Thursday, October 15, 2009


The following was inspired by Ms. Dub's most recent contribution.

In a prior life this reporter held a position of responsibility with a large specialty retailer that prided itself in carrying the widest range of available music, purchased locally by store employees. This worked well until the following trends converged: the volume of recorded musical history expanded beyond the ability of a single store's walls to contain it, and the help tired of having to choose between eating and paying rent. Institutionalized objective funneling became necessary.

This writing could easily turn into a screed about profit motive. Instead, let's concentrate on the word 'funneling.' Pandora is a good starting point.

The basic concept is this: a team of experts ascribes certain characteristics to songs, such as instrumentation, tempo, mood, harmony, tonality, atmospherics, and so on. The subscriber seeds a listening experience with one or more favorite artists and/or songs. The Pandora system then takes over, combing its database for songs with similar traits. One could call this a form of directed serendipity, derived from data created in as objective a way as possible. That's the theory.

The execution is pretty good. As a random-play lover, I find that by creating a few dozen 'radio stations' with single songs I consider to be crucial examples of favorite mini-genres and then asking Pandora to blend them, I can replicate my usual listening experience with a whole lot of stuff I haven't yet heard. Nice.

The sticking point is this: wayyyy more music is being produced than is being added to the Pandora database. Admittedly, this is a necessity: without some funneling, the system risks dilution while choking on gobs of lesser material. The question: who decides what will be added or not? The answer: tastemakers. The followup: Do I buy in?

Tastemakers are necessary. A modern-day luxury is the surfeit of these experts, starting with, crucially, our friends. The sheer volume of music and its ready availability creates legions of micro-cultures and their resident experts. Add to this the ocean of online and old-media editorial opinion, and we all find ourselves playing a game of 'Who Do You Trust?'

The point, if I can ferret one out, is while we cannot avoid funnels, we can choose which ones to employ.

In the final years I worked at the aforementioned desk, the company product database grew by about 30,000 unique audio titles per year. I would estimate that number at perhaps double these days or, say, 5000 new titles per month. How does an intrepid music explorer navigate such a tsunami? Funnels.

My ongoing goal is to find as much good new music as I can realistically absorb. This is probably about 12-15 albums per month. How I get there is pretty consistent. I avail myself of about 500 album reviews per month. Around 15% (75 or so) of these pique enough interest to make me seek the music out on Rhapsody. About 15% of this auditioned music makes the cut. The system works well. The one thing I cannot let myself do is think about those other 4500 titles per month that have not come to my attention. I sleep well at night because I tell myself I used the widest-necked and most reliable set of funnels I could find.

And now...a bit of navel-gazing: Do I see myself as a tastemaker?

In short, no. I am a certifiable hermit. My tastes are diverse yet picky, and I doubt they translate well. Assuming the 15% batting average, if I extol an artist or album here, chances are about 6-in-7 you won't agree.

This blog is my first attempt to bring my music-related opinions outside the closed environment of my prior music industry life. I am still trying to find my voice, to see if I will learn anything from what pours out here. What I have absorbed so far can be nutshelled thus:

My drumbeat is for pro-active music exploration, especially by those in the 40+ demographic who find themselves growing estranged from their lost music love. To you I say: subscribe to an on-demand streaming service, read reviews, check out Amazon's Listmania, go to some Cedar shows, join a music listening club.

Everyone has a golden era, music-wise, and it's easy to believe that they just don't make 'em like that anymore. My rebuttal is simple: I came of age with multi-genre Top 40 and free-form FM, and I'm here to tell you that these are the good old days.


Next week I'll touch on some highlights from my most recent music exploration. I'll probably go on a bit about The Apples in Stereo (where the hell have I been?), Monsters of Folk (sneering in the face of my usual allergic reaction to Conor Oberst), and Selena Gomez (yes, from the Disney factory; she's made an album that recalls 'Beauty and the Beat').

For now, though, the listen that brought the biggest smile. I simply don't hear enough tunes about getting drunk and eating a whole damn chicken:

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