Perspectives on Music Discovery | Music Matters

In a 2002 interview with the New York Times, David Bowie famously predicted within a decade music’s ubiquity would be such that its presence would be unremarkable, “like running water or electricity.” Fifteen years later, the prophecy has proven prescient, if not downright uncanny (though somewhat less percipient were his subsequent warnings about the imminent demise of copyright).

In the 2005 book The Era of Choice: The Ability To Choose and its Transformation of Contemporary Life (MIT), Edward C. Rosenthal suggests that the relatively recent emergence of choice “has transformed not only how we live but also how we think and who we are.” Especially in the realm of music consumption, it’s safe to say contemporary listeners are faced with an unprecedented availability of recorded music. “Music discovery,” then, is a relatively new emergent category in the domain of recorded music consumption.

Discovery and consumption

For content providers as well as creators—and as much in the music industry as the library world—these are largely uncharted waters. Below I have summarized a handful of recent articles, mostly published within the last year, that represent the latest attempts at navigating this new territory. If you have access, check out the entire June 2016 (Vol. 14, No. 3) issue of Popular Communication (PC), which contains several brilliant essays and insightful studies on music consumption and discovery.

In “When Is a Discovery? The Affective Dimensions of Discovery in Music Consumption” (PC, 14:3, 137–145), Raphaël Nowak (School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, Univ. of Bristol, UK) “frames discoveries as affective responses to music content that occur within individuals’ life narratives and mediate their interpretation of music.” Nowak observes that “social and technological variables explain issues of ‘access’ to content, not of ‘discovering’ such content.” In other words, in the broader conversations about music discovery we tend to focus more on the vectors of access and less on discovery itself—the human element.

Nowak draws on data collected in semistructured interviews conducted with 35 individuals over the course of several years, reflecting on their experiences with music discoveries, observing that the means and moments of discovery are deeply contiguous with social context and life events. Most of the music individuals encounter neither leaves a mark nor results in an epiphany. “A discovery has to be memorable” and, notably, may be either positive or negative.

Meaning meets circumstance

Although meaningful discoveries sometimes occur at first exposure, Nowak emphasizes that discoveries become meaningful through a gradual unfolding. “The initial interaction with content matters less than the interaction that leaves an affective mark on individuals—the actual discovery. Music acquires a set of interpretations and meanings in relation to how it affects individuals in context.” Anecdotally, this is something we can all relate to: a song or album grows on us or acquires retrospective significance via association with a particular person or memory.

In “The Same Old Song: The Power of Familiarity in Music Choice” (Marketing Letters, May 2013), authors Morgan K. Ward (Southern Methodist Univ.), ­Joseph K. Goodman (Ohio State), and Julie R. Irwin (Univ. of Texas at Austin) explore how listeners respond to the daunting #FirstWorldProblem of having millions of songs at their fingertips. In theory, listeners can choose virtually anything under the sun. But do they? The authors performed four studies and determined that, in spite of outward proclamations and best intentions, listeners tend to gravitate toward what’s familiar, even when they state that they prefer otherwise. This is particularly true, the authors found, when music consumption occurs as the listener is performing another activity.

Streaming makes a difference

A paper posted in October 2016 on the open access Social Science Research Network, “Changing Their Tune: How Consumers’ Adoption of Online Streaming Affects Music Consumption and Discovery” by Hannes Datta, George Knox, and Bart J. Bronnenberg of Tilburg University, studies consumption patterns of individual subscribers to music streaming services. The authors found that individual subscribers’ rates of musical consumption in all platforms grows by an average of 43 percent. The same listeners, they conclude, also consume a wider variety of music, exploring artists they had not previously encountered and engaging in less repeat listening than prior to subscribing to a streaming service.

As Gavin Carfoot (Queensland Univ. of Technology, Australia) observes in “Musical Discovery, Colonialism, and the Possibilities of Intercultural Communication Through Music” (PC, 14:3, 178–186), there are striking parallels between the ways we conceptualize music discovery and colonial thinking. This is particularly true of the problematic genre of so-called World Music, which “positions non-Western Musics as Others to be discovered.” Carfoot suggests the solution to this problem is to “delink” World Music from colonial modes of discovery through adopting a mind-set of interculturalism. Unlike cross- or multiculturalism, interculturalism distributes agency and validity equally among all involved cultures through multilateral dialog.

Steve Kemple is a Music Reference Librarian at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

This article was published in Library Journal's March 1, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.