Why the Music Industry Still Needs Taste Makers

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Syndicated from: Creative Deconstruction

It used to be the record label’s jobs to tell us who to listen to.  A&R would scour the earth looking for talent, groom them, coach them and surround them with people who could get them where they wanted to go.  If the label caught the scout’s vision they would sign the act and fund a record or two.  There was a process.  It wasn’t perfect, but a process nonetheless.  Labels stopped doing this years ago.  Maybe it was MTV that started the decline of artist and repertoire.  Labels saw the money that could be made off a pretty face and their priorities began to change.  Before you knew it Britney Spears was at the top of the charts.  Once the majors began to consolidate and were gobbled up by companies run by executives who hadn’t played a record since the Carpenters, the role of Taste-maker belonged to fewer and fewer entities who cared less and less about the art of music.

As listeners began realizing that they were being fed a diet of insubstantial junk, it was the beginning of the end for the industry.  You can blame Napster all you want, but what made Napster so appealing was that it exposed fans to music they had never had access to when the major labels were running the show.  It was like one massive, world-wide mix tape that anyone with a broadband connection could tap into.  Independent bands started to realize that people in places they had never even toured were not only listening to their music, but were sharing it with their friends.

Now new tracks are pouring onto the Internet like auto workers into a state unemployment office.  Except there’s no line, and nobody working behind the counter.  Armed with a free copy of Garageband and the vague hope that someone, somewhere might listen, scores of nameless musicians are doing their best to take advantage of the new digital frontier.  It’s largely the same situation for listeners.  A music fan who logs onto MySpace looking for fresh tracks could spend endless hours scrolling through band profiles, probably finding more misses than hits.  It might take weeks before they uncover something that really gets inside them.

The major labels dropped the ball.  The world needs taste-makers.  People want help discovering new music.  When the labels couldn’t be trusted, at least the world always had independent record stores.  The fact that music lovers were willing to weather the elitist condescension of record store employees is proof of this: people want someone to tell them what they should like!  Of course, record stores were a casualty of the digital revolution, too.  An unintended and unfortunate casualty, but I’m not sure any amount of wistful nostalgia can bring them back now (though there are many who still try – and God bless them.)

This is why services like Last.fm make such big deal about their recommendation engines.  They’ve created a system built on crowd-sourcing and meta-tags in order to fill the taste-maker void.   I have found a few artists through Last.fm that I’ve now added to my regular rotation. But crowds are stupid.  The individual members of a crowd might by intelligent and capable, but put them together – stupid.  Read Malcom Gladwell?s Blink if you don’t believe me, he?ll convince you.  75% of the songs that end up on my Last.fm station are either mediocre or downright terrible.

I know there is more good music out there – but where is it?  We need people and services to step up and tell us where to find the good stuff so that we don?t have to waste so much time on the filler.  Technology can help but real people need to be involved, too.  Pandora has a good start, using over 50 actual humans to analyze a host of criteria when making recommendations.  Mufin is brand new, and looks like it may be the most comprehensive recommendation engine to date.  But even these options don’t feel human, so they don’t carry much weight.  People don’t want recommendation engines, they want to hear someone they trust raving about an artist they love.  Maybe it will be bloggers, maybe indie labels will step up to the plate, or maybe someone will create an engine that really does the trick.  Either way, in our post record industry world, the sooner the new taste-makers emerge the sooner the real talent will have a chance to rise more quickly to the top. That’s good for everybody- except maybe the filler.

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