Music Discovery

(So I’m a bit behind in writing up these entries. Never could get the hang of the unfiltered liveblog. The session wasn’t this morning, but last Friday. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the intervening time to reflect has improved my notes).

One of this morning’s sessions at Public Media 2007 was on music discovery: “how has the internet changed the process of music discovery for listeners.”

Panelists included Geoff Mayfield (Director of Charts and Senior Analyst, Billboard), Pinky Gonzales (Echo Music), and Ben Roe (RoeDeo Productions), as well as Bruce Warren (Assistant General Manager for Programming, WXPN) who ran the panel.

The panel started with a piece from “On the Media” about WBEZ’s decision to drop Jazz programming, and the fact that even many of the jazz aficionados they surveyed who admitted they didn’t actually listen to jazz on the radio.

This set the context for the conversation: what has replaced the radio as a mechanism for discovering new music?

Geoff Mayfield went through some of the recent history of music purchasing as it shifts from “physical product” to digital.

First, he pointed out that the last 5 years are not the first “slump” in Billboard history. There was a “post-disco crash” from 1979-1982, followed by a long and steady boom period from 1983-2001. 2001-now, of course, is a strong and fairly consistent decline – less steep of a decline if you add back in digital downloads, but a clear decline nevertheless.

He also pointed out the sheer dominance of the “head” as opposed to the “long tail,” at least in terms of numbers sold: in 2005, 9.7% of the new releases accounted for 96.5% of the new releases sold. The shift to singles is pretty evident as well – one of the impacts of digital distribution has been the shift back to singles from albums.

Interestingly, the biggest week for physical purchases is the week leading up to christmas – the biggest week for digital downloads is the week after xmas.

Benjamin Roe was unfortunately unable  to show his presentation (Oh, the tech issues which can plague the Mac laptop user in a PC world.)

He talked about the consistent decline of album sales, but held up against it a contrasting trend which is increasing interest in music overall – greater sales of instruments, interest in American Idol, iPods, etc.  I’ve seen this quite clearly myself – I buy more albums now than I used to, largely as a result of listening to podcasts and radio sessions (streamed over the internet) and reading MP3 blogs. (In fact, I often talk about discoving music this way on Goatless, my other blog).

He talked about a number of ways music discovery is working today – the classical podcasts from the Gardner museum in Boston, a 16-year old operatic singer who posted a video of herslef singing a challenging aria on YouTube, and got an instant community of supporters (including a vocal coach), and podcasting.
Pinky Gonzales described the business of Echo Music as being about creating new relationships between musicians and their fans.

He mentioned as an example the band Rascal Flats – at one point they were the highest seller on the (country, I assume) charts and at the same time the most traded (country artist, I assume) on file sharing networks. This doesn’t mean that being traded on the P2P networks caused them to be the best selling, or vice-versa, but it does suggest that being popularly traded didn’t exactly doom them to obscurity either.

From Echo Music’s perspective, it’s about exposure  as an opportunity to build a relationship. Radio used to be the trusted friend who recommends cool new things, but it isn’t anymore. One example of the kind of thing which is replacing it is musicians making recommendations – audience members proved (in research) more receptive to getting recommendations about new music from a musician they liked than they were to a recommendaiton from their own friends.

What should bands looking to find an audience do? It has never been easier to get your music out there – unfortunately, you can’t make people like it. Get a website, get a myspace account – start there. you need an email list, and you need to communicate regularly to that list.

In addition, you need a “live experience,” you need a culture – you need something for the audience to connect to.



The conversation in the panel as a whole touched on a lot of different things -  “buzz” bands online, MP3 bloggers, internet streaming, podcasts.

In the end, I think the clear trends were:

  1. There is a “long tail” of music – but in terms of mass commercial success via album sales, blockbuster pop releases remain few and far between. Massive commercial radio airplay is still the main draw here.
  2. For a smaller, more dedicated audience (people, for example, who actually pay attention to what albums were released this week or are coming next month), there are many new mechanisms for locating music – mp3 blogs, podcasts, internet radio streams, and services like or Pandora.
  3. There is still a valid role for the editor here – someone who helps to filter the noise from the music, as it were, and recommend new music to listeners interested in hearing it.
  4. Being successful as an artist still means producing quality music – creating something that people connect to – but the mechanisms by which people find that music may be changing.