“I’ve Got Enough Music!” – Finding An Audience In An Age Of Saturation

[ This is a very long post. Probably too long. You can be the judge of whether it’s worth the effort to read it. I clearly think it is, or I’d have edited it 🙂 ]

First, some historical context:

Back when I was in my teens, my music collection was never big enough. I was avidly looking for new music to expand it, being acutely aware of the gaps in it, both in terms of ‘classic’ records that I’d missed, and emotional states of being that were ill-represented. I was interested in music – any music – that might meet that. I listened to the radio – mainly John Peel on Radio One and whatever weirdness I could find on Radio Three – watched pretty much every music show that was on TV (we only had four channels in the UK back then, so it was easy to watch it all) from Young Musician Of The Year to The Power Hour, The Chart Show To The Hit Man And Her (yes, really) – I was voraciously foraging for music that filled a ‘need’ in my quest for a soundtrack to me.

Music that I imagined to be the holy grail, but which I couldn’t find, became mythologically awesome in my mind. Occasionally, it lived up to that promise, like the first time I finally got to hear Michael Manring (I bought Thonk on CD at Sam Goody in the Harlequin Centre in Watford in 95 – I still remember the feeling of elation when I saw it on the shelf…) More often than not, the hype was unjustified, and I just carried on foraging.

Fast-forward to 2011 and I, like so many other people, have near ubiquitous access to music. I have a lifetime of curated music – 18,886 tracks in my iTunes (that’s 62 days, 16 hours and 35 minutes of continuous listening) plus the combined powers of Spotify and Youtube to give me access to the nostalgic soundtrack of my youth – music I’d never buy, but often go looking for for a myriad reasons. In short, I have no pressing and desperate ‘need‘ of new music.

So how – and more importantly, why – do I discover new music now? I no longer ‘need’ it – I’ve got pretty much everything covered in one way or another, and the ongoing releases by those bands I’m already familiar with could supply me with more than enough music to keep me going for many many years to come.

Now, music is about connection. It’s about meaning, belonging and relationship – it always was, even though that wasn’t my expressed intention when searching – now, that’s pretty much the only thing that means anything. Making sense of the world through music.

Music that

  • makes me feel connected,
  • Music that makes me happy,
  • Music that allows me to delight in the creativity and ingenuity of my friends and people I admire.
  • Music that allows me to see my chosen instrument grow beyond the circus-trick nonsense of so much bass-led music from the last 30 years, and into a rich emergent seam of music exploring the sonic potential of the bass.
  • Music that speaks of a changing world, that’s inspired by and celebratory or critical of the way things are heading.
  • Music that gives hope.

And none of that is communicated by me seeing a link and clicking on it. All of it comes through relationship, either with the artist, or with someone who digs it. The spread of that music, and the meaning it carries, is not primarily through press releases and hyperbole. It’s through conversation, recommendation and the excitement of music fans whose taste I trust.

One of the biggest mistakes any musician can make is to assume that there are millions of fans out there just waiting to hear you, desperate for your music to show them what music is really all about. If the ubiquity of music has changed anything, it has leveled the playing field to such a degree that superlatives are meaningless. Everyone is a genius until you listen to them.

The upside to ‘saturation’ is that the music you’ve never heard of simply doesn’t exist. People who aren’t actively looking for music aren’t ‘swamped’ with it, they aren’t wading through 6 million myspace pages trying to find you. People use Google to find the things they’re looking for, and unless your band has a hopelessly generic name, or you’re a solo artist that shares their name with one or more famous musicians, search engines do a pretty good job of bringing the audience to you who are looking for you.

So, how do we connect with people who aren’t looking for us? One of the things that happens to me on a fairly regular basis – though much less so now that I’ve deleted my MySpace page – is bands or artists emailing or ‘tweeting’ me a link saying ‘hey, check us out’. To which my immediate response is ‘Why?’

Here’s the foundation fact of discovery – your desire to be discovered is of no interest or consequence to me at all. Everyone wants to be heard, that’s a given. Being pushy is no indication that I’m likely to enjoy what I hear. And I neither have the time nor the inclination to check out a band based on their brazenness.

Let’s think for a moment about what happens if I do decide to click the link:

  • I’m entering the deal expecting it to be shit. After all, most music is. Being great is really difficult. Even amongst music that is demonstrably ‘great’, there’s still a lot I’m not particularly interested in listening to.
  • I’m unlikely to listen past the first few seconds if it doesn’t grab me. That’s an awful way to engage with your audience. iTunes has conned us into thinking that you can make a decision about a piece of music in 30 seconds. Bollocks. For a lot of my most beloved music, 30 seconds at the start of the tune might be one chord, or one repeated bass phrase, or a drum intro. It’s not even close to being indicative of what’s to come.
  • I’m not listening with any context at all – I’m hearing your music purely as an exercise in music making. No story, no relationship, no sense of where to place it, what to expect. And the number of times that I’ve heard and fallen in love with music in that way can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Seriously, if you’re banking on being that good, you’re insane. You aren’t that good. I’m not that good. Statistically speaking, no-one is that good. The exceptions prove the rule.

Q: So how do I, and you and people like us, find music?

A: It’s all about the interesting.

I’ve said this hundreds of times before – people won’t find you because you’re good (or pushy) they’ll find you because you’re interesting. And what I find interesting is best represented by the people I allow into my life, the ones I’ve chosen to filter ‘in’ – my friends, my peers, the people I follow on Twitter, the people I’m (good) friends with on Facebook. If I get a recommendation through them, I’m roughly a thousand times more likely to act on it than if it comes through any other channel. If one of my friends who I trust puts out some music, I’ll listen to it. I’ll listen to it all, even if it doesn’t grab me first time. I’ll do that because I WANT to like it. It’s in my best interests to like it, so I’ll give it as much time as I can. If those same people recommend something – especially if I already like the music they make – I’ll listen. I’ll listen expectantly, fully open to the possibility that what I’m about to hear may be awesome.

None of my discovery methods involve people I don’t know shouting at me or spamming me with links to their music and requests that I check out their shit. Anyone who does that is LESS likely to get heard, not moreso. If you’ve spammed me, and soon after someone else that I know says ‘check out this band’, my suspicions are up that they’re just doing it as a favour to you because you’ve been as pushy with them as you tried to be with me.

In short. Discovery happens

  • in conversation,
  • in communities,
  • with context.
  • It takes time,
  • it’s personal,
  • and the right to recommend things is an earned one.

This doesn’t mean, of course that you can’t talk about what you do and your love of it to people who’ve chosen to follow you. The people who are following you on Twitter, or have clicked your ‘like’ button on Facebook have selected you as being worth hearing from. That’s a very good thing, so don’t cock it up by abusing the privilege. I talk about my own music on Twitter a lot. But I talk MORE about other people’s music. On Facebook I talk about my music a lot. But I ask interesting questions that invite people to tell the stories of their relationship with music too.

Context is everything. Relationship is everything. Spam and pushines are less than nothing.

Q for musicians – what does this post mean to you? Is it frustrating and annoying, because you think I should be listening to you? Is it comforting to know that you don’t have to go round spamming people to try and get heard? Are you still lost for what kind of strategic approach is going to work for you and your music? Feel free to vent in the comments 🙂

40 Replies to ““I’ve Got Enough Music!” – Finding An Audience In An Age Of Saturation”

  1. The trick here is that as more people get wise to this, the more “interesting” people there will be! Yes, it’s true, a cold-call music link leaves a lot to be desired, but soon more people will be concocting interesting stories that will take longer to read and might be just as dissatisfying in the end as the music it accompanies. (Just wrote a blog post touching on this…mentioning this post!)

    I get all my new music through you, Steve, so I’ll just count on you to slog through the masses and pass along the gems! >;-D

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Steve, and apologies for my belated response. I am interested in what you have to say as it is quite relevant to my thinking at the moment.

    What you’ve written is a fairly accurate representation of what is actually going on. Unfortunately, what is going on is a recipe for mediocrity.

    Listening to music on the basis of wanting to ‘like’ it, because it has been produced or recommended by a friend that you have “chosen to filter ‘in’ ” has the following ramifications;

    Firstly, you do yourself a disservice, for you are training your brain to respond positively to music that is potentially, not very good, on the basis of gaining social acceptance from those you find interesting or simply ‘like’.

    Secondly, you do a disservice to your friend who produces the music. By not critiquing there creativity and skill honestly you are not giving them the chance to grow and improve beyond their own mediocrity. Thoughtful critique and challenge, although unpleasant for sensitive artist types, is desperately missing in this socially repressed world.

    Thirdly, you do a disservice to music and art as a whole. For you reward with shallow ‘likes’ only those that you identify with, and what you identify with is that which you know, mediocrity.

    By all means, continue to listen to music from the people you like or find interesting, but if it is mediocre, critique it with courage and honesty, for the result may be that your friends start producing justifiably ‘awesome’ music. You may loose a few friends by doing this, but the world and those friends with fortitude, will be so much the better for it.

    Kind Regards, Kristin.

    1. Hi Kristin,

      Thanks for writing. The big questions are, a) who gets to decide what’s mediocre, b) what’s your control group? (i.e. have things got ‘worse’ from where we were before in terms of the elevation of what you consider to be mediocre?) c) why should I as a musician be required to listen to my audience’s critique of what I do, when the vast majority of them have not in any way demonstrated that they are sufficiently aware of our process and intentions to do so (I’m fascinated by their experiences of and thoughts on my music, I just don’t generally require them in order to understand or appreciate the value in my own music as it relates to my musical journey.) …

      My own experience is that filtering by interestingness and association has meant that I VERY rarely ever heard ‘bad’ music any more. I’m constantly challenged, exposed to things I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered, and am finding artists that no mainstream media outlet would’ve sent my way, but it’s happening in a completely different way without me having to wade through the kind of consensus driven marketing-driven BS that constituted the stuff I was most regularly exposed to when my main music discovery happened by way of intermediaries like radio and TV.

      I have no reason to question the motives or ability of music listeners to filter based on the things that matter to them. Finding music that makes sense of your world is not a recipe for mediocrity at all, as far as I can see. That doesn’t mean that some people won’t like things that I consider mediocre, it’s just that it’s not my place to dismiss someone else’s work like that if it’s meaningful. The marketing of music has ALWAYS been driven by things other than music – to claim otherwise is specious. It’s just that instead of it being driven by sensational, mythological bullshit, it’s now about a sense of connection. Instead of my potential exposure to music being mediated by some media-proclaimed expert, I have a much richer, less corruptible process for discovery, and I can often get to know the person behind the music.

      I have no interest in offering un-requested, unqualified critique of other people’s music. If there’s someone who I am sufficiently close to, and am sufficiently aware of their process and intentions, I’ll give them my most considered feedback and opinion, if I’m asked. If I’m not, I’ll keep encouraging them to make the music that means most to them, to never stop seeking to improve and broaden the scope of their own musical vision, and to ignore the people who come in and try and tell them what they should be doing who haven’t taken the time to demonstrate why they are worth listening to.

  3. I agree that there has probably always been mediocre music. From the beginnings of human music there were probably proto-griots that some people hated hearing. The key is to find music that you as an individual enjoy.

    The connection between listener and artist makes a difference to the perceived value of the music no matter whether there is a direct or mediated connection. There are composers and musicians I pay more attention to due to an interest in things I have learned about them.

    For instance I love the music of Conlon Nancarrow, but I know that my interest in his music blossomed partly because the story of how he moved to Mexico and made his music with modified player pianos tickled me. Without that background I might not have stuck with his music long enough to fall in love.

    Music is lots of things not just the sounds produced and reproduced or heard in a concert. There are the abstract ideas behind the music, the theatre of the performance and the cultural impact of the musicians too. I am delighted that it’s hard to quantify good as I believe that diversity is a strength in any culture.

    1. Thanks Ruben, I hadn’t heard of Conlon Nancarrow, so I went a listened to one of his compositions. As a cellist and composer, I chose to listen to his string quartet no 3. Within the first few seconds of his opening theme I could hear that he had an interest in the idea of poly tempo, which is very Ives like (with a hint of Cage). His second movement, which I find very beautiful, is an exploration of Klangfarbenmelodie, coupled with polytempo, offering wondrous collisions in time.

      Knowledge of his move to Mexico is of no consequence to me as a music listener, it does not change my perception of his music (or perceived value), nor would I want it too. However, I am interested in his move to Mexico, and his reasons for it, and how it impacted on his compositional development.

      1. I’m absolutely delighted to learn you listened to some Conlon Nancarrow and even enjoyed it.

        The idea of the context of music creation influencing the experience for the listener is interesting. I can see that objective aesthetic judgement would be a useful comparative data, but for me my experience of music isn’t objective.

        There’s always more information coming with the music. Things like style and instrumentation affect my perception in subtle ways, and not just in the discrete bounds of the piece itself. As you say about Nancarrow there is a connection to Ives in his polytempi. It sounds like that’s a good association for you, but for some people it could be less so.

        I’m not sure we can ever make truly objective judgements on the quality of music. There is always some extra information pulling us away from that objective purity.

  4. “I’ve Got Enough Music!” – Finding An Audience In An Age Of Saturation

    Steve, you ask;
    “a) who gets to decide what’s mediocre, b) what’s your control group?”

    And then you answer your own questions here;
    “c) why should I as a musician be required to listen to my audience’s critique of what I do, when the vast majority of them have not in any way demonstrated that they are sufficiently aware of our process and intentions to do so”

    The question is not who decides what’s mediocre, but what is mediocrity. Once again, I borrow your words;

    “If the ubiquity of music has changed anything, it has leveled the playing field to such a degree that superlatives are meaningless. Everyone is a genius until you listen to them.”


    “Seriously, if you’re banking on being that good, you’re insane. You aren’t that good. I’m not that good. Statistically speaking, no-one is that good.”

    Mediocrity is the ‘level playing field’, it is ‘the saturation’, it is what the majority are prepared to accept. Social media and technology are homogenizing people into tribal or peer driven groups of ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ giving little space for critical thought or authenticity.

    Gustave Flaubert best expresses what I wish to communicate;

    “Everyone, either from modesty or egotism, hides away the best and most delicate of his soul’s possessions; to gain the esteem of others, we must only ever show our ugliest sides; this is how we keep ourselves on the common level”

    So, what am I trying to suggest? That we don’t have to accept mediocrity or the notion of saturation, that we are capable of developing a critical mind, either as music listener or music producer, that we can rise above the confines of our social safety nets to explore and critique more widely. For how do we grow as people if we are only prepared to surround ourselves by people we identify with or trust? Be open, even ‘bad’ music wont hurt you, in fact, you might learn something from it.

    1. “Mediocrity is the ‘level playing field’, it is ‘the saturation’, it is what the majority are prepared to accept.”

      The level playing field is about opportunity, not a value judgement about an individual’s art. I have little interest in anyone’s assessment of how much ‘mediocre’ music is ‘out there’. I’m concerned with finding the great stuff that makes sense of the world around me. The key thing is how I find that within the massive amount of music that’s out there. Which is why I asked about the control group. Was ‘how things were before’ better than now? My experience is overwhelmingly ‘no’. I had no way of finding the great stuff before without either a) subjecting myself to the filter of someone else’s claims to superior knowledge of what I should be listening to (written reviews) or to the market driven broadcasting of radio and TV. Very little of either was of use to me. Now, I’m finding overwhelmingly that interesting people make interesting music. That discovery process is providing me with more great music than I can possibly handle. None of it mediocre. I don’t even get to hear the mediocre stuff. I very rarely hear anything that I don’t find interesting. Even music I don’t like is music that has meaning, in this context. It’s been the banishment of the banal that has made things so much better for me.

      “Social media and technology are homogenizing people into tribal or peer driven groups of ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ giving little space for critical thought or authenticity.”

      That’s pretty much the opposite of my experience. Sure, the potential is there, but we’re back to our control group – mass media did exactly the same thing. People who don’t want to think will gravitate towards systems and environments where they don’t have to. Be that watching the X-Factor or grouping together on Facebook. Meanwhile, those of us that are foraging for the good stuff can do so, applying whatever set of filters we choose. For the artists, just ‘being great’ has never ever been enough. Unless you really think that this history of recorded music is also the history of the greatest musicians and music that was written and performed worldwide within the same time period. Clearly not.

      That level playing field means that we need to be smarter. That mediocre music exists doesn’t mean I hear it. The level playing field means that I can find people who make great music without them having to pay for me to hear them. They don’t need to advertise, to spend time getting a makeover so they appear on the TV-programmer’s radar…

      Under any previous system of discovery, I’d have never heard Neil Alexander – @nailmusic on twitter. His music would have completely passed me by. As would his friendship, and the opportunity for us to play together. He’s one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever heard. A truly singular talent who for whatever reason has never crossed over into the level of international recognition that some of his contemporaries have. thanks to the various discovery mechanisms and filters we have in place here, I found him, and my music life is massively richer as a result.

      I have a lot of friends who make music I don’t like. Loads of them. And conversely, I have a lot of friends who aren’t that interested in my music. Thank God. I’d hate to live in the kind of bubble where all my friends were also ‘fans’.

      However, I am able to integrate the music I make with my reason for making it, with the inspiration for making it, and allow that bigger story to act as cilia that draw in people who are looking for what I do. Again, what’s the control group? What’s the alternative?

      The misunderstanding of the potential of a technology by the mass of consumers doesn’t devalue the technology, it just reflects the will to attrition within modern culture. That we have the choice to go beyond that now and dig deeper is what’s amazing.

  5. Thanks Steve, you’ve made a number of important points. And now I’m curious to understand your perspective further.

    For example, you say about Neil Alexander that “he’s one of the most amazing musicians [you’ve] ever heard.” That’s a big statement, care to elaborate? What makes Neil Alexander so amazing?

    You also state that Neil Alexander is “a truly singular talent who for whatever reason has never crossed over into the level of international recognition that some of his contemporaries have.” Once again, a big statement worthy of exploration. Why is it that this truly singular talent has not gained the international recognition that he deserves?

    1. Hi Kristin,

      Re: Neil – have a listen. I love his music. He plays in a way that very few keyboardists can, and applies that skill to music I love.

      Why does any talented person not gain recognition? because the various music industries are mostly uninterested in singular talent, but instead are looking for things that are marketable. The majority of those industries create the music they need to make money with the least friction, rather than being a set of resources that make art available to people who care about it. That’s way too hard for anyone to do on an industrial scale. The world of music is littered with talented people who struggle to pay the bills and mediocre musicians who are world renowned because they were willing to play the marketing game at the expense of their art. plus ça change.

Comments are closed.

© 2008 Steve Lawson and developed by Pretentia. | login