommendation has now transferred from human to algorithm. It’s a pretty powerful concept that we now delegate music discovery to the various filters of the algorithms we employ. The Genius Bar on iTunes or sites like provide possible solutions to the music discovery problem, but they are imperfect in realizing the actual essence of a song that makes me return to listen to it frequently. I don’t think it’s just a question of getting the metadata to be specific enough, because I don’t think metadata can truly grasp the emotion someone feels when listening to a song.. at least not yet. I find that for the genres of music my friends and I both enjoy, a song they recommend will probably get me the emotional response I am looking for more often than a song I find from an algorithm-based music discovery engine. The mechanistic tendencies of music discovery engines are useful when I don’t mind a search-and-discard method of finding music (i.e. browsing through dozens and dozens of titles until I find one that I decide is worthy of a download or full stream). Frankly, I’ll probably check out a link from a friend or someone I follow on Twitter before I click on a machine-recommended song. In that way, the way I choose music hasn’t changed that much at all.