Hey Buddy, Got a Recommendation?

That’s it … that’s all you get, that’s your recommendation

It used to be easier to find music. You went to the record store, you had several thousand choices, and you picked something. With no recommendation, how did you decide what to buy?

  • There was a section for your kind of music.
  • Each album had album art designed to help you understand whether this was a party band or wanna-be metal gods.
  • And magazines. But, how did you decide which magazine?
  • There was a section for each kind of music
  • Each magazine had cover art designed to help you understand whether this was about smoking doobies or rocking out.

The world changed, and that is good. Now, I can choose almost anything ever recorded, in genres that are evolving faster than Darwin could ever imagine (“That’s deathcore? Yesterday, it was deathgrind?”). But I need more help. Enter the music recommendation services.

iTunes store: with near infinite choices, I could browse but that’s so hard! The iTunes genius usually tells me, “If you own band XXX, you might like be interested in the more bland version played by band XX,” possibly because people often own albums by both. Do buyers of the blander alternative get recommendations to buy something blander yet? It can’t be that dumb, unless, of course, Kenny G is the programmer in question.

Your choices, all evil

Your choices, all evil

Pandora: there’s fewer choices here, but, practically speaking, I’d hardly notice. The algorithm is different. Rather than assuming I am like everyone else, Pandora painstakingly (OK, no pain, no stakes) identifies several dozen traits that, taken together, define the music fairly narrowly. If you provide it a starting band or song, it looks for other music that’s similar on most/many characteristics and says, “Here ya go. How about this?” Better. But, what if I don’t have a starting place and I just want something new and interesting. No luck.

iTunes player: Why bother buying new music when I already have a constipated buttload (i.e. more than an ordinary buttload) of music already? So, I pick a song and let the software build a playlist. Not bad, but no matter where I start, the list inevitably includes at least one song by either No Age or HEALTH. Not everything goes with No Age or HEALTH. Almost … but not quite. When both are absent, it usually includes Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Spooky!

Alright, so I can’t stick to what I have, then.

AllMusic iPhone app: If I rate several/many of my aforementioned buttload of music, AllMusic will be happy to recommend a dozen or more other choices. At least half the choices are just wrong, but the other half? Nothing I would have considered. That’s what I need. The choices come from a view of all my music at once rather than a few choices, one at a time. Likely, the algorithm is the like the iTunes store, but it gives several answers, not just one. There is a cost: long periods of poorly coordinated finger-poking on my iPhone.

eMusic’s infinite explorer: If I choose a starting point, I get a long list of artists related to the starting choice. Of course, “related” probably means the same as with iTunes: one or more people with artist A, also have albums by artist B, C, D, etc.. Unfortunately, at least 1 in every 5 options are things I already own. Why? Not because I’m consistent, but probably because I’m one of the few who purchased albums by artist A. Whatever the starting point I choose, I almost always see one or more of three choices: Django Django, METZ, and Dinosaur Jr. Since I own the first two, the other similar musical oddballs must also be Dino Jr fans. But, the further I scroll down, the further I get from my own collection.

In the end … I’m just going back to bed. This is too hard

9 thoughts on “Hey Buddy, Got a Recommendation?

  1. Something about Hal 9000 giving music recommendations is a little discerning to me. Unfortunately, algorithms, genome projects, and Satan are all we have left when it comes to music suggestions.

    Let me get on my curmudgeon Fedora for a moment, okay? That’s better….

    I miss the days when our music recommendation source was a guy(or gal) behind a counter in a musty smelling music store wearing a Replacements t-shirt and dirty jeans. The smell of fried foods, old record sleeves, and incense in the air, he(or she…usually he back in the 80s) would talk condescendingly to you as you brought that copy of Rush’s ‘Hold Your Fire’ to the counter to purchase. He’d laugh under his breath, ring up your shame, then halfheartedly say “Hey. If you like, umm, this, then maybe you’d like Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’. Or not. Whatever.” You’d make a bee line for the ‘U’ section and find said album, gladly shell out your last $7.99 to the pompous, stoned, 36 year old that still lived in his parent’s basement and run home and ultimately fall in love as soon as the first notes of ‘Astradyne’ oozed through your crappy Soundesign speakers.

    Yep. The good ‘ol days.

    • Your way is the right way. I agree. Definitely. Stoned 36 year olds are the best source of musical knowledge. Well, maybe not him, but his colleagues.

      My fascination with these automata comes from a few sources. As a teenager, I couldn’t risk looking stupid in music purchases (I was a sensitive kid). In my town, we had one chain record store (major labels only, I think) and were 6-8 hours away from the real stores (including the one in the photo above). For music ideas, I relied on the craziest college radio station in the world, but their playlist was NEVER available locally. I also relied on Spin magazine which, frankly, was the journalistic equivalent of your record store stoner. I had no interpersonal music discussion skills!

      Also, I like the easy access to multiple suggestions. And I’m lazy. And, honestly, I love having piles of info that I can sort out or, if necessary, scoff at.

      I have other sources, writers and websites, that give better information but in smaller volume. In fact, the second or third reason I read your blog is because of the music recommendation possibilities and, as far as I know, you moved out of your parent’s basement more than 3 months ago. The first reason? You’re a damn good writer. But, for now, that’s beside the point.

      • Me and the fams moved out of Mom and Pops basement ages ago….like nearly a year ago. We now reside in the treehouse in their backyard. It’s cramped, but its got a hell of a view. I even found a few of my old copies of Metal Edge magazine up there. Enuff Znuff broke up….bummer.

        We had one locallly-owned record store when I was growing up. Butterfly Records. They also sold musical instruments. My brother bought this lousy 70s Framus Jazzmaster copy. Cool looking but an absolute wreck of a guitar. Anyways, these two guys that ran the place were pretty shady. Rumors of illegal drug use, after hours parties in the back, plus, one of ’em played bass in a cover band. If that’s not shady I don’t know what is. But, it was local and they usually had good stuff….if you were into 80s metal. I think if you would’ve gone in there and asked if they had a copy of ‘Zen Arcade’ they would’ve pantsed you and punched you in the neck. But hey, this was the Midwest. College radio wasn’t heard of around here. Once I grew up and could drive, I could head to bigger towns and get exposed to different stuff.

        I’m glad I had Butterfly Records. But I wouldn’t have wanted those guys living in my basement. I do see the good in the whole algorithms/genome/artificial technology style of music recommendations. I’m just too stubborn to admit it. Dangnabbit.

        Hal 9000 is the 21st century Robert Christgau.

        • There’s use in all of it, but, of course, it all requires a little scepticism. When one reviewer compares an album to Eno, I know to reverse all his opinions to come up with my truth.

          A treehouse? At least, you have trees! Of course, trees block views of mountains and … I got nothing … you win this round!

          • We had a great record shop in Carmarthen in the late 80’s called Backstreets which lasted for about 3 years and was just full of cool stuff. The guy who owned it was really nice and used to take the time to chat to all us teen metallers. I’m guessing it went bust (after I left for university – surely a coincidence) as there are only so many Crimson Glory LPs you can knock out in a rural market town of 13,000 people.

            Mail order was my best friend growing up – the excitement of the post! just like amazon, but with no pictures and cheques. Maybe it’s a rural thing.

          • There’s a version of mail order we had here, I don’t know if it happened on your fair side of the Atlantic. You paid hardly anything (a penny, maybe) and got a bunch of albums free and then you paid full price for a few every month. Even if it was only major label, I got some things that never made it to the local shop.

            Now ( ____ years later), my hometown has an awesome used/new record shop that even has a section on local music which is probably cattle rustling songs or depressed teenager bands.

  2. If you could recommend 3 or 4 albums, what would they be? To a music lover who somehow has gone through life owning hardly any music. Curious, because I am definitely a musician at heart but know virtually nothing (okay actually nothing) about current music. So imagine how i feel looking at the iTunes “store”

    • Oh my, one of the dream questions for any talkative opinionated music fan! I thought it would take longer to answer. OK, the following are interesting, inoffensive (an assumption I made) albums by newish artists (<10 yrs) likely to be around for awhile:
      - The Archandroid by Janelle Monae
      - Gorilla Manor by Local Natives
      - Dejeuner sur L'herbe by Les Breastfeeders (to be discussed in a post later this week)
      - Santogold by Santogold
      - Almanac by Widowspeak

      Listen to previews or on YouTube before you buy. Let me know what you think!
      There's a better than 50% chance I'll make this a full post later this week. It's so fun! Thank you!

Am I wrong?