Discovering New Music: From Record Stores to AI Algorithms

Discovering New Music: From Record Stores to AI Algorithms May 3, 2024

Say what you want about AI, one thing it has shown itself exceptional at is this: recommending new music. How on earth did we ever get along without it?

As I’ve been exploring the potential for AI to generate completely new music in seconds, I’ve been thinking about what this means for the hard work of musicians who spent days, weeks, or perhaps months writing songs. What the products of both humans and AI have in common is that it takes something special and a bit of luck or human marketing effort (and perhaps both) to turn a song that merely exists into something that large numbers of people love and want to listen to over and over.

As I pondered this I suddenly found my thoughts turning to a handful of records and tapes (he says showing his age) that I purchased on a whim based on the cover and song titles or the (self-interested) recommendation of the owner of a small local record store. I have talked about some of them before.


Prophet of New Music

I have mentioned before my purchase of the 1988 album Cycles of the Moon by the band Prophet (formerly the Edgar Cayce Band). Have a listen to this song and you’ll hear why I still recall this as a great discovery of an astonishingly unknown band even after all this time.


Face the Music

One that I don’t think I’ve mentioned (because it had been ages since I’d thought about it) is the band Face to Face. One of their songs has a direct connection with my current ongoing interest in music that interacts with biblical stories and themes. This is the song, “Ever Since Eve (Blood Gone Bad)”:

The band, with Laurie Sargent on vocals and as the dominant songwriter, had not been around long and disbanded soon after. The same tiny local record store persuaded me to buy two other random albums that ended up having more of an impact – plus a Leslie amplifier that it was cool to have connected to my keyboard allowing me to emulate the classic effect on Hammond organs better than my keyboard’s modulation wheel could.

One was by Cliff Richard, whom I had never heard of prior to that. I do not offer this confession lightly as I realize it may jeopardize my chances of being allowed to return to the UK. The album was his 1980 one I’m No Hero, which I would guess at the time I bought it had been on the shelf for a while. It made an impression, and as a result when I studied in the UK and there was lots of talk about Cliff Richard as an artist who had become a Christian I was able to honestly say I knew his music.

Another was the album Elysian Forest by Mark O’Connor, an American fiddle player whose music I would later come to explore more of after my discovery of my love of what some call “classical music” in the broad sense, modern art music. If I think about it, the public library in Durham, England also introduced me to a lot of music. Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony “Celestial Gate” and Arnold Bax’s Symphony No.3 remain favorites. That was also how I discovered the music of Edmond Rubbra and many others.


AI Think We’re Alone Now

I can’t recall if I ever mentioned before that once I was browsing in some section of Tower Records in New York City, I can’t recall if it was new releases or a bargain bin or what, and I happened upon the eponymous album Tiffany. She had not yet had a hit but I bought it, and that’s probably the only time in my life that I can say “I liked X before she/he/it was cool.” In my high school’s end of year rock band concert known as the Rockathon I was involved in performing a variety of songs including “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf but also Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” which had a keyboard solo I could really get into.

All of this was before the era of YouTube, which is now my main source of music recommendations. Having been listening and subscribing mostly to videos and channels focused on orchestral, chamber, and instrumental art music, that is what YouTube recommends to me. I also regularly want jazz and so it offers me that too. What I get to hear is a result of a combination of factors that include what I have listened to recently, what has been uploaded recently, and when I happen to visit YouTube.

When I had my born again experience in my teens, most of the secular music that I had been listening to went in the trash, quite literally. I regret that decision with hindsight, but that was the outlook that those in the church I attended had and I knew no better. Perhaps it was the right thing for me too at that time. Looking back, however, there are albums like the ones by Prophet and Face to Face that would now presumably be quite rare. Not necessarily valuable, to be sure, but still nice to have in my collection.


You Can’t Show What You Don’t Know

One thing that AI cannot do is connect you with that which is not made available and made visible through keywords. Now that I am a progressive Christian I am always on the lookout for the kinds of music that will speak to where I am now on my journey of faith and that can be sung in church, whether as a solo or for congregational worship. The truth is that at this point most of what YouTube is doing that gives me a daily dose of enjoyable music is showing me he latest uploads in channels to which I subscribe.

I’ll need to write more songs and record them of the sort that I feel is missing. Whether others who are looking for them will find them thanks to YouTube’s algorithm is another matter. In the meantime, I’d welcome your recommendations.


Robot Librarians?

I made some AI-generated images using NightCafe to go with this post. I asked for a robot librarian. Here are a couple of the results:

While AI can recommend and help disseminate, it does not do the same work of curation that a human librarian does. It probably never will. Want to discover new music? Don’t only settle for what you find online. Visit your local public library. As I mentioned earlier, so much of the music I love I discovered through public libraries in the various places I lived over the years. I still do.

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