Matthew Young runs the excellent Song, By Toad blog, and a similarly-named, similarly excellent record label.
He loves new music, and talking about new music, preferably whilst sharing drinks with you, as I have discovered on many a queasy occasion.
Because of his garrulous and idiosyncratic nature, he gets asked to speak on panels, usually about the “Future of the Music Industry”, which is pretty much the title of every panel at ever music conference, ever.
At The Great Escape, he announced that “Last FM and Pandora are fucking pointless”, and a selection of music/tech people blew a collective gasket. (Matthew later addressed what he said in a more eloquent manner here.)
It doesn’t take too long in Matthew’s company to realise that hyperbole is part of his method of discussion, but such humour does not always translate to all and sundry.
I do agree with a lot of his provocative statement, although maybe in a different way: the non-human element of music discovery sites can be disconcerting or disappointing.
We have not, and (happily) never will, replace the wildly unexpected nature of say, John Peels’ radio show, with an algorithmically-curated creation yet.
Your view on whether this is a good thing will boil down to this choice: maybe you’d have discovered, say, the Swedish band Leanids via an online tool. Would you have preferred to have found them via a trusted human instead?
I don’t use Pandora, but there are elements of Last FM that I think are brilliantly useful: recording my music playing history and linking it to Spotify/This Is My Jam/etc will be useful for evermore, in whichever way music consumption evolves form hereon.
As a player of music, however, I’ve found Last FM only partially useful, and my experience do mirror Matthew’s somewhat: it doesn’t give me quite what I crave. I want wild variety, the unexpected, and weird stuff that tests my boundaries. I understand that the bulk of Last FM’s user base may not want this, however.
But this is why I run A New Band A Day, and why I spend hours trawling through zany PR emails and Soundcloud when I could be getting vitamin D outside in the sunshine.
The Last FM app in Spotify is very useful for the reason Matthew mentioned: “I can’t think of anything better to guide you through Spotify’s featureless wasteland of unlimited availability” – but I prefer Soundrop, the user-sourced ‘radio’ app: which brings us back to the matter of human intervention.
So what is the future? What is the best model to replace these unpredictable humans with something that can appear on a glossy screen instead of a fiddly FM radio?
Now, I do have a (minor) vested interest in Hype Machine, but I think their model is closest to what works for me. I can listen to a selection of songs that a (filtered) human system has put together; I enjoy some, skip some, and despair at others.
But I’m hearing new things all the time, and none of them (on the ‘Popular’ stream, for example) are ‘tailored’ to me beyond the idea that I will probably be at least interested in what’s being thrown up on the screen, because I trust the aggregated list of bloggers to at least screen out the obvious and the dross.
It’s also telling that one of Hype Machine’s main features is a monthly, human-curated radio show.
My art teacher always used to tell me “look for mistakes” when painting: the idea being that the natural leakage of gouache into an area of the painting that it was not intended to was not as undesirable as it might instinctively appear.
Humans make mistakes, have quirks. John Peel had a bewildering hankering for Happy Hardcore (*cough* as do I *cough*), and it’s easy to forget that each of his radio shows, now held aloft as the pinnacle of musical taste, curation and foresight, always – always – contained its fair share of clunkers amongst the gems.
And this exactly was why I, and others religiously listened.