Is Music Discovery Overrated?

There are people out there who believe that the easy access to music via streaming music services provide will elevate the public’s taste and discretion when it comes to what they put in their ears.

“People will be liberated from the crap that’s repeated endlessly on the radio and will realize that there’s so much more to music than what the corporate music establishment is shoving down their throats! With access will come enlightenment!”

Nice try. Ain’t gonna happen. Ever.

While there are millions of hardcore music fans–people for whom music really, really matters 24/7–there are billions of people who just want songs with nice melodies and a good beat. They buy a couple of CDs a year (usually from Wal-Mart or a mall store) and might indulge in a few iTunes purchases. Beyond that, they’re just not that interested. You can give them access to all the music in the universe–something the streaming services are close to doing–and they won’t care. Oh, they might try Rdio or Spotify, but chances are they’ll just stream the big hits over and over again.

Trust me. I monitor this data on a weekly basis. More choice hasn’t lead to a change in the general public’s listening habits.

That doesn’t mean that some people will be evolve into bigger music fans; but don’t hold your breath if you think that ubiquitous access to music is going to wipe the Justin Biebers of the world away. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with this kind of casual music fandom. These people form an extremely important part of the economic ecosystem of the music industry.

There’s another problem, too, that’s not necessarily restricted to those casual music fans: discovery fatigue.

For the last number of years, the notion of music discovery has been floated endlessly. And it’s true: there are plenty of people want to be delighted by music they’ve never heard before, both new and old. (The trick is making those recommendations relevant to each individual. But that’s another story.) But not everyone wants to play in this sandbox.

We’ve had near infinite access to music since the era of Napster. At first, P2P file-sharing was really, really cool because we could suddenly afford to acquire more music than we ever thought possible in our wildest dreams. We learned we weren’t alone; there were people out there with music tastes just like ours. Let’s share what we like!

We gorged on this unlimited buffet of music for almost ten years. But then it began to get a little tiresome. We spent so much time researching and searching for music that we forgot to savor it. The moment we found something we liked, a sneaking suspicion set in: there had to be something better out there, right? What am I missing? What is everyone else listening to? Are my musical tastes valid?

This was the beginning of discovery fatigue and the beginning of a greater demand for curation. “Just find songs I like and give them to me. I don’t want spend all my time looking for them.”

And discovery fatigue has only grown. Who has the time to sift through infinity?  Seth Grodin has these three observations:

First, once you’re busy with what you’ve got, it diminishes the desire to get more.

Second, discovery is exhausting. Putting on a new pair of glasses, seeing the world or hearing the world or understanding the world in a new way is a lot more work than merely cruising through a typical day.

And third, infinity is daunting. A birdwatcher might be inspired to keep seeking out new birds, because she knows she’s almost got them all. But the infinity of choice that the connection economy brings with it is enough to push some people to artificially limit all that input.

I think it’s way too early to announce to ourselves that we’ve read the internet and we’re done.

So where do we go from here? Good question.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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