How do you find good new music? – The (d)evolution of my musical tastes

How do you find good new music? Or, to frame the question better, how do you find good new music when you’re no longer in youth? It strikes me that you come across most of the music you love when you’re in your teens, or at the latest in university. By the time you hit the big three-O, your playlist is pretty much set, and whatever new music you reach for is either scrapped from such big hits that you can’t help but come across it, or recommended by a friend. The end result is that you listen to less and less new stuff, to the point where your collection becomes fossilized.

Maybe this isn’t a universal phenomenon, so I will just relate my personal experience. The first time my eyes really opened up was when I was in 3rd year of comprehensive school – which would make me 13 years old – when I listened to ‘Planet Telex‘ by Radiohead off a tape (!) borrowed from a friend. This was, and I suppose remains, the most common and the best way good music spreads. You would pass by friends’ rooms (I was in a boarding school, you see) and hear melodies that would catch your ears; excited recommendations would pass between us; the hottest new acts would be discussed with fervour. And since teenage boys would rather hang themselves than be seen listening to ‘pop’ or some generic manufactured chart hits, those hot bands would be the best, edgiest indie sounds the industry could offer. Naturally, that’s what you looked for on the radio as well, so I would more likely be found tuning into John Peel or Mark & Lard rather than the poppier DJs (we would tune in for the Top 40 on Sunday afternoons though – we wanted to know where ‘Paranoid Android‘ would place in the first week, while ‘If You Tolerate This (Your Children Will Be Next)‘ debuting at the top actually made me beam at the justice delivered by the public). And thus my musical intake grew, and some of the greatest music that I fell in love with were first introduced to me this way: I came across U2’s ‘Where the Streets Have No Name‘ and ‘Don’t I Hold You‘ by Wheat via Mark & Lard on BBC1, while the awed respect my friends had for Manic Street Preachers and R.E.M. ensured my introduction to their sounds also.

The way we found new music to listen to, therefore, seemed very natural and casual but was actually governed by very rigid and scrupulous approach. This coincided with me being in a band which also acted as a catalyst for gorging on songs I hadn’t come across before. As ‘musicians’ (ho hum) me and my bandmates sought to be inspired by (read: do cover versions of) the best and the fondest, which in turn fed into my habits and preferences, making me more eager and proactive in pursuing new sounds. So I would travel to the Glastonbury Festival in the summer of ’98 and be blown away by James Dean Bradfield screaming out ‘P.C.P‘, Michael Stipe charming 100,000 people in an awesome display of intimate crowd interaction with ‘At My Most Beautiful‘ then later grimacing as people continually shouted for ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)‘, being rather moved by listening to Travis performing ‘Driftwood‘ in rain only to return to the main stage to find Ash rocking the place out, etc. This was worth the three nights without shower in a mangy tent, having to hold out from going to the portaloo because of the unimaginable mess people made in there, shriveled pies costing five pounds each and bottled water three, among a host of other inconveniences. But I was more than happy to go there because of the music, and didn’t mind the horrible conditions. And I was like this because I *cared*, I was *committed*, just like thousands of other teenagers to whom music mattered like little else, as it would in no other time period of their lives.

But then university hit, and suddenly, removed from the bubble of peer scrutiny and synergistic musical growth I became less scrupulous and more prone to settling for what sounded easier on my ear. Having always had a bit of a soft spot for tuneful ballads (‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now‘, I am totally unashamed to admit, remains a favourite) and instrumentals, I was now freer to lapse into that road should I have wished. Which I did. Almost overnight I stopped following the charts, tuning in to radio or hanging around CD shops, and with readier access to the internet at the uni library, as well as the still-naive online culture that permitted free streaming of entire albums, I settled for what I felt most comfortable with. And ‘settle for’ is the key term, I think, because I was no longer pushing myself to find and appreciate new stuff, being complacently satisfied with what I already knew and not venturing into the unknown.

In the second year of my degree fate threw me a curveball. Having been thus far a lifelong sceptic of anything to do with Japan, I became a dedicated follower of Japanese music. This particular chapter is perhaps fit for a different post, but to summarize, I came across a song called ‘Yubiwa (Ring)’ by Maaya Sakamoto on Bugs.co.kr (which at the time allowed users to listen to all songs for free), was instantly smitten, and not only did I become committed to discovering new J-music I also resolved to start watching anime and reading manga (to my great relief, I’m sure). This served to open up a whole new world of music, and the Japanese indie genre became my staple diet and remains so to this day. But that was 9 years ago, and I don’t think I’ve had another large-scale intake like that since. What’s more, it further distanced me from western music, so that I have largely missed the developments in the UK and American scenes in the last 5-6 years.

Like Olympic-level sprint, once you fall behind the trend in music it’s very difficult to regain your feel for it. Suddenly a whole group of the most lauded bands of recent times – The White Stripes, The Streets, Arctic Monkeys – made little sense to me. I railed against the destructive prevalence of genre-splicing in rock to justify my lack of comprehension in their sound, but mostly felt a little sad at the fact that I was no longer ‘with it’. At thirty!

Two most practical problems were the lack of effective avenues to find new music, and the diminished discipline to sift through the chaff for the wheat. With friends who shared similar taste in bands at different universities, I found my musical outlook becoming increasingly solipsistic, while ironically the broadening of my mental and intellectual horizons as I matured meant that I neither had the patience nor the time to, for example, listen to a whole hour of a radio show in the hope of coming away with a couple of good tunes. Though it’s embarrassing to admit it, if a song didn’t capture me within the first 10 seconds, I would lose interest. This is a terrible approach to take, I know, but I simply no longer possessed the narrow-minded focus to devote myself wholly to music.

I now understood why people my father’s age clung to their 70s and 80s record collection, why their repertoire refused to change. It’s not that they’re not music lovers; on the contrary, they’re probably as partial to a great tune as they’ve always been. But priorities shift, your outlook on life goes through alterations and you suddenly find yourself with the very mindset that you quietly deplored fifteen years ago. It shocks me sometimes to find that the songs which still sound so fresh, so vital to me as I listen to them everyday on my iPhone are the songs that I discovered a decade ago.

So what to do? I do resolve every year to try harder to come across more new stuff, and I do fail every time, but this year has been a little different. Having dabbled in live365.com, I have now registered for three months; I feel I owe that site, for it’s where I first got to listen to Coltemonikha, and so far in the last couple of months I’ve encountered bice and Hoover’s Oover. I have been visiting last.fm a few times, and although I haven’t quite got the hang of that place yet I’m sure I will keep trying. It would’ve been great if Spotify was available in Korea, but I suppose the issue for me isn’t ready access to popular music, but committed plowing of new sources for the unknowns. It’s a little sad to consider that I will never experience such a revolution in my musical world like back in ’98, but by plugging away I will keep the evolution going for a little longer.

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