Many’s the time I’ve banged on about how I had to budget an extra tenner for each visit to my now deceased local music emporium in anticipation of me taking a shine to whatever they were playing while I was partaking of a little hot browsing action. But with good reason. I loved their shop stereo choices. I loved discussing new releases with the staff. I loved the little labels on the display products which told you about the album in a paragraph or so, hand-written and often peppered with exuberant exclamation marks. The less frequently mentioned record shop of my youth was offered a similar service, with James, owner and seemingly sole member of staff, frequently telling me that something I’d brought to the counter was shit or that what I was offering to trade in was too good to get rid of. Perhaps this delightfully honest approach to music retail played a little part in his business becoming unsustainable, but it was critical in helping to shape my musical taste. As all of our record shops die and we’re left with the increasingly dominant download, where do we get our recommendations from?
Both Amazon and iTunes invite copious reviews from the general public. Anyone who’s ever listened to a radio phone-in or watched a rolling news channel knows that, largely speaking, the people most willing to express their point of view are largely unable to express a point of view. I am well aware that writing a blog and espousing such a line of thinking is more than a little hypocritical but sod it. Go with me on this. For example, look at La Roux‘s ‘Bulletproof EP’ on iTunes and you’ll find numerous reviews, with varying degrees of coherence. One of the few currently displayed when you land of the page for ‘Bulletproof’ comes from Musetasticeldo, who writes:
But, it’s rubbish
That high pitched sh*t that we heard last time was rubbish, and amazingly, this is even worse. why the hell do people like the cr*p (sic)
Now, I’m assuming that that’s self-censorship rather than an aversion to naughty words – after all, what’s someone who listens to Muse supposed to say after it’s finished? – and the errant deployment of punctuation can be forgiven in a quick online review, but what was the writer’s purpose here? Seemingly, they truly hated ‘In For The Kill’, and yet they have returned for more. Presuming that they weren’t quite thick enough to purchase a song by an artist they don’t like, did they base their review on the iTunes thirty-second sample? In which case, it’s hardly fair and if, as I suspect, they have actually heard it numerous times elsewhere, what made them feel that it was a good use of their time to actually seek out the song on iTunes in order to contribute this rather vacuous comment?
Amazon reviews operate within similarly lax boundaries, resulting in the violently sarcastic reviews of the Peter Andre and Katie Price album and books by hateful figures like Jon Gaunt. Occasionally you hit upon someone who seems to have actually listened to the music a few times but it’s a very unreliable way to garner recommendations.
It was possible to tailor your music purchasing to whichever shop seemed to most closely match your musical outlook. Certainly, if I lived near Brighton, Resident would receive at least one visit a week as it does all of the stuff I nostalgically bleated about above and more but, as is the case for so many of us, I don’t and the local options are all gone. That said, it’s not as bleak as it first seems and there are still some decent places to seek musical guidance in these troubling times.
Online record shops are a curious breed. They are becoming increasingly important to the indie kids of the world and yet they are competing against the cheap big boys in a fashion not dissimilar to the days of the independent record shop co-existing on the high street with HMV, Virgin and Our Price. The way they seem to be getting around this is the personal touch. I’ve talked about the wonders of Norman Records before, but I’ll briefly recap. Phil, and his team of slightly odd but hugely enthusiastic music warriors, get very involved in your access to new music. An order will receive a personal reply, a query will get a good (and often comical) paragraph with the information you require and pretty damn sharpish too. Each week, the site publishes its reviews of new music with an opinionated and irreverent edge that is far less prominent on the next site worth a look; Boomkat.
Rather more specialist than Norm – which is to say less riffs more bleeps – and considerably more aesthetically pleasing, Boomkat is an increasingly dependable source of exciting and intriguing new tunes. As well as doing a decent line in CDs and vinyl, they also offer a very impressive download service, allowing you to download your music either as 320kbps MP3s or, for a bit more cash, admittedly, FLAC files, giving you a lossless fix that iTunes don’t think you want. Try recent curio from glacial minimalist Max Richter for size to get an idea of the presentation and purchasing options provided by Boomkat. What you will notice is that the reviews are a little too earnest but sound clips allow you to balance out the bullshit. I suppose it’s possible that they only stock stuff they love – it’s certainly pretty select – but they do seem to love most of what they sell. The page is full – some might say cluttered – with all kinds of recommendations for you, including other stuff by this artist, other stuff on that label and what other people buying this item bought.
Boomkat also runs a small download boutique, if you will, entitled 14 Tracks. The idea being, the site offers you the chance to buy download batches of 14 tracks at a time, each curated by Boomkat and offering a guide to a genre, musical theme or whimsical concept. While you won’t like each one, there’s some bizarre and beautiful stuff to be heard via that method and I’d recommend a browse when you have a spare hour or two. You can search back through all of the previous collections offered.
Hardly fresh and exciting, but just as good at doing what it’s always done, is last.fm, a site which allows you to monitor your listening habits, develop musical ‘neighbours’ and compare and contrast your libraries in the hope of finding things to try. I have to say, I’ve only recently started to use it seriously, so my numbers are pretty low and it can be a little swayed if I choose to do my listens to something I’m reviewing via the iPod, but, it’s nevertheless quite an entertaining way to draw up yet more of what every muso loves. Lists. Click here and you should be able to see the list for my all time top artists on last.fm, but as, at the time of writing, even my top act only has 98 plays, it hasn’t yet got to the stage where it is a truly accurate reflection of my listening, but it’s getting there.
Once you’ve listened to enough stuff, last.fm will be able to show you people with similar tastes to yours and then you’re off. Furthermore, plenty of labels seem happy to have tracks uploaded to the site to allow you an instant listen. That said, for me, last.fm is where I get the names of potentially great artists from, before searching for them on Spotify in order to have a listen. I think Spotify’s been covered enough on here of late, and you can certainly find enough links to it across this page, but it’s worth remembering that it’s still a relatively new and fragile device. Enjoy it while it lasts.
The most conventional method of receiving musical recommendations remains. Radio is still very much alive and well, even if there’s less decent new music broadcasting going on. Zane Lowe does a reasonable job of alerting you to new stuff via his Radio 1 evening show, but the likes of Huw Stephens and Rob Da Bank are far better at digging below the surface. Over on 6music, Marc Riley and Gideon Coe are always worth a listen, both having full blown music obsessions and forever seeking out new music that’s both challenging (Riley) and easy on the ear (Coe) on a nightly basis. last.fm can knock you up a radio station of either your library or recommendations for you based on your library. Sadly, this is restricted by what’s on their catalogue and so the recommendations station isn’t always as glorious as it first seems. California based radio station KCRW offers up the rather splendid ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’, until recently hosted by music biz legend Nic Harcourt, but now helmed by Jason Bentley. Weekday mornings from 9, 5-8pm for UK listeners, are a wonderful mixture of all kinds of stuff, described by their webpage as, “progressive pop, world beat, jazz, African, reggae, classical and new music.” Indeed.
Finally, there’s the method you’re using right now. Blogs. I’m also going to include message boards at this point as I think they serve a similar purpose. At this relatively advanced stage in internet usage, it’s pretty easy to find people with similar interests to you and to join any number of different communities. I actively participate in only a few music forums, but those few forums offer me all kinds of musical recommendations and have noticeably shaped my listening habits over recent years. The few blogs that I frequent are suitably attuned to my taste in music and I know I can pretty much trust whatever they’re banging on about. For example, the previously mentioned teatunes site, which mixes musings on music with reviews of various splendid teas, covers music that is almost entirely to my taste. Indeed, they’ve only today published an article about Charles Ramsey who you may remember Just Played looking at only last week. If I see something recommended on there that I’ve not heard, I’ll endeavour to hear it as, chances are, I’ll like it too.
The final word on this issue can go to Thom Yorke. I have to confess that, sadly, this isn’t something that Thom personally confided in me; he said it as part of an interview with Believer magazine, which in turn got parped out to the UK via The Guardian. That said, it’s a decent comment and pretty neat summation of everything you’ve just been reading. Feel free to hurl alternative suggestions for where to find good new tunes at me via the comments option below.
“I don’t spend my fucking life downloading free MP3s, because I hate the websites. No one seems to know what they’re talking about. I’d much rather go to sites like Boomkat, where people know what they’re talking about. It’s brilliant. To me, that’s a business model. It’s like when I used to go to music shops in Oxford. You’re looking at this and you’re looking at that and there’s a whole line of other things going down the side saying, “You’ll probably like this,” and “You might like this.” Boomkat is very specific with the type of stuff they flog there, but I can’t see why that wouldn’t work for all music.”