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Friday, April 19, 2013

Everybody likes recommending. Nobody likes being recommended to.


Twitter has launched #music, a music recommendation service that recommends tracks based on who you follow.

The paradox at the heart of all music recommendation engines is that as soon as a recommendation process is blunt enough to be performed by a machine it's no longer sharp enough to be much use to a human being. Similarly, as soon as a process is mass enough to make money for a company it's too mass to be of much benefit to an individual. As soon is it's insistent and mechanical enough for somebody to claim it as a success it's so insistent and mechanical that you want to turn it off.

In theory everybody likes the idea of recommendations. In practice there's no pain in the arse quite like the person who's always telling you what you should be listening to or reading or watching. Anyone who's really full of recommendations probably has poor judgement. I know scores of people who listen to music for a living and there are only three of them who recommend things that I like. Other people may well recommend stuff I'd like but I simply don't warm to their recommendations.

Music is a thing you pull towards you when you're in the mood. As soon as it's pushed towards you it loses all its charm.

15 comments:

  1. Possibly the sharpest observed piece to appear here since the blog began. Chimes with me like Big Ben on New Year's Eve.

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  2. Agreed. The "World-class thinking about music, business, publishing and the general world of media" description is yet again demonstrated.

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  3. If a friend, or a trusted professional, recommends an artist to me I'm generally interested.

    The trouble with current computer algorithms is, they're still at the level of 'well-meaning Nan'.

    They're still saying ' I saw you liked pop music so this Christmas I got you a 45 by Jimmy Cliff, one by Uriah Heep whoever he is and the new long-player from The Dooleys'

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  4. So glad someone's said this. In a controlled experiment, I'm sure - if possible, which of course it isn't - that if the same music was played to the same person for the first time twice: once discovered by the listener and once recommended by someone else, then the reaction would be different. The trick with recommending music is to tantalise; to leave them wanting more. I now love the Carly Simon album No Secrets, based on you and Johnnie Walker talking about it the other week, David; but the trick is that you only played half of it. The other half I discovered for myself, and that makes all the difference.

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  6. Once again you perfectly articulate something that's been in the back of my mind for years. I'd only ever dream of recommending a band or piece of music to someone whose musical tastes I feel I fully understand, and I only pay attention to recommendations from someone who seems to fully understand mine. This is the beauty of ThisIsMyJam - I only see selections from those I follow, not because they're chums, but because I'm intrigued by the cut of their musical jib. What I find particularly baffling is people who tweet "I need to buy some more books/music/DVDs - any recommendations"; I always feel they might just as well buy something at random.

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  7. Sort of agree but sort of don't. The whole "you must hear this" thing is tiresome but I have to say I've had good experiences with youtube sidebars. No idea how the thing works but just this morning I had an overwhelming longing to hear an old Temptations record - "Since I Lost My Baby", a Smokey masterpiece. My collection being an utter shambles it was quicker to fire it up on youtube. Before I knew it I was hearing "Sugar Pie Guy" by The Joneses for the first time. I've discovered a fair few records I now really love this way.

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  8. I know what you're saying, but for me it's more like "Everybody likes recommending. Nobody likes telling someone that their hearty recommendation was terrible."

    We've all been in the situation where a good friend has given us a mix CD or recommended some music, we've listened to it, hated it and, when asked, "Did you like it? It's BRILLIANT isn't it?" had to explain that, actually, you'd rather they never recommended anything ever again.

    But that doesn't mean that all recommendation methods are doomed to fail. Last.fm works well for me and so did the Word CDs. The reason was that there was no need for personal feedback: If I have music placed within reach and I can love or leave it in my own time, that's perfect.

    Whether this will work with Twitter's new service is another question. Any recommendation service, whether it's Last.fm's algorithms or Word's editorial judgement, lives or dies by scratching the itch we never knew we had.

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  9. Nothing pushes me away from something new quite like a computer algorithm telling me I should like this because I bought that. Real people whose taste I trust, or internet people I trust i.e. certain bloggers, on the other hand will send me on my way to looking at something much of the time.

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  10. True. I think it echoes the syndrome of going off a band as soon as everyone else likes it. We like to feel we've discovered it, not followed the herd.

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  11. If you can do it without alienating the other 77, please let us know where to get insight from the three you trust.

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  12. I wouldn't embarrass them by mentioning their names. They probably don't realise they're doing it and I've never discussed it with them. Their recommendations speak to me for the simple reason that they hardly ever make them.

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  13. I ask for recommendations of books and music mainly because it tells me something about the person and opens up opportunities to find something new - I sometimes even like the things they suggest.

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  14. I asked my youngest daughter (17) the other day how she discovered new music, seeing she has never bought any in her life. She said it was on the recommendations of friends, and then recommendations on the YouTube site. It's a young person's thing, like "sharing".

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  15. I agree that a person recommending can be a pain, only works if you can take turns.

    However taking a recommendation from software avoids the inherent inferiority of the recommendee, and I find it can work.

    I find last.fm can do a pretty good job actually, although there are quirks. Plugging in "David Ford" for example gave me Foy Vance for example. Now I like Mr Ford and Mr Vance has since become a favourite. However, plugging in Vaccines throws up some good stuff (sorry I can't remember what) but I don't actually really like the Vaccines.

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