Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is discovery really the greatest thrill in music?

There's a new music sharing service called mflow. I haven't tried it yet. Its tagline is "Discovery - it’s the greatest thrill in music".

Well, I know why they've said it. I use something along those lines myself. It plays well with advertisers. It's one of those uncontroversial sentiments that goes through on the nod in any company. Everybody likes to think that nothing gets them more thrilled than the prospect of another new group. People with no more than a passing interest in music ask me "what should I be listening to?", which I've decided is the single most dispiriting sentence in the English language. What you should be listening to is whatever makes you happiest. I've no idea what that is unless I've known you for a few years.

I don't think discovery is the greatest thrill in music, not unless you're a night time DJ looking to get the jump on your competitors or an A&R man for a publishing company. I can see how you might get thrilled if you thought that your fortunes would rise in lockstep with the act you've discovered. But the rest of us have got lives to lead, lives that are full enough with work commitments and entertainment options not to be sitting around saying "it's Thursday and I haven't discovered anyone new this week."

And we've already got tons of music to listen to, much of which we hardly know. In fact a lot of it we don't have much interest in. We "discovered" it at some point in the past but then the thrill didn't last very long. The really precious commodity is not "new music". It's our proper attention. This is governed far more by mood and all sorts of things swimming through our lives  – how we're feeling, what we're reading, where we are, who we're with – than it is by the arrival of a previously unheard talent.

I discovered some music recently – the early albums of Cat Stevens. These came out forty years ago. Of course I'd heard them before but I hadn't listened before and I certainly hadn't listened sympathetically, which is the only kind of listening that matters. That's the thing about music. You have to lean towards it. "Discovering" it means that you have to first discover something within yourself.


  1. I do like a good 'discovery', but more and more I'm finding that 're-discovery' is far more satisfying. That 'wow, I've not heard this in ages' moment makes me far happier than that 'wow what's this?' moment these days. Might be my age though...

  2. Good post. I've spent the past fortnight re-listening to JJ Cale's early albums (and nothing else). They seem to chime with the late spring sun in a way they never did before. That you can comfortably play through two in an hour is a bonus.

  3. Don't we really want someone to discover music for us? Isn't that why we read reviewers, and music writers? Don't we want a little explanation, a putting into context, to understand why something might interest us and what it might evoke? Isn't that all much more rewarding (and less time-consuming) than some kind of serendipitous "discovery"?

  4. I've spent the last few weeks at work listening to Steely Dan. Didn't really get them first time round. They're really very good.

  5. Looking back on being a teenager I'm not sure I used music reviews to help me find interesting things - more that it was reassuring to see stuff I liked getting the thumbs up from Select / Nme etc.

    I was always horrified when I saw stuff I liked getting bad press.

    I still remember Gary Numan doing guest singles reviews one week in Smash Hits and laying into The Cult's L'il Devil, as "old fashioned and badly played."

    I think teenagers are basically conservative and want to conform to their peer group - and be told the music they love is fantastic.

  6. I'm making a conscious effort to play, play and play again any new album that I get/download.
    This has paid dividends with several records this year (Fyfe Dangerfield, Midlake, Duke Special) where their true value only arises after true familiarity takes hold.

    I had found that although having myriad new records in my "collection" each year, I couldn't actually form an opinion on many of them. Less is more. Or more of less is more. If you see what I mean...

  7. Hi David

    Thanks for picking up on our campaign. I'm bound to say it, I know, but do give mflow a go - far from being time consuming (though it can be addictive), a lot of the feedback we've had so far (and it is early days) is exactly about people re-discovering great music.

    Because we're built to get around the whole "blank search bar" feeling some people have with music, and are wholly reliant on people-based recommendations, it really is the case that by following people whose musical taste you rate you can discover or re-discover great music with little or no effort at all.

    Anyway, won't take up any more of your space here, but do get in touch if you'd like to know any more. Or even better, download the app, follow some people and let us know what you think.

    Chris (from mflow)