I’ve been asked on a number of occasions how I go about discovering music. Someone will learn that I went to a Peter Brotzmann concert, and wonder how the hell I ever heard of a guy like that, or someone might come to my apartment and see that I have an increasingly rare thing called a physical music collection, and become curious as to how I built it up. When put on the spot, I often struggle to answer them. Ever since my mid-teenage years (right around the time I took up a musical instrument), the quest for music never felt difficult. I figured out early on that listening to the radio or watching MTV or MuchMusic, while useful at first, was rather limiting. That means I’ve had to find alternative means of addressing my hunger for music. Here are some of the paths I’ve taken over the years.
This was one of the earliest methods I’d use to learn about different bands. If an album has extensive liner notes that go beyond lyrics or a list of musicians who perform on the record, you may even see a “Thank You” section where the band/artist express their gratitude to those who helped make the album possible or to give a shout out to friends and family. On occasion, some will include a section that lists all the musicians that they toured with since the last album.
Back in my school days, I’d view these listings as a potential goldmine. One example that stands out to me is in Metallica’s Ride The Lightning sleevewhen they thank the band members of Mercyful Fate. Their listing of the bassist as Tim “Dick” Grabber is still one of the funniest things I’ve read in a CD booklet. You could turn to the liner notes of a Bay Area thrash band or Florida-based death metal in the late 80s – early 90s, and pretty much get a list of the entire scene since bands were so tight with one another. I wish I could say the same about the Norwegian black metal scene, but I’ve heard there was some bad blood there.
I don’t read liner notes as much as I used to, but it seems to me that their content is being minimized as time goes on. Even the lyrics aren’t always included, though it is sometimes made up for with gatefold artwork. Because of the variety that exists in album packaging, this method of searching for artists is rather hit and miss.
YouTube is a go-to source for all sorts of entertainment. On my own Youtube account, the scope of my subscriptions includes channels based around video gaming, political discussion, old sports highlights, and general merchandise reviews. However, Youtube also tends to scratch my musical itch quite effectively.
Wondering if bands still make music videos? They’re likely on YouTube. Want to hear some reviews before buying an album? YouTube has plenty of those. Want to relive that concert the guy in front of you was filming on his iPad? You may find it on YouTube, and you won’t have his bald spot blocking your view of the stage this time. What I like about using the site is that people often upload long out-of-print music here, and for the most part, it will remain there for years to come. Most artists are thankful enough for the exposure that they don’t wish to go on a witch hunt and take legal action against their own well-meaning fan base.
If you want to find something new, all you need is a starting point, often by typing in the name of artist you are already familiar with. At that point, let the journey take you where it may!
The problem I sometimes have with this method is that when recommendations tend to dry out on the sidebar (i.e. you’ve already heard the artists in the recommended videos). At that point, you can simply start over by searching for another artist. Usually, my journeys can get pretty lengthy, so by the time my journey winds down, I should be getting to bed anyway.
To keep it brief, Bandcamp is a marketplace where musicians can sell their music directly to the public. This site is home to many artists that independently release their music, allowing them to avoid a record label to act as a distributor for their music. However, the format is also used by a variety of “indie” record labels to feature bands from their roster, among them some personal favourites in Relapse Records, Ipecac Recordings, and Dischord Records. With that in mind, the trouble that some may have with the site is that it’s not a place you’re going to find all the hits from popular artists. To me, that’s a positive and not a deterrent. What better way to find something new than to dig underground?
Many artists post their music here with more of a tip jar philosophy, allowing the user to name their price so they can pay what they think the album is worth to them or what they can afford. I’ve taken advantage of their convenient pricing on digital recordings, and have ordered physical media through some of the band’s stores. For instance, I found myself with a surprising surplus of money in my Paypal account, so I spent an afternoon spreading this“free money”around to different artists. Not only did I throw a few bucks at some metal bands I was already acquainted with (Ulcerate, Sulaco), but I found the Seattle-based Monktail Creative Music Concern, an interesting collective of free jazz artists. I’ve found plenty of interesting bands that have free music on the site, but I think I may do a separate post on that topic one day.
You can stream many of the songs before buying, so there’s little risk attached from a consumer standpoint. Plus, if you are a fan of physical albums like I am, you may even find yourself directed to Bandcamp unexpectedly. I’ve purchased vinyl records at concerts directly from the bands, and most of the time, the album will include a slip of paper featuring a download code entitling you to a bonus digital copy of the album through Bandcamp.
I know that I could have saved a lot of words by simply saying to check the internet, but I find that really doesn’t garner more of a response than “No shit!!” The internet is a vast body of water, and not everyone takes to navigating across it naturally.
If you listen to music while on your personal computer, you can download a tool called the Last.fm Scrobbler, which will connect your media player to their site and track every song you have listened to. In turn, they take your playlist, and provide you with further recommendations of other artists that you may like. I know that other music resources such as Pandora do something similar, but this is what I am most familiar with.
The site provides several other tools regarding artists, including view-able listening trends worldwide, the ability to see how compatible your music tastes are with other site users, and lists of local concerts (However, I find the BandsInTown app is a more extensive tool for finding shows).
I like reading, and for whatever reason, I have a slight proclivity to lean towards non-fiction over fiction. There’s something about gaining insight into the real lives of certain people of notoriety that I find appealing. I don’t mean this from a Twitter or Instagram perspective (I don’t use either of those), but learning some back story about someone through a well-structured bio or a series of interviews. While I have digested a good deal of authorized and unauthorized biographies in my day (I’ve got a Morrissey autobiography on my current reading stack), a fair amount of my music-based reading has come through magazines.
I had a Bass Player magazine subscription for a few years, and shared a Guitar World subscription with my brother when we were teenagers. These, along with a sampling of other guitar/bass/drum specialty magazines, brought me my initial exposure of artists including Dream Theater, Steve Morse, and Tool. They started out as a means of learning how to play riffs or full songs, but nowadays I find it more fulfilling to figure parts out by ear.
There have been a number of publications that would feature interviews and industry news that I would pick up at newsstands like Revolver or Hit Parader. However, for a few extra dollars, I began to gravitate towards ones that would feature sampler CDs that showcase newer releases. I remember buying issues of Metal Hammer and Classic Rock that bundled in CDs, but I discovered much more with Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles and Terrorizer.
My recent passion has been reading back issues of Musician magazine. I have made good use of not only the featured articles and reviews, but even the advertisements make for great resources. This magazine has so far exposed me to the quirky pop songwriting of Robyn Hitchock and jazz fusion combo Lost Tribe, but I’ve still got a stack of around 50 back issues to scan through in more detail (yes, I’m a bit mad!).
For the most part, people will flock to a concert solely on the merit of the headlining band. But if you read more than just the top of the marquee, you may find something pleasantly unexpected.
Back in the heyday of music from the 70s through to the 90s, you would often have gold and platinum-selling artists opening up for those who go triple-platinum or higher, so there is a good shot you would have already been exposed to the openers of yesterday. Nowadays, you may not be as likely to have been exposed to the openers, particular the ones that get the 15-20 minute time slot just as the doors are opening.
Personally, I’ve found out about a number of great bands this way. Seeing Secret Chiefs 3 live became even more exciting when I discovered their opening act (Cleric), a highly anticipated Battles performance was proceeded by the unique instrumentation of Buke and Gase, and witnessing black metal band Enslaved led me to the powerfully heavy doom of Yob. Not every concert I attend has an opening act, but the majority of them do. Even if a band comes through town that you can’t make it to see, do a bit of legwork on the opener to learn more about what you are missing.
Here is yet another method that involves you leaving your home. You may catch a break if you spot a celebrity pic on Instagram ironically wearing a band shirt, but those sightings are few and far between. I don’t see as many people walking the streets or shopping centers dressed in band shirts as I used to, but you may get lucky. To increase the odds substantially, this activity is best accomplished at music concerts or festivals. It really depends greatly on the type of band you are going to see because printed tees aren’t always fashionable. When I saw Joanna Newsom a few years ago, you could mistake half the crowd for pioneer re-enactors.
At the very least with many concerts, you’ll likely see an impressive variety of shirts of the headlining band. I saw Iron Maiden in 2003, and I don’t recall many t-shirts aside from the Maiden ones. This wasn’t just a case of everyone rushing to the merch vendors to buy their latest designs. I saw some shirts for the No Prayer For The Dying, Somewhere In Time, and Piece of Mind tours, and while they were faded as hell and in some cases riddled with moth bites, seeing the old designs gives you an appreciation for the loyalty of their fanbase. Granted, I’d still prefer getting a stronger sampling of different artists.
I’ve seen such a variety of shirts at shows, yet I can’t pinpoint an exact instance when I discovered a band directly from this method. It likely worked the best when I was a bit younger. At this point in my life I go to a metal show, when I do find something I’ve yet to hear, I’ll be damned if I can even decipher their logo. It makes for a fun pastime, but I don’t rely heavily on it.
Check an Artist’s Family Tree
This habit stemmed from my natural curiousity. Band members come and go. When some leave a band, they may go on to lead somewhat ordinary lives, or they may try their hand at forming a new band or joining an already established one. Furthermore, some people are members of a band, and take part in side-projects when they get time away from their main band. This may be my favourite means of discovering something new because it is relatively easy, and the possibilities are almost limitless.
When getting into more extreme forms of metal, I’d often heard that the grindcore innovating band Napalm Death was an essential listen. With that in mind, I was off to the local Sunrise Records, and grabbed their Noise For Music’s Sake 2-CD compilation. Aside from being a great introduction to a band that remains one of my favorites in metal, the package encased the following family tree that traces projects involving Napalm band members past and present.
At first, I didn’t have a clue about most of what is shown, but would later learn how diverse this list really is. Featured artists include the psychedelic doom metal of Cathedral, the dark industrial groove of Godflesh, grindcore-turned-melodic death metal act Carcass, and the avant-garde hardcore of Painkiller. There’s lots to work from off this chart alone, and yet it doesn’t include the many collaborations these musicians have involved themselves in since (the compilation was released in 2003).
If you want to get into jazz, you can pick practically any Miles Davis album and expand outward from there. A good place to start is one with Mile’s “Second Great Quintet” featuring pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams to accompany Miles Davis’ trumpet. Through this lineup, you’d be sure to hit upon Weather Report or The Tony Williams Lifetime relatively quickly. Futhermore, you are only one degree of separation from an impressive range of non-jazz artists including A Tribe Called Quest, Public Image Ltd., and Simple Minds.
Some of the above ideas may seem a bit obvious or perhaps archaic to some of you, but I hope this list may spark an idea or two for those wishing to expand their musical horizons. Is there anything I’ve left out that you find to be a necessity for uncovering great music? I’d love to know because I’m always searching.