(Originally published June 2022 in my print zine, How to Discover Music.)
Think back to the last time you heard a band you now love. Was it suggested by a friend, or an algorithm? Played on the radio, or in a TikTok? No matter your current means of finding out about new music—digital or analog, by happenstance or via a discovery ritual of your own—this guide aims to provide at least a few new avenues of musical exploration.
First, who the heck am I to tell you about new music? I don’t run a record label or a rock club. I don’t even work in the industry. (Though—shhhh!—I once did a long time ago). I’m just a middle-aged music fan who has more or less kept up the same pace since teenagerhood of going to gigs, making friends with bands, buying records, meeting other musically-obsessed pals and traveling to far-flung places in service of all those things.
I’m also an amateur DJ who has, since 2017, broadcast a weekly radio show on a free-form, low-power FM station here in Seattle. Since I juggle my DJ duties with my day job, I’ve had to develop a network of sources and practices to be able to easily and consistently put together an hour of new music that I genuinely enjoy listening to and sharing with the world. And all without the help of longtime favorites from my record collection.
How do I discover music? In a multitude of ways learned as I progressed in my musical knowledge and fandom. Maybe you’ll see yourself in one of these ten stages on the musical discovery spectrum, from New Music Newb to International Scene Digger. If, like me, you’re hooked on the thrill of finding a song you can play over and over and over again, read on to follow a fictionalized (and updated-for-the-digital age) microcosm of my own musical journey through the ages…
A hypothetical journey, from innocence to experience
Level 1: New Music Newb
You have your longtime favorite bands and records, sure. But you’re still open to hearing new things. Maybe you subscribe to a mainstream music magazine like MOJO or Rolling Stone, or even listen to your town’s big “alternative” radio station. Or you use Spotify and check out their personalized Discover Weekly playlist. But you’re still largely relying on establishment tastemakers and tech titans to help guide you.
Level 2: Junior Fan
You’ve not only read about new bands or heard them on a radio station or stream; you’ve actually purchased some music from those you’ve enjoyed most. (Spending actual cash money on music in the
year 2022? Good for you!) Depending on your age and internet savvy, that could be a digital album via Apple or Google or a physical artifact. It might be one that you’re still pretty familiar with and have the means to play: a compact disc. In seeking out more information about these new artists, you’ll have Googled them to find their web sites and articles about them on Pitchfork or Stereogum.
Level 3: Baby Club-Goer
Those artists whose music you’ve been enjoying? You just learned that some of them are coming to your town. You can see them play live! I mean, you might not make it to every gig—you haven’t heard of all of these venues and some of these shows seem to run pretty late on a weeknight. But if you can convince a friend to go with you and are willing to be a little tired the next morning, you just might do it. Speaking of friends, you do share some of your latest discoveries with a friend or two who you know still listen to music. Since you now check out Pitchfork or Stereogum on a regular basis, you can even recommend some newer bands they might like.
Level 4: Local-Curious
You went to see one of those touring bands you learned about from Pitchfork. The time on your ticket said “8pm” so that is when you showed up at the club. Except no bands took the stage until 9pm! And, even then, the first band on was one you didn’t know. But, as it turns out… they were actually pretty good! So after their set, you went to the merch table, manned by a member of that first band. Turns out they are local, and they have a CD you can buy. So you buy their CD and sign up for their email list to get notified of upcoming gigs.
Level 5: Fan Follower
Having checked out a few gigs and purchased some records from up-and-coming bands, you’re starting to learn more about national and local music networks. You know the names of most of the local rock clubs and know to head to Songkick to see what bands are playing in your town. You’ve started listening to shows on small radio stations that broadcast online, including a few in your area. In addition to being on band e-mail lists, you’ve signed up for a few from select rock clubs and record labels, and follow some of your favorites on your social media of choice.
Level 6: Social Media Spectator
Following bands on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook has opened up your musical world to friends-of-bands, many of whom are—you guessed it!—also in bands. Some of these folks also have record labels, newsletters or radio shows. You follow links in bands’ Linktree profiles to their Bandcamps, YouTube streams and gig listings. And you sign up for some music discovery newsletters like Turntable Report and The Discover Tab to deepen and broaden your taste and exposure to ever fresher and more interesting sounds. And you’re a frequently listener of underground radio shows from MRR Radio to Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend’s Too Stupid to Know About, to meet your every musical mood.
Level 7: Band Booster
Now you’re using social media yourself more frequently to share out some of your finds, and to occasionally chat with the bands themselves, offering encouragement and asking questions: Are you coming to play live in my town anytime soon? When is your next record coming out? You’ve long since relegated the major music sites to an occasional scan, adding small blogs like Snooping the Bandcamp, Raven Sings the Blues, Austin Town Hall and A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed to your research and listening routine. In that same spirit, you’ll read and support zines (some on actual paper!) like chickfactor and Dynamite Hemorrhage. Your Bandcamp profile is filled with favorites and you start following other fans on there with similar taste based on similar purchases.
Level 8: Local Scene Digger
Your interactions with bands have led you to strike up a few friendships, especially with those in your local scene. You have frequented at least five different under- ground basement, warehouse and living room venues in your town. You recognize (and may even be friendly with) the staff of the good record stores in town. If you don’t have a side gig as a music writer, DJ, record store clerk or merch-slinger by now, that’s only because you still have a day job, kids or other hobbies (other hobbies? Hahahaha…) to attend to as well.
Level 9: National Scene Digger
You’re occasionally traveling to other cities to catch bands, especially when they— gasp!—skip your town and one of their tour dates is within driving distance. But then you think, Hey, what’s a two-hour plane trip, really? Don’t I have some credit card miles I can use? You start following listings for more cities on Songkick and regularly check the Oh My Rockness NYC and LA sites for gigs. You search for, and favorite, record stores and venues in different cities in Google Maps. And you visit other cities and chat with bands, make new friends in new musical circles. You maintain these friendships over text and online, where you find gathering spots for your tribe.
Level 10: International Scene Digger
You’re booking tickets to concerts in other countries… and sometimes even making it over there to attend them. You have musical friends overseas and have made fellow musical traveler friends, ensuring gig buddies (almost) wherever you go. Your social feeds contain a steady stream of dreamy shows around the world, with bills featuring new bands to search for on Bandcamp. And you check out any recommendations from bands you follow of the bands they are currently digging. Have I mentioned yet just how much music you are streaming, downloading and purchasing on a weekly basis? Well, it’s A LOT. But you wouldn’t have it any other way.
Practical tips for music discovery
Personal rules I try to follow in order to keep the new music coming
Always show up for the opening bands
Even if you didn’t like what you heard on their Bandcamp (and you did check out their Bandcamp first, right?), you should at least sample the last 15 minutes of their live show. It may surprise you.
Say hi to bands you like after the show
Guess what? While bands obviously like it when you show up to see them play, they also appreciate kind words about their performance or their music in general. And people remember that genuine enthusiasm. I drove down to Tacoma to catch a small band I loved play a tiny pub for about 20 people, talked to them after the show, and maybe five years later… the guitarist found me online to tell me about his new band playing a gig nearby.
Learn more about opening bands, period
This goes for gigs you are decidedly NOT going to, gigs out of town or even out of your country. Google all of the openers on every single tour date. Headliners often help put together these bills, and if you like their music, chances are they also have good taste.
Follow all the bands on all the socials
Yes, even the sites you think suck. (Looking at you, Facebook.) But you need to have at least a read-only presence on the major social networks in order to grab news of new releases, tour dates and more. You’ll be able to see what other, perhaps lower-profile bands they are playing with (see above) and also follow links to related bands via mentions and likes.
Give at least a quick listen to all recommendations
Maybe the band name is dumb or the album cover art is ugly. Or the music is from a genre you think is out of your taste zone. Never mind all that. If you’ve cultivated your network well, what bubbles up through it is, more often than not, good.
Buy that 99-cent record!
Okay, so 99-cent records aren’t all that common anymore. But I’ve scored some real gems over the years just by being willing to plop down on many a retail floor of questionably cleanliness, arms deep in a row of discount vinyl, fingers flipping furiously.
Collect a set of killer bookmarks
Keep a shortlist of the best bands, DJs and labels on Bandcamp and social sites, as well as of music blogs, radio shows, online zines and Bandcamp user pages. You want to be keeping tabs on what people with good taste are buying and listening to.
Go to the show
I get it, you don’t feel like going out tonight. But the number of gigs I’ve regretted not going to far, far outnumber the small handful that I did. In my teen and college years, I used to write down every upcoming gig in my little black datebook, marking only those I attended with a star. Those unstarred dates remain a cringeworthy record of regrets.
Addendum: When I originally wrote the above in 2022, I somehow forgot to mention record store mailing lists as another excellent source of news and information about bands and records. Thankfully, Glenn Donaldson (of The Reds, Pinks & Purples) was wise enough to tweet this yesterday: