You might be wondering where regular Playlist columnist Eric Dahl has gone. He is still avidly covering music and audio gear for PC World, but since he's swamped with that, I'm stepping in here. Like Eric did, I'll write about technology that helps you enjoy music--and make it, too. I'm hoping to introduce you to some interesting artists along the way.
My first column is on great places online to find out about new music. Why am I revisiting this topic?
I was at San Francisco's Café Du Nord last week listening to the the Heartless Bastards--a high-energy rock band with Led Zeppelin-like vocals sung by Erika Wennerstrom. Since the band is from Ohio, I can't help but compare Wennerstrom, who plays guitar and keyboards, to the Breeders' Kim Deal.
The band was amazing and had quite a following, and I was embarrassed that I had never heard of it. Over my third Stoli-and-grapefruit, I decided to blame my ignorance on lazy online purchasing behavior based largely on automated "Customers who bought this, also bought this" recommendations. Based on the amount of punk and electronic music that I buy, ITunes Music Store, Amazon.com--heck, even my friends--wouldn't have recommended the Heartless Bastards to me.
I vowed right then to rely less on automatic engines and more on proactive music research. To further that goal, I asked about 50 musicians, music lovers, and industry types where they go to find out about new music.
Perennial favorites are All Media Guide's AllMusic and Pitchfork online music magazine, but I'm starting off with a personal favorite: the very oddly designed Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music.
If you've ever wanted a hilarious visual vivisection of all the ludicrous subtypes of electronic music, this is it. It doesn't so much give music recommendations as brutally honest descriptions and sound samples from representative artists. To see this in action, go to the site, click Breakbeat, then follow the diagram to Hip Hop and Miami Bass, then finally click on Florida to find a harsh, but oh so true, description of the Florida sound.
Now that we've bagged on the Florida sound, a very fine Miami-rooted DJ called Diplo recommends hip-hop focused Spine Magazine and "even some silly s***like Billboard "just to see what the illuminati is turned onto."
MySpace is the current hot spot for up-and-coming musicians who want to show off their music and videos. "Back in the old days you would download MP3s directly from the band's Web site," says Christophe Severin, guitarist for two San Francisco bands, Mutton and Hazy. "Now you click on the MP3, and it'll shoot you to MySpace." Oh, and the forums are a brutally honest way to find out just what this musically inclined crowd thinks.
Over the years, I've found a lot of good music in all sorts of genres at CD Baby, which lets unsigned artists post and sell CDs on demand. You can sort music by genre, top sellers, and new additions. There are happy write-ups of the bands, rather than critical reviews, which doesn't matter since you can listen to song samples before you buy.
CD Baby's president Derek Sivers says online radio is the best way to find new music and recommends indie-flavored Whole Wheat Radio, classic-rock Radio Paradise, and Soma FM, a San Francisco-based group of eight indie and electronic Internet radio stations. KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic is a hands-down favorite of mine and many others.
Another site that I'm hearing about is Pandora, created by The Music Genome Project. It asks you for a song or artist you like, and based on the Music Genome Project's vast analysis of song characteristics, it creates a personalized radio station. You can tell Pandora whether you like or don't like the songs Pandora is choosing for you, and it will further customize your song list.
I created a new station based on the punk band Rancid and ended up with some punky new finds.
Blogs and Podcasts
There is a sea of blogs out there, and if you can find a blogger who shares your taste in music, then you're golden.
Anthony Gordon, the artist relations specialist for Digidesign (which makes Pro Tools audio gear), gave me his picks. Hype Machine is less a blog than a best-of collection of other blogs--which is useful in and of itself. Puritan Blister has an eclectic collection of mash-ups (two or more songs merged into one) and "tons of cover versions of songs that will never be officially released," says Gordon. Death Cab for Cutie's cover of Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" is one of those. By the way, if you like mash-ups, visit Party Ben.
Many of the sites mentioned here, such as KCRW and The Hype Machine, provide podcasts and RSS feeds. One recommendation: the Next Big Hit podcast.
I hope we all make the effort to seek out new musical genres that push the boundaries of what we're comfortable with--and buy those albums online. The more we do, the more search engines will spit back music recommendations across genres, reading something like: "Customers who bought this item also bought... something totally different."