Human curated music is still better

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, February 16, 2022, 7:56 PM | comments: 0

Commercial radio has largely been rendered obsolete by streaming music services, but like other things driven by algorithms, it has mostly resulted in a discovery problem for "good" content. I realize that this is largely subjective, but that's mostly my point. Algorithms have pushed an emphasis on singles that are maybe three minutes long and completely forgettable beyond the current moment.

In September, I broke up with SiriusXM and my beloved AltNation channel. My issue at the time was that the playlists became far too homogenous and boring, with way too much emo. In retrospect, that was particularly weird because they follow the old classic rock radio "image" pattern of keeping some old songs in rotation because they identify with the image they're trying to convey for the target audience. And if that was the case, why would they be neglecting newer things by those "older" artists?

February rolled around, and I realized that I had zero new songs to start a new yearly playlist. My 2021 list was already anemic. In the cars, Tesla uses Slacker (or LiveOne or whatever they're calling it this week) to stream music. It has a number of "channels" that it calls "alternative," but what I noticed was that it was mostly the safest possible things, and clearly it was influenced by algorithms to make the discovery of new things hard. I was giving it a chance because the way it works in the car, you can search for an artist and it makes a "station" based on that artist. I tried SofiTukker and was getting other stuff I liked like Halsey, K-Flay, Muse, Young The Giant and others. But whatever they seeded their category channels with seemed to degrade into a tired mix.

Reluctantly, I signed back up for SiriusXM. They're still being a big box of stupid in terms of their pricing, because there's no good deal for streaming, which I imagine is their real future. So I signed up with a new account using the radio ID from our Nissan Leaf which was totaled in an accident more than a year ago to get a $5/month deal (with a free Echo Dot!). I did this because I was still on their mailing list for their AltNation "music director" survey, and the one I got had a ton of songs I had never heard, none of them emo.

AltNation has a real set of humans who are curating the playlist, and I believe that makes all of the difference. I acknowledge my bias as someone who started his career in radio, but taste-making is an art form and it works better than algorithms. So much of what I like today wasn't an instant hit in my mind. I'm obsessed with The Naked And Famous, for example, but it took a few weeks of listening to their first album before I really "got it." It was a similar situation for Wolf Alice, though I could tell that Blue Weekend, their third album, was perfect after one listen. Now that AltNation has gotten over their emo phase, they're taking a chance on a lot of unknowns, but they even put Avril Lavigne in rotation, a darling on alt rock radio in the early aughts. They haven't warmed up to the new Tears For Fears single, but we'll see. I also wonder if they'll consider someone like Halsey who is amazing. There's a spirit to the radio format that seems to have been lost from the 90's and aughts, but it's not impossible to recreate it.

The good news is that I have something to seed a playlist now. It's very possible that I'm atypical, since most Gen-X'ers are still holding on to some combination of hair bands, grunge and maybe some 90's alt rock one-hit-wonders. While I appreciate some of that stuff, I'll be bored out of my mind not to find new things.


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