Going beyond: How to discover new music in 2017
When I was in middle school, I considered myself to be quite the music connoisseur. I would go to the iTunes top charts, listen to the short 15-second preview of some musical masterpiece like “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay and beg my mom to let my buy it if it met my prodigious standards. I would play it for my parents and friends and—if it was really, really good—I would set it as my ringtone on my cellphone. Really, it was amazing. I was like a mini Anthony Fantano: irritating but with prime taste in music.
Now, I (along with most other people my age) have matured and found my music using paid streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal. The most widely used of these, Spotify, has ballooned in size since its founding in 2008, with 140 million users as of June 2017 (60 million of them paying for premium services).
However, with the seemingly endless supply of new songs and genres on Spotify, there comes a cost—one that is shouldered primarily by artists. The “Spotify for Artists” website says “if you have a label or aggregator, they’ll get your music on Spotify for you.” Things like labels, agents and music services come with associated fees and percent-earnings cuts. For up-and-coming bands, often students or young adults, these costs add up. The economic barrier posed by Spotify and related services prevents potentially successful bands from ever reaching listeners.
And, thus, comes the birth of SoundCloud: the communal haven to Spotify’s capitalist market. Currently in its 10th year of use, SoundCloud allows emerging DJs, musicians and podcast hosts to upload 180 minutes of music for free. For a recording to technically count as an “album,” it must be at least 25 minutes in length. So, this 180-minute limit allows sufficient leeway for artists to release a significant discography, free of charge. Past that limit, artists can upload additional music for a flat fee, without ever being charged by agencies or aggregators. Additionally, from a listener’s standpoint, SoundCloud account holders can access all music on the site for free—a contrast with Spotify’s recent policy that makes some new albums only available to premium members for a designated time period.
Another music distribution site, Bandcamp, acts as a sort of middle ground between the flashiness of Spotify artists and the dorm room-produced tracks on SoundCloud. Bandcamp acts as a direct line between fans and an artist’s marketplace. Catering mainly to independent artists, Bandcamp allows bands to sell digital copies of their albums, merchandise and other forms of their music (cassettes, vinyl or CDs) at a self-selected price. The difference between this and programs like iTunes, however, is that Bandcamp also allows free streaming of all songs, eliminating an economic barrier. Payment for music or merch is seen as a form of support for the band in question, almost like a donation toward their artistic vision (often, the listed price of an item is seen as a lower bound, with the option for customers to pay more if they want).
Notable names in the music community got their “big break” by releasing music on Bandcamp. (Sandy) Alex G first released albums online in 2011 while still in college and eventually made waves by having one of the best albums of 2014, according to publications like The Washington Post and Vogue. Will Toledo, better known as Car Seat Headrest, released 12 albums on Bandcamp alone and developed an online cult following before getting picked up by a record label. Although Bandcamp and similar services offer a platform for artists to showcase their music, they rely on the generosity of listeners.
In the wake of the deaths (or near-deaths) of websites like Tumblr and MySpace (R.I.P.), streaming services, both paid and unpaid, offer an invaluable platform for artists and audiences to connect. Services like “Discover Weekly” playlists on Spotify or even something as simple as a “browse” page open doors for music consumers. The “reach” of an artist’s profile, songs or recent album release increases as people see what their friends are currently listening to or have purchased. By marketing the entire concept of music as a form of social media, sites can create a community of listeners.
With the added benefit of accessibility for both artists and consumers, SoundCloud and Bandcamp are a bit like the grassroots organizations of streaming services. They lack the funding of Spotify and Apple Music that stem from attention garnered by big name artists. The discovery of new, fresh bands may seem like an easygoing, leisurely activity, but the processes that go into this discovery process represent the artistic vision and hard work of bands. So, throw them a bone and give a couple bucks more than the listed price. And go ahead––buy that T-shirt you’ve had your eye on for a while.