Soundtracked: Understanding how we consume music

Lately I’ve become fascinated with music, particularly how people talk about and discover new music. For the last few months I’ve been talking to just about anyone and everyone about music and I’ve learned some fascinating things which I plan to write about in a few blog posts. Here is the first set of observations I’ve made about how we consume music.

Music genres are useless

Just as an experiment, go ask a few people what type of music they listen to. Chances are they responded with something frustratingly generic like “I listen to rock music” or “I like hip-hop.” Given that, do you feel like you have a strong sense for that persons musical taste? Didn’t think so. While most people can describe their music tastes in terms of genres, for the person hearing those genres, they typically have very little meaning. This is becuase high level genres have become so overloaded that they could mean practically anything. The Foo Fighters (stadium rock), Pink Floyd (progressive rock) and The Decemberists (folk rock), all fall under the “rock” genre, yet in terms of sound they are miles apart. That is why I no longer ask people what type or genre of music they listen to, it's useless.

Finding out what people actually listen to

Now that we know music genres are useless, how do you actually ask someone what type of music they like and get a useful response? Initially I tried asking people what their favorite bands/artists were. Interestingly, I found that people struggled mightily with this question. There was often a good minute of hems and haws before I would get even a single band. After a lot of thought many people would toss out a few bands and then trail off with “yeah, I guess that's it...” Not happy with the result, I experimented with a few other questions.

The most effective way I’ve found is asking what are the last few bands/artists they’ve listened to. Most people have no problem rattling of the last three or four bands they listened to, and while its a biased sample, it's far easier for them to answer and much more useful then genres. For example, if someone tells me the last few artists they listened to were Fleet Foxes and The Freelance Whales I’d immediately know they they like softer indie rock, with great vocals, lots of harmonies, and acoustic guitars. It’s so much more accurate and useful then had they said “I like indie rock.”

New is a relative term

When people are sick of their current music they will often ask their friends if they know any “new music.” Most people interpret to mean any music that has been recently released. The reason they ask for this is that they want music they haven’t heard before, not because they have some aversion to older music. That's why even when people are asking for new music, you can generally interpret that to mean “new to them” rather than new in terms of release date. The beauty of music being “new to them” is that even if you know something is old, as long as they haven’t heard it yet, it is new to them. For example, when people ask me for Taking Back Sunday-style rock music I’ll recommend We Are Scientists - With Love and Squalor. Even though the album was released in 2005 the band was still pretty small at the time so most people didn’t (and still don’t) know about them. Score one for the relative new-ness of music.

That is all for now.