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It’s A Big Musical World After All, Boomer…

Mark Smotroff considers how to navigate the swirling seas of music these days…

I was talking to an old friend recently who was lamenting the downfall of popular music as we know it. As I was listening to him, I realized this person had become quite isolated from the modern-day realities of music discovery. Sure the person was using Spotify as his main music source so he had a universe of music at his fingertips. However, he didn’t know where to start nor how to look for things that are new or different. In some ways I suspect my musically grumpy friend didn’t really want to look…  

From this person’s perspective, jazz was dead… classical was dead…  and rock music was most certainly dead. Everything he “heard” got lumped into one huge bucket he referred to with disdain as “hip-hop and rap”  — this is a common and annoying story I hear from some older folks who have quite remarkably shut off their minds. Counter to John Lennon’s dream encouraging listeners to open their minds, these types of people seem to have stopped relaxing, giving up on floating downstream.  

I say:  shame on them! 

As children of the open minded 1960s, these folks should know better. They are becoming more like their grandparents than they probably would ever care to admit.

I’ll even say it here: OK Boomer!

I am from the tail-end of the so called Baby Boom and have been told by numerous friends that I am a bit of anomaly when it comes to musical open-mindedness. I don’t necessarily get into every type of music out there but I at least try to understand and appreciate it. Just because it is not “my” music doesn’t mean that it is bad…

I’m grateful that my Mom and Dad were decidedly not narrow-minded parents. They may have not “liked” my music but they tried to understand and support it.  Dad bought me Elton John albums for my birthday when I turned 10 and 11 years old.  In 1976, Mom asked me to play her all of a Frank Zappa album I was into at the time — Freak Out! —  before she would let me go with friends to see him for the first time in concert.  

She listened and understood why I was into the music. She let me go to the show (The Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden, Halloween 1976)!

Back to my friend… I tried to offer him some insights and I did promise that I was going to put together a playlist which might introduce him to different artists he may not have heard (I include a link to that playlist at the end of this thought piece).

This exchange got me thinking about how wildly things have changed with regards to music discovery. I recognize that for those of us who have been around for a while, keeping up on what is new can be daunting to navigate.  This is especially true if you are not really that willing and brave to venture boldly where not everyone in your universe has gone before. Hang on to that thought for a moment…

Years ago when I was in college (early 1980s), I learned about the promise of cable television and the future o”f narrowcasting.” That concept caused many new challenges for advertisers in particular. Over time, the marketing community has adapted to it however and news methods have evolved for businesses to pinpoint specific audiences. Over the years that universe has been further fractured down beyond the “simply” hundreds of cable channels to podcasts, webcasts, live streams, subscription only services like Sirius and — increasingly — platforms like Qobuz, Tidal and Amazon and of course Apple Music. Oh… yeah… and Spotify too. In some ways, every individual on social media is potentially a platform for reaching so called “influencers,” the modern day equivalent to the shared experience concept my generation experienced on old school terrestrial radio.

Today there are so many ways artists can find you — and there are equally many ways you can find artists. It almost boggles the mind, admittedly. The broad “shared experience” concept that I grew up with — where all your friends were pretty much listening to the same commercial radio (AM and FM) stations — is pretty much a thing of the past.  Now there are these wonderful deep pockets of very targeted fanbases which seem to be successful enough to keep formerly fringe artists comfortable and afloat with the potential to become the next generation YouTube or Tik Tok star. 

People discover new music many different ways and all are valid. Did you know that there is a generation of fans who have discovered music primarily from video games soundtracks (click here for recent stats from an article in Billboard Magazine). Are you aware that there are actually soundtrack albums on vinyl for a lot of these game soundtracks?  

In many ways, this rich diversity is a great thing. Fans of less mainstream artists can find their community a lot more easily these days. Likewise, a group like Caspian from Massachusetts can not only thrive selling out shows in smaller venues but also offer — and typically sell out — a vast array of increasingly collectible colored vinyl variants. 

So what’s an old fan of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll and classical to do in these 21st-century times? Do you stick your head in a hole and say “I Quit!!”?   

Some people like my friend would say: “Yes!”  

I however say a resounding: “No!” 

Right now, if you are curious about discovering new music you might enjoy, the best place to start exploring is indeed by talking with your friends to find out what they are listening to — or what their kids are listening to! And then check them out on Spotify or YouTube or where ever you like to sample music. 

The other best thing you can do is walk into physical “brick and mortar” music store even if you’re not going to buy anything, just to hear what they are playing in the store… 

One of my all time favorite ways to get turned on to new music is by visiting music stores and also keeping a keen ear out for music playing around me. I also listen for new sounds while in coffeehouses and even restaurants. That is how I discovered The Cure, The Smiths, Fleet Foxes, Ra Ra Riot and many others.

On recent trips to Amoeba Music I’ve actively used my Shazam app to take note of a bunch of interesting sounding artists and songs I heard played in the store such as “Chrome Temple” from a band called Apprentice Destroyer and Kool & Together’s “Hey Now Baby.” There is an early ‘70s psych folk group I just learned about called Comus which I’d never ever heard of before and which I plan to check out in greater depth soon. I heard a good newer Paul Weller song called “Going My Way” and discovered that Meyer Hawthorne had curiously covered ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.”  

How about a group called Poolside which has done a pretty groovy cover of The Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street”?  There in the store I finally heard a Bill Bragg song I liked called “Valentine Day Is Over.” A Soft Boys track came on which made me realize I need to pick up some of their recordings (don’t hate me but I’ve never really connected with Robyn Hitchcock’s music, though I do respect his work). 

I am always sharing new artist links with friends to check out. As one of my friends says “It’s a Lotta Lotta!” and indeed it is hard to keep track of everything.  But I do try and it can be fun.

I do accept that there’s no way that you can hear everything but that doesn’t necessarily mean I should stop trying to listen.  It is OK to catch up on things you might have missed. Pardon the cliche but the old line “better late to the party than never” is very true.  

Heck, I’m just now digging in deeper into Amy Winehouse’s catalog beyond her big hit album (which I had on CD) thanks to a friend who gave me a couple of her albums for my birthday (Thanks Ron! Review to come!).  

So to my grumpy friend, there IS some great new music being made but — in the words of The Grateful Dead — “you just gotta poke around.” I report on new music I like here Audiophile Review whenever I can — it’s something that I really am quite passionate about. 

Here is the link to that playlist I made for that friend (click here) up on Spotify featuring all sorts of artists that I know my friend wasn’t remotely familiar with but which I thought he might enjoy. Some are common names to many of us who have been paying attention and listening over the years (Radiohead, Flaming Lips, etc.) while others are less well known or still emerging (Tank & The Bangas, Amber Martin, Delvon Lamarr, Joey Quinones, etc.). 

The bottom line point of this is that music fans should not get discouraged if what you hear “on the radio” these days isn’t to your liking as that is just a subset of the absolute ocean of wonderful music that is out there.  

Today’s listening experience  is much more expansive than what is played on commercial radio. So don’t worry if everybody on your block doesn’t know about the new music you are listening to that may not be on those old school stations.  I’m happy proud Tank & The Bangas fan and I don’t care if none of my immediate friends listen to them!  I am a loyal modern Pugwash fan (“Pug who,” you say? If you like The Kinks, The Beatles, ELO and XTC, you should be listening to Thomas Walsh and his merry music makers).

Music today is more than ever about personal choice and diversity. And if you like it, that is really all that matters. It is indeed a big musical world after all… get out there and explore!

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