Tuesday December 12, 2017

How do you discover new music?

Posted by Karthik

I came across this fascinating article in The Baffler, on the role of Spotify in the future of the music industry. It led me to think about the function of music discovery, something I believe I aid in, to a small extent, via Milliblog.

I remember my dad telling me about how he used to discover new music while growing up in Kolkata (Calcutta back then). He used to sit next to a radio (a radio that the whole family shared, incidentally) and make notes on the songs he listens to, meticulously writing down the names of the singers when they were announced.

It’s during this period he also started making note of songs copied in Indian films that had a foreign origin… and that eventually inspired me to create the plagiarism tracking website called ItwoFS.

But I digress.

My own 90s music discovery was similar.

TV was a shared commodity and the avenues for new music was fairly limited. Doordarshan’s popular weekly new music show, Chitrahaar (or its Tamil equivalent, Oliyum OLiyum) was a Friday night fixture, though the new’ness of the music they played was debatable.

There was a period in the early/mid-90s when I was glued to my own radio, for the nightly shows from record labels like TIPS, Venus, T-series etc. They had their own new music shows where they played snippets from new music from their repertoire. I still remember a quiz from Venus where they played a part of ‘Khud ko kya samajti hai’ and asked listeners to guess the name of the music director and win some goodies. I had no idea back then, of course, since Jatin-Lalit had just Yaara Dildaara to their credit before Khiladi.

But it was good going – the songs being introduced were considerably newer than the ones being played on Chitrahaar. Because Chitrahaar depended on videos and videos depended on producers and producers depended on release dates, the radio shows helped me discover new music much faster and earlier. I remember listening to the songs of many, many 90s films exclusively via these shows – Saajan, Khiladi, Yaara Dildara, Jigar, Mr.Aashiq and many others that I don’t recall now!

Satellite Television happened. Zee TV’s Gaane Anjaane seemed far more adept at acquiring new film songs than Doordarshan. Even better, they had evening slots for other language songs – Telugu, Kannada etc. In a way, Milliblog is a reflection of that language-agnostic appeal of Zee TV back in the 90s!

I then started actively buying cassette tapes, so that I don’t have to depend only on TV for my music. Till then, I used to get mixtapes done, from a trusted ‘music shop’ in the neighborhood, first in Coimbatore, and then in Salem, where I studied. I started buying actual film soundtracks because of A R Rahman.

During this phase, my primary source of music discovery was the music shop. I used to spend a lot of time in it, sampling music from the one cassette the shopkeeper had opened and buying what I liked, with the limited pocket money I had.

The internet happened to me in 1997. But new music discovery through the internet was still a long way off. I was still on the cassette and CD buying phase for a long time. But, somewhere in the late-2000s, music discovery became very feasible on the internet. YouTube playlists by the record labels started gradually and streaming was just beginning. Sampling new music was a real deal on the internet – it was free and it was available at any time.

These days, Saavn and Apple Music are literally the only 2 sources for new music discovery for me. I still discover music by composers, by language, by soundtracks.

So, the fact that people across the globe are discovering music via playlists is a trend that interests me enormously. This literally takes me back to the radio times; the only difference is that in radio you don’t have a choice of when the music is played. On Spotify playlists, you had that choice.

But a playlist as the primary form of music increasingly points to lack of active control or interest in music, as an art form. Going by this write-up, if you ignore the parts of commercialization, music seems more attuned towards your mood and frame of mind. Random artists get discovered, but they are just one unit within a larger playlist. It seems a lot more passive than the reasonably active way we have been historically discovering music.

I held out by not making playlists on Milliblog for a long time. I stuck to the old way of reviewing full soundtracks and creating playlists only for monthly or annual summaries. But singles are the new form of music release and with singles being the dominant form, playlists are the natural evolution.

But even in playlists, passively consuming music seems odd. It doesn’t seem to have percolated down to India (Spotify is not officially available in India yet), at least.

In India, we have always pegged music around artists who may not be directly associated with music. Barring hardcore singer/composer fan bases (Pancham fans, Kishore da fans, Rafi fans etc.), a large part of the country identifies songs with the actors who feature in the song video. Bachchan song, Dev Anand song, Rajini song, Kamal song, NTR song, Nagarjuna song, Prem Nazir song, Mohanlal song, Rajkumar song, Upendra song and so on! So, even when listening to it on the radio, or as part of a playlist, we end up making associations with the song and the actor in the video.

These days, with more exposure to singers, there’s a lot of interest in identifying it under their names, and sometimes by composers, and to a lesser extent, with lyricists. As a result, since videos (as a subset of artists) remain the primary recognizing thread, there’s perhaps a more active connection with even the music, in India. So far!

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